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Comparative Studies

Nick Bryant | 02:23 UK time, Sunday, 3 October 2010

"Must Australians always be matched with some prototype from the wider world, rather than being judged on their own merits?"

So asks Peter Conrad, the Oxford-based Australian academic, in the October issue of The Monthly, an Australian version of The New Yorker, to make precisely the kind of comparison that makes Conrad recoil. He raises the question in his review of a new exhibition of the work of Carol Jerrems, an Australian photographer working in the 1970s who has oft been compared with Diane Arbus, the New York photographer known for her black and white portraits of dwarves, transvestites and circus performers. Nicole Kidman, the Australian Julia Roberts, played her in the 2006 film Fur.

Nicole Kidman at premiere of film Fur, in which she plays Diane Arbus, Rome October 2006

I confess to doing it myself in the post on Australians who do not have much of a global profile but enjoy great recognition at home. Andrew Denton became an Australian Parkinson. Peter Sculthrorpe was an Australian Vaughan Williams or Elgar - although the better international comparison is an Aussie Aaron Copland. Poor old Norman Gunston, meanwhile, was reduced to an Aussie Ali G. Here, the international comparisons were intended, as they usually are in this blog, to help make sense of Australia to non-Australians.

Conrad's grumble is with home-grown Australian cultural commentary that goes in for this kind of international benchmarking, to use an inelegant phrase, because it so often comes with a few spasms of cultural cringe. Often the presumption in any kind of comparison is that the Australian example will be inferior - the habit identified by A.A. Phillips 60 years ago when he noticed that listeners of a programme called Incognito on ABC tended to pick the outsider when asked to adjudicate between the performance of a foreigner and a home-grown musician.

As regular readers know, I tend to argue in favour of Australia's newfound cultural creep rather than lingering feelings of cultural cringe - though they have not been entirely vanquished. But on Conrad's point, I simply do not think it is true anymore that Australians are automatically compared with international prototypes. More so than ever before, I suspect they are being judged on their merits.

Cate Blanchett near Sydney Harbour Bridge, September 2010

The most obvious example is Cate Blanchett. Cate Blanchett is Cate Blanchett. But there are many more. The poet Les Murray is incomparable. I have never heard the playwright David Williamson described, say, as an Aussie David Hare. The same is true of the work of Baz Luhrmann. I don't hear the novelists Christos Tsiolkas or Steve Toltz likened to writers from elsewhere because their voices are so emphatically Australian (although there are echoes of the cultural cringe in the reaction to The Slap making it onto the Booker prize long list and A Fraction of the Whole making it onto last year's short-list). The same is true of the singer Paul Kelly and a host of others.

Elements of the cringe doubtless survive. Here's but one example: the two big recent theatrical hits in Australia were Waiting for Godot starring Sir Ian McKellen and August: Osage County, a quite brilliant play that came here from Chicago via Broadway. But what strikes me about the arts scene here at the moment is its creative confidence.

"Must Australians always be matched with some prototype from the wider world?" I no longer think it is fair to say that they are "always". The international comparisons still come to be drawn. But it's no longer a mandatory process, and often, when it happens, the Aussies come out on top.

With that, I'm off to the rugby league grand final.


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