Australian Notes

Australian Notes

19 January 2013

The New South Wales government proposes to grill the broadcaster Alan Jones and the columnist Andrew Bolt before its Parliamentary inquiry on how best to strengthen the law against vilification (‘hate speech’). It wants to make it easier to send people to jail, perhaps journalists like Jones and Bolt. But it is to be hoped the Parliamentary inquiry also calls Tony Abbott and James Spigelman, the former Chief Justice. In his recent Human Rights Day Oration, Spigelman QC declared: ‘The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended.’ For his part Abbott has promised to repeal the infamous Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act — the section Bolt was found to have breached and the model for those who want to sharpen the NSW law.

‘I didn’t want to give this talk. I tried to get out of it,’ said Anthony Lister, an acclaimed ‘adventure painter’, addressing a youngish and attentive audience last week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales blockbuster ‘Francis Bacon: Five Decades’. ‘I’m an artist, not a public speaker.’ But in the end he could not resist reflecting the vibrations he was absorbing from the late Francis Bacon. From time to time he spoke to ‘Francis’ (as he called him) and thanked him for his beautifully honest work. At one point he suggested we should all here and now invite Francis to a séance. Lister himself first received Francis’s ‘overwhelming’ vibrations through Brett Whiteley (although he believed Francis had once thrown away a Whiteley work telling him: ‘You are not ready.’). Lister has a penchant for gnomic observations. One is: ‘The difference between a painter and a magician is that a painter does not do tricks.’ Another is: ‘One man’s mess is another man’s message.’ More delphic is: ‘Francis Bacon is the Hannibal Lecter of painting.’ Whatever he means by these oracles, delivered squatting on the floor or in various acrobatic postures, his audience were delighted and gave him — and Francis — a rousing round of applause.

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Hard to be sure what is attracting the crowds to the great Bacon exhibition. More than 50 major paintings, superbly curated by Tony Bond from 37 collections? Or the celebrities (Wendy Whiteley, David Marr, Michael Kirby), talks, jazz, documentaries, period movies? (The films include John Maybury’s Love is the Devil- about Bacon’s deadly affair with his rough trade George Dyer. Derek Jacobi is a compelling Bacon. A great pity there is no revival of Stephen Sewell’s Bacon play The Three Furies.) A few like me were drawn by the artist’s fame. Who, you must ask, is right — the art critics who say Bacon was the greatest artist of his time or the unconvinced like the Times columnist Bernard Levin who said the paintings should be sold off as junk for a few cents per square metre? (Levin was wrong about prices. Not long ago Bacon’s ‘Triptych 1975’ sold for around $90 million.) Margaret Thatcher stood with Levin. When she asked the directors of the Tate who is Britain’s greatest painter, they said Bacon. ‘Not that dreadful man,’ she exclaimed, ‘who paints those horrible pictures!’ (Bacon was delighted.) Barry Humphries, painter and connoisseur, also dismissed Bacon’s paintings of ‘fat nude businessmen gorily coupling on a billiard table’. Paul Johnson found the secret of Bacon’s success in a clever gimmick: the twisted human faces and bodies presented as images of despair — always popular with modish intellectuals. There are other perspectives. Some praise Bacon as the vanguard of homosexual law reform. Others see him as the fatal bohemian anarchist, the hero of the Colony Room Club, that sleazy Soho retreat where, Bacon said, ‘one feels free and easy’ but which the Club’s historian Sophie Parkin said was like ‘a fish tank whose water needed changing’. The dominant view remains that Bacon was a great artist who can only be compared to the Masters. The wide world — not only the captains and the kings but the critics and the public — acknowledges his greatness. This is a chance to settle your own view. I was a reluctant starter but the portraits in the exhibition won me over.

What a relentless demagogue is Bob Brown, the former Parliamentary leader of the Greens. Writing in the Fairfax newspapers he defended the anti-coal mining Jonathan Moylan, whose stock market hoax might land him in jail, by comparing him to Nelson Mandela, who went to jail for his beliefs. Yes, and so we may add did Hitler. He also compared him with a legendary suffragette who was killed for her cause. So, we may add, were the 9/11 bombers. Brown even approved one scientist’s call for the CEOs of coal companies to be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. (‘Reasonable,’ Brown said.) He also managed to defame the journalist Miranda Devine as an advocate of violence against greenies. Still the Greens’ leading agitator, Brown will have much more to tell us in his new role as mission leader for Sea Shepherd Australia.

Hoping for an insider’s view of what went wrong with the Arab Spring, I went to see the Sydney Festival’s world premiere of In the Eruptive Mode: Voices from the Hijacked Spring -by a Kuwaiti dramatist. I went home none the wiser. As the Australian’s theatre critic John McCallum put it, the play is not only ‘heavy going’ but ‘inaccessible’. The production was largely funded by Kuwaiti and other Arab sources. Does this mean that an unknown, untested and unfinished play is able to buy its way into what we are told is the ‘exuberant, exciting and forever effervescent’ Sydney Festival?

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