October 2013

The Nation Reviewed

In defence of high art

By Kim Williams

Are opera, ballet and classical music valuable as anything more than sedatives?

“The mega-rich also work hard to separate their cultural interests from suburban folk. By any objective test, classical music, opera and ballet are insufferably boring. They have no social worth other than in the treatment of sleeping disorders. But that’s how the elites like it, safe in the knowledge that people below their station in society are unlikely to join them in the jewellery-rattling rows of the Opera House. Their abstraction from ‘ordinary people is secure.”  – Mark Latham

I came across the above characteristically confident and entirely unsupported assertion from Latham while reading his critique of Nick Cater’s book, The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class, in a paper published earlier this year for the Chifley Research Centre.

I won’t get into a discussion about the polemics between Cater, the Australian’s former opinion editor, and Latham, the former prime-ministerial candidate. It’s a task better left to those more engaged in the often tiresome parades of intellectual conceit between “left” and “right”. These are commentators who relish the “culture and history wars” and the descent into simplistic binary views on politics and society. One of the ardent frustrations I have with what masquerades as modern intellectual debate in this country is the notion that there is only one correct way to think or behave – such slavish absolutism has many dark and ignoble precedents in world history.

Yet few assertions are as nakedly silly as Latham’s declaration that opera, classical music and ballet are objectively boring. His opinion is not borne out by the social diversity of audiences, not to mention their evident delight and heartfelt engagement with the huge range of performances offered across the length and breadth of Australia every week. “By any objective test”, Latham is simply wrong – and it would surprise me if he has attended many performances of classical music, opera or ballet at all.

Latham’s new-fashioned view, which eschews high art and rejects it as elitist and removed from “ordinary people” (who apparently are synonymous with “suburban folk”), is a dangerous strand in modern thinking. It is prevalent in many parts of Australia and represents a renewal of the kind of thinking seen in fundamentalist extremism here and in many other societies, in which education, science, philosophy, creative adventure and social innovation are under attack. Latham, who so often invokes Gough Whitlam’s and Paul Keating’s vision and policy creativity, overlooks the fact that the arts were as central to their agendas as, with Whitlam, suburban renewal and land rights and, with Keating, reconciliation and economic renovation.

Neither of these leaders was in any way shy about the fact that intellectual and cultural pursuits underpin a sophisticated and lively society. An acquired appreciation of the arts – especially the so-called high arts – has many ancillary benefits, with countless studies linking it to the capacity to think both analytically and laterally.

And yet, with a few notable exceptions, Australian politicians in the modern era all too often seem fearful of a populist media backlash when deciding on cultural policy and allied financial commitments. The sort of prejudice promoted by bullyboys like Latham is similar in nature to creationism, with its wilful sacrifice of science on the altar of personal opinion or triumphant, absolutist “belief”. It demeans the nation. Enough!

These ill-informed and, frankly, uneducated celebrations of ignorance can no longer be allowed to go unchallenged. They do a profound disservice to the legacy of people on both sides of the political aisle (I only mention Whitlam and Keating because of the dimwitted way Latham slanders their cultural commitment) who comprehend that the arts are every bit as important to social cohesion and advancement as excellence in sport and science.

To take classical music as but one example, I would observe that the discipline acquired in learning music – study, rehearsal, focused effort and intense concentration over many hours – travels with you forever. The skills I acquired in my school days have been central to the work ethic that has informed my life ever since. Indeed, it is both fashionable and true to argue that music education from the commencement of primary school assists students in learning language, mathematics and the various sciences. But it saddens me to think that we are increasingly compelled to defend music by reference to these benefits because of the kind of brutish philistinism shown by Latham. Classical music is good for us. Period. It is good for the soul. It is good for human tolerance. It frees our minds. It reinforces our capacity to feel and understand.

Music, and the devotion to beauty it represents, releases some of the most positive, noble and life-affirming feelings that humans are capable of. The communication between composer, performer and audience is of unique value. Each musical experience is an end in and of itself. I simply can’t imagine life without it. I can, however, imagine a less troubled life – one free of the sort of ignorance spruiked by Latham. There is much to be frustrated and disappointed about in modern Australia, but it could have been worse: at least Mark Latham never became our prime minister.

Kim Williams

Kim Williams is the chair of the Sydney Opera House Trust and former chief executive of News Corp Australia.

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