Those Magnificent Australians

Around fifty years ago, a group of young australians characterised by a fascination with art and a deep discontent with the sort of society Australia then was sailed for the west. Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes were and are fascinating people, and examples of lives lived in art.

They are very difficult to pigeonhole, mischievous in the proper sense, and so smart they offend everyone. So of course, whilst they are credited, they don't have the status they deserve. A similar thing happened to Anthony Burgess, a displaced British-Irish person who was also too clever by half. In any fair world, however, these four would be leading cultural figures.

Take Humphries, for example. Lots of people know of him as Dame Edna Everage, and possibly also as Les Patterson and Barry McKenzie. These were satirical characters of genius. One of the funniest things I have ever read is Dame Edna's riposte to the pomposity of the US hispanic lobby when, not realising that Edna was a)not a woman and b)not real, they condemned satirical comments on the American rich.

How many people know, though, that Humphries is also an accomplished artist and an expert on the history of fine art, as well as surrealism?

Robert Hughes is of course better known. The self-educated art critic, writer, and Time Arts supremo is an example of how real men can subsist in an art world usually marked by pretension and a certain effete sensualism. That is emphatically not a dig at homosexual culture by the way, but at snobbery. I have friends who happen to be gay, male and female, and I'd be appalled if anyone thought I was small enough to be a bigot.

It is very difficult to take a lot of art seriously, though. A very good friend of mine got asked to leave the Tate the other day after she actually managed to question whether any of it was any good and what the point of just sticking pictures of genitals and metal all over the place was. Hughes at his best lifts us above all that. I remember how satisfying reading American Visions was when it came out, which for me was an even better book than The Shock of The New.

Perhaps it is in that modernist moment that also allowed people like Denis Devlin and Patrick Kavanagh, who also have been a little sidelined today, that the young Australians thrived. That was certainly true of Germaine Greer and Clive James. Isn't it interesting how they both diverged? Greer, the Oxford Professor and feminist icon, is easily forgotten as the TV comedienne and polemical journalist, almost as James is remembered for TV shows and reviews and not fine novels and his adventures on web tv.

I used to smile at how much Dr Greer's works were filtered by acolytes who couldn't process her observation, for instance, that lots of historical women artists and writers just weren't much good. I did like her stuff on Aphra Behn though. She reminds me of the computer genius and daughter of Byron, Ada Lovelace, who is usually mentioned in footnotes linked to her father or to Charles Babbage.

This is becoming a little ramble. But if you have time, have a gander at some of the links. Those magnificent Australians. The fact that they left precludes me from adding my favourite link to 'advance australia fair' (and I've found three reasons for that this year anyway, which is too many), so here is another instructional video.

It's in honour of Rolf Harris, who should be in this group but isn't. It is Eric Idle, neil innes and Rutland TV's last song. The spirit is Australian at least.


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