Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Philip Parsons 2011 Memorial Lecture by Katharine Brisbane

In Praise of Nepotism, ‘the unfair preferment of nephews’ or To Every Age its Art, to Art its Freedom.

Philip Parsons 2011 Memorial Lecture by Katharine Brisbane founder and chair of the cultural activist association, Currency House, her major activity since 2000, after leaving Currency Press which she also founded, now exactly 40 years ago.

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney. Sunday November 27.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Although the audience for the doyenne of theatre in Australia was smaller than I had expected, the presence of the high-energy young new playwrights waiting for the annual Young Playwright’s Award which accompanies the Memorial Lecture, made Katharine Brisbane’s theme especially significant.

Though she is, in her words, "on the cusp of 80", she is not afraid of the risk that this may be like standing on a berm on a Sydney beach – a narrow shelf of sand which might suddenly collapse into the oncoming tide. Her speech was a disturbing interpretation of the history and the current state of Australian theatre. Are we all on the cusp of something unpredictable?

You will be able to hear the full speech on the ABC, Radio National: Big Ideas in February 2012 – keep an eye on the ABC website for details in January – but in the meantime I would like to wrap up her surprising theme In Praise of Nepotism for the coming Season of Goodwill and Cheer.

Brisbane concludes by saying “… we, the public and the artists at the centre, need more than just goodwill. We need curiosity.” And her very last words are “Our Indigenous artists must have the last word. They understand this. While we are arguing about economic imperatives, the imperative of Aboriginal artists is community culture, its interpretation, appropriation and preservation. This is just as contentious a task as it is in the white community. But they know that if they let it go, it will be gone forever. We need to learn that lesson too.”

Nepotism, she explains, is about “the creation of an in-group to achieve a common purpose, defend itself from outside attack and directly contravene our democratic belief in a fair go for all.” Nepotism showed its good profile in Melbourne’s Australian Performing Group, beginning with Marvellous Melbourne, in the graduates of early NIDA (The Legend of King O’Malley) and through to the establishment of the Victorian College of the Arts (before it was absorbed into Melbourne University) and the creation of Sydney’s Performance Syndicate by “the only real philosopher our theatre has produced”, Rex Cramphorn.

But she laments the huge government subsidies from the mid-1970s which, though they have led to state theatre companies and high-quality training, have taken audiences away from ‘dingo’ theatre (Jack Hibberd’s description) into safe territory according to the still “fundamental influence of our respectable [British colonial] emancipist classes”, avoiding our “[Irish] convict stain”. This has been done, she says, as “Commerce was now in conflict with culture. The 70s was, remember, the time when the Nobel prizewinner Friedrich von Hayek was leading a movement to replace our former measures of cultural value – on the ground that we humans were unstable creatures – with the more reliable face value imposed by the economy.”

The dark side of nepotism, Brisbane says, is that “Security in your own arts sector is what enables work to flow. But if timidity and arrogance is a consequence … then it is anti-art. That arrogance is bred by the old order of received opinion, which leads to tired revivals and preservation of one’s territory. But because our pursuit of excellence from the start excluded from government funding that whole layer of popular entertainment, amateur groups, private studios, end of year concerts and regional extravaganzas which once engaged people in the making of art, our artists have become a collection of specialists for whom communication outside their art has become more and more difficult. The less they try to break through this barrier the more they are misunderstood. It seems that only for artists is the word ‘elite’ a pejorative. In the sports world they are heroes. Why is this? Because, when the opportunities came in the 70s, the arts sector did not take their audiences with them."

The reason I go to Belvoir St is because it is the grandchild of Nimrod, the child of Jane St and the early NIDA graduates. I can only hope that Belvoir’s annual hosting of the Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, this year presented by his wife Katharine Brisbane – former critic, publisher with him of Currency Press, and long-time cultural activist – will generate the curiosity our culture needs to survive among the new writers like Zoe Coombs Marr, who won the 2011 Young Playwright’s Award, and that they take their audiences with them. The electric energy that sparked around the theatre as the announcement was made augurs well for a collapse of the old berm and the creation of the new.

Thanks to Katharine Brisbane for such a highly stimulating address – and listen to Radio National to hear the full story, or read the final version of Katharine's speech now on the Currency House website at: