(Reflections On) Our Culture And The Arts – New Matilda

The Morrison government’s recent failure to recognise the arts specifically in its reformed structure of ministries is really nothing new in principle – nor even surprising, given the political history of the arts in this country since the Whitlam era, writes Donald Richardson.

Australian governments have rarely taken the arts seriously – a fact that has rarely been objected to by the arts community, which has chosen to keep is head down in a culture that has always regarded artists as being queer foreigners with outlandish ideas and questionable lifestyles: not people you would want to live next to.

Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic Alison Croggon in her excellent The Desertification of Australian Culture in the October issue of The Monthly, marshalled some very revealing facts and informed opinions on the subject, but her article was foxed by multiple conflations – not, however, those of the writer, but conflations which are long-entrenched in the very culture she discusses. This rarely-recognised fact frustrates rational discussion.

The first is the term ‘culture (or arts) industry’. This unfortunate conflation is actually nothing more than ignorant nonsense. Artists – individual humans who make art simply because they wish to and can – operate in no way like industrialists do.

Industrialists only manufacture things for which they perceive an existing or future popular market, but no-one can know whether the product of an artist will sell because no-one will have any knowledge of the product in advance (not least the artist him/herself!).

That some artists’ products subsequently sell does not make artists industrialists (or art an ‘industry’). Exchange of money occurs in many human interactions, but we do not speak of the ‘law industry’ or the ‘religion industry’.

‘Culture (or arts) industry’ is plainly illogical conceptual nonsense.

On the other hand we should recognise the existence of the arts market – the application of capital/ism to culture – which, being the only aspect of the subject that is easy to grasp and talk about, results in its omnipresence in journalism.

We should also recognise that designers – creative people who conceive and make functional objects (as distinct from art per se) – frequently work in industry on industry’s terms.

‘Creative industry/ies’, a term that was coined in 2002 by Richard Florida and is used glibly as if it has real relevance to our culture, deserves deconstruction.

Florida listed them – such essentials as ‘from computer graphics to digital music and animation’ – but he never recognised that the entertainment and publishing industries have always employed creatives for commercial ends; however, these creatives are the class of individuals described in the first paragraph above!

An undeniable, yet unrecognised, fact is that, whereas industry and culture are necessarily essentially conservative, the arts per se are progressive. Progress in the arts has always been made by individuals who do not accept the current aesthetic situation.

The second conflation is that of the two concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘the arts’. Croggon is far from alone in considering the terms identical or interchangeable. Her statement that ‘culture is in part an expression of what a society values…’ to my mind does not adequately reflect that culture as a concept covers much more than the arts: it is everything that a society values and consequently must include religion, law, family, sport, communications, trade etc, etc.

If we can accept this as fact we will have a much more realistic discussion. For example, it justifies the ‘vastly greater government support for industries such as defence or mining…’ and the $500 million for the Australian War Memorial, and could justify the ‘$30 million grant to Foxtel’ (even though it cannot justify this being ‘hidden under confidentiality clauses’) – all of which Croggon questions. These things are easier to identify and discuss than are the principles of culture or the arts, per se.

A more enlightened approach is that of the 2017 report of the UK’s All-Purpose Parliamentary Group, ‘Creative Health. The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’, which documents the significant social relevance of the arts.

The confusion and illogicality is exemplified in the very title of the former Federal Government’s ‘Department of Communication and The Arts’ (However, we have not yet reached the even more ludicrous situation of the United Kingdom’s current omnibus ‘Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’, which promotes itself by the slogan ‘Culture is Digital’!)

While some aspects of the arts are concerned with communicating their principles and contents (and many are not!), there are aspects of the communications industry that have absolutely no relevance at all to the arts. It is totally illogical to generalise from the fact that newspapers are printed on the same material on which Turner painted his watercolours to assert an inherent commonality between the two quite distinct concepts.

Here the use of the term ‘media’ requires discussion. The media (the materials and forms) of the arts are numerous and ancient: marble, oil paint, the piano, pencils, oratory, verse, tonality, key, chamber music, etc, etc. To restrict the term to mean only the media of communication – even to electronic communication – as popular parlance currently does, not only robs the concept of its richness but also is the equivalent of using ‘man’ to cover all of humanity.

We need to be clear that Craig Hassell, CEO of Opera Australia, was not the only person in the arts to welcome George Brandis’ ‘vanity project’, the 2015 National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), because many deplore the lack of standards in much contemporary cultural expression under the justification that ‘anything can be art’ (which is a total misconception that the phrase embodies the philosophies of Marcel Duchamp’s radical 1917 sculpture Fountain and John Cage’s ‘piano solo’ 4.33).

While successive governments – both Liberal/Coalition and Labor – have cut funding to the ABC and SBS, they have largely maintained support for Opera Australia. This is no doubt because the ‘performing arts’ qualify as entertainment as well as art – another conflation of concepts that our culture has never rationalised, this one with a concept that is beyond question.

So we waffle on, often at cross-purposes… but maybe even this level of discourse is closed off in Australia now.

The Big List: The Visual Arts in 2019 – ArtsHub

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Tsebin Tchen: a “guardian angel” of multicultural Australia – The Age

Newly sworn in Senator Tsebin Tchen.

A staunch believer of individualism, liberty and aspiration, the Liberal Party was the natural home for Tchen. Being a Chinese-Australian, Tchen undoubtedly stood out amongst his Liberal Party peers – not for his ideologies but his identity.

To obtain any sort of influence and impact, he had to break through every ceiling and barrier imaginable within the Liberal Party, circumstances many Asian-Australians struggle with to this day when it comes to pre-selections in political parties and parliamentary representation.

During the rise of Pauline Hanson in 1996 – which thrust Asian-Australians into the political scene by her declaration that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians” – Tchen believed the most effective response was to confront this in the parliament itself.

Tchen ran for Liberal Party pre-selection and eventually gained the third spot on the combined Liberal-National ticket. At the 1998 Federal Election, he was successfully elected to the sixth and final spot, ironically on One Nation preferences. With that, Tchen created Australian political history by becoming the first Asian-born migrant to be elected to the Parliament of Australia.

Tchen performed diligently during his first and only term in the Senate. He took his committee roles seriously and developed a reputation of being often seen on the Senate floor but rarely heard.

His presence in the Liberal Party room provided unique and valuable insights to Australia’s engagement with the region, especially east Asia. And despite his inability to shift and shape the Howard Government’s approach and attitude towards migrants and asylum seekers, Tchen was a symbol of hope and aspiration for Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians recovering from the devastating effects of Hansonism, and giving confidence that we also have a role and place in Australia’s democracy.

Tchen said to me in one of our many conversations “you had to be in it to change it”, a reflection of a reference he gave in his first speech as a “harbinger of hope”.

Since leaving Parliament, Tchen devoted much of his time to advocating for multiculturalism and for his effort, achieved respect and acknowledgement from all sides of politics. Recognising this, he was appointed by the Victorian Labor Government in 2015 to serve as a Commissioner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission and by the Coalition Federal Government, a member of the Australian Multicultural Council.

The Chinese language media described him best as a “guardian angel of multiculturalism in Australia”. But perhaps above all, apart from all his accomplishments, Tchen will be forever remembered – certainly by me and members of the Chinese-Australian, Taiwanese-Australian and Asian-Australian communities – for his mentoring and support of the next generation of leaders.

Despite our political differences, Tchen never attempted to play party politics, but instead encouraged me to get involved in public policy-making, politics, and to speak out on issues.

Since the emergence of the foreign influence and interference debate and its impact on the Australia-China relationship and Chinese-Australians, we often saw each other in briefing meetings with government departments. While we found more to disagree on than common ground, Tchen acknowledged and valued my perspectives with grace and humility – breaking cultural protocol by treating me as an equal rather than an elder talking to an inexperienced junior. The one aspect we did agree on is how vital Chinese-Australians are as a resource to help Australia better understand and engage our largest trading partner.

Tchen often reminded me and the next generation of leaders of our role in promoting Australia’s multiculturalism and if necessary, to defend and protect it from internal and external threats.

My deep regret is that every time we spoke, it was about work, and now, I no longer have the opportunity to thank “Uncle Bin” for the inspiration he gave me and for making the path easier for Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians. The best way for me to honour his contribution and legacy is to break down the “bamboo ceiling” confronting Asian-Australians in our institutions. Through his efforts, he has left behind a more diverse and inclusive Australia. I deeply mourn his passing.

Tchen is survived by his wife Pauline, daughter Jacinta and son Adrian.

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Chinese-Australian advocate and writer.

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Five ideas to make Sydney great again – Sydney Morning Herald

But as she observed at a Christmas drinks function last week, the government’s job can’t just be about building stuff and making the trains, whether light or heavy rail, run on time.

“The challenge I’ve given to my team is not only to build things and to build them well, on time and on budget, but it’s also about making sure we take a close look at the aesthetics,” Ms Berejiklian told the Committee for Sydney’s end-of-year gathering at the Opera House.

“Because imagine if they built a box here instead of this beautiful building. It’s a bit difficult when you’re building a rail line or a hospital, but generally speaking.”

Asked later by The Sun-Herald to name something in the city she considered beautiful, the Premier said she “can’t go past the Opera House as a place of design inspiration”. But she also nominated the Barangaroo foreshore walk as “a modern example of good design which restores public access”.

Ms Berejilian indicated she wanted her legacy as premier to encompass aesthetics as well as the “nuts and bolts” of better services.

“In 50 years’ time, when we look back at this time in our state’s history it will be viewed as an incredible period of infrastructure delivery,” she said. “But at the same time we want people look back and see a time where we left a legacy of good design and creation of public space.”

The Academic – Libby Gallagher

When it comes to improving Sydney’s environment and health, there’s one simple thing we can do, says landscape architect Libby Gallagher. “It’s all about the greening.”

Libby Gallagher advocates for large mature trees within our urban environments. Credit:Dean Sewell

Gallagher, who completed her doctorate in climate mitigation through street design at the University of Sydney, says we need to plant a lot more trees. And not just any trees in any place, but in a planned and sustained fashion.

“Get big trees in the ground,” she says. “Trees are the number one thing to do if you’re trying to reduce temperatures and reduce electricity consumption – particularly reduce the need to switch on the air conditioning unit on the wall.”

Trees reduce urban heat, not only because they directly shade buildings but because they emit moisture into the atmosphere to reduce surrounding temperatures.

Gallagher says her research has shown careful selection of trees can reduce airconditioning bills at an adjoining property by as much as $400 a year once the trees are at maturity.

“They’re the natural airconditioning engines of our cities,” she says. But they are threatened by poor urban design and incremental infill development “which is often unsympathetic to retaining trees”.

While tree planting is partly a council issue, Gallagher says it requires state government planning to do properly because of the complexity of co-ordinating underground utilities such as water mains, electricity and telecommunications.

Gallagher says the next best thing Sydney can do is work out how to decentralise water and energy production into local areas, rather than relying so heavily on major infrastructure.

Dee Madigan, the creative director of Campaign Edge and a Gruen panellist, says the repeal of the lockout laws creates an opportunity to reinvent the city’s image.

The Marketer – Dee Madigan

It’s one of the most easily recognised places in the world, instantly identified by the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach. But when it comes to telling Sydney’s story to the nation and the world, marketer Dee Madigan says we’re selling ourselves short.

Madigan, the creative director of Campaign Edge and a Gruen panellist, says the repeal of the lockout laws creates an opportunity to reinvent the city’s image.

“You make a campaign out of that … ‘Sydney has found its fun’ is probably the brief I would use,” she says. “Sydney’s always felt a bit brash, a bit naughty, a bit fun – compared to Melbourne, which is too cool for school. And we’ve lost that.”

Ms Madigan says such a campaign would work both nationally and internationally, and the domestic ads could even acknowledge the mistakes made by governments in the past.

“There’s a pay-off from consumers on that kind of honesty,” she says “People don’t mind when governments f–k up, it’s when they pretend they haven’t that people have a real issue.”

While Melbourne has embarked on lauded marketing efforts, such as Tourism Victoria’s “It’s Easy to Lose Yourself in Melbourne” campaign by Publicis Mojo featuring a red ball of string, Sydney has often relied on its famous icons to attract visitors.

But Ms Madigan says that needs to change because Sydney is no longer the clear “market leader” when it comes to domestic tourism.

“Brisbane has come leaps and bounds. It has a really cool vibe about it,” she said.

“Sydney can’t sit back and be complacent any more. They’ll still get their overseas visitors … but I reckon they’re losing their internal visitors to other places.”

The Culturalist – Leo Schofield

Critic and arts patron Leo Schofield was once branded “Mr Sydney”, and true to form has a wealth of ideas for how the city needs to change. First and foremost, he says, it needs bigger and better stages.

“Every other mainland state capital has better theatres that Sydney and yet the audiences are here,” he says.

“The ballet will tell you that it could not survive without its Sydney audience, which is about double the size of the Melbourne audience.

“The Opera House is woefully inadequate for the Australian Ballet and the Opera. We need a big performing arts complex with a big stage on the scale of the Arts Centre in Melbourne and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, both of which can house major musicals and international as well as local opera and ballet companies.”

Critic and arts patron Leo Schofield has a wealth of ideas for how Sydney needs to change.

Finding a location for such a stage will be difficult. Sydney missed an opportunity to create a world-class theatre at Barangaroo, Schofield says, which would have been its natural home.

Schofield’s other idea, much less likely to come to fruition, is to keep the Powerhouse Museum where it is at Ultimo. But if that’s not to happen, he says it should be broken up.

That could be achieved by moving the museum’s science and technology exhibits to Parramatta and using one of the government’s old heritage-listed CBD buildings as a decorative arts museum, Schofield suggests.

Christopher Brown advocates for the sections of the city that don’t always feature on postcards but constitute Sydney’s multicultural heartland and its growth engine.

The Strategist – Christopher Brown

As chairman of the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue, Christopher Brown’s job is to advocate for the sections of the city that don’t always feature on postcards but constitute Sydney’s multicultural heartland and its growth engine.

The Greater Sydney Commission has divided the city into three parts: Western Parkland, Eastern Harbour and Central River. It is this latter city, running from Hornsby through to Hurstville via Parramatta and Olympic Park, which forms Brown’s focus for what Sydney needs next.

Specifically, he says it needs a “city deal” between federal, state and local governments, of the kind already made with Western Sydney, Geelong, Hobart and other cities nationwide.

“It needs the same sort of dedicated approach that the western city has got if we’re going to unblock it,” Brown says. “This is the part of the city where most of us live. It’s the part of the city that’s going to soak up most of the new population.”

Brown says the area has been besieged by “some pretty average governance” over the years, leading to overdevelopment and bad design – which have bred scepticism about growth.

The region’s waterways, mainly the Parramatta, Georges and Cooks rivers, fall well short of the harbour’s sparkle. The arterial roads, Parramatta and Victoria, are known nightmares – and unsightly to boot.

“And it’s had almost no vertical transport connection,” says Brown. “It’s pretty tough to get from the Hills to Hurstville.”

Brown says a city deal for the Central River would provide proper planning, metrics, job targets and, of course, funding. It would also help attract public-private partnerships.

“It’s one of these moments in time – Sydney can do it right for once,” he says. “Too much planning gets you Olympic Park, not enough planning gets you Parramatta Road.”

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Refugee settlement program not properly managed: Audit – The Canberra Times

Freedom song: Assyrian refugee depicts escape from Islamic State through music – SBS

As he prepares to perform, Assyrian refugee George Karam feels several emotions, including sadness, anguish, happiness and hope.

The song he’s about to perform on his oud is unlike other pieces he has composed. The song is called ‘The Escape’ and it depicts how the Assyrian community of northern Syria fled an impending Islamic State invasion.

Mr Karam was born in a small village in the city of Al Hasakah in the north-eastern corner of Syria, which is part of a cluster of 34 prominent Assyrian villages along the Al Khabour River.

The Assyrians are a Christian minority mainly situated in northern Iraq and Syria, and in Mr Karam’s village, the common industry is agriculture. 

“We farmed cotton, buckwheat in addition to Apple orchards and vineyards,” he said. “I used to work in farming with my dad.

“We were growing cotton, and we would take to Al Hasakah to sell it. We had enough to meet our needs; the economic conditions were acceptable somehow.”

As an oud player and composer, Mr Karam frequently performed across Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, but he would always find his way back to his close-knit community.


But the community’s peaceful existence would completely change when peaceful protests across Syria morphed into a full-blown civil war in 2011.

“No one would have imagined that a war would erupt, I thought the protests would be over in a couple of months.”

As the conflict escalated, the protesters formed rebel groups and weapons began pouring into the country and fell into the hands of fighting factions.

In the chaos, the notorious Jihadists of Iraq, once led by militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, began extending their operations to neighbouring Syria.

The Syrian government withdrew from the northern regions to protect the country’s capital, Damascus, and other more strategic cities – leaving ethnic minorities, including the Assyrians, surrounded and defenceless.

In 2015, IS captured land in north-eastern Syria and began creeping closer to the Assyrian villages.

“We started to hear gradually about IS members operating in the area, incidents of kidnapping, car stealing and looting of businesses started to spread,” he said.

“And then a full-scale attack happened in the village next to us called Tel Shimram and they kidnapped 300 people.

“All the other villages heard the news especially because communication was not cut off at this point.”

During this period, IS was one of the most prominent non-government factions in the country and the strongest in the north.

Mr Karam recalled that news of how IS kidnapped and enslaved Iraq’s Yazidi minority sent shockwaves throughout Syria.

“We left our village at night before they came to us; we crossed the river and went to Al Hasakah.

“We left everything behind us, our homes and belongings, everything, we only carried our documents and passports.”

Ruins of the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was destroyed by Islamic State (IS) fighters, in the Assyrian village of Tal Nasri, Syria.


With a strong presence of Kurdish forces and some government forces in Al Hasakah, the town was the safest place for the Assyrians to go. Mr Karam stayed in the city with his family for six months.

“It wasn’t easy, we were renting with three other families in one house, and we were living off our savings.”

Some 10,000 Assyrian Christians lived in the villages before the war began, and there were more than two dozen churches, according to the New York Times

Now, about 900 people remain. 

During this period, Mr Karam began composing a music piece to comfort his two daughters, aged 14 and 18 at the time.

“I called this piece ‘The Escape’, it tells our story of escaping war; in three minutes I tried to depict the feelings of thousands of Assyrians and Syrians.”

Little did he know that this period was the start of his journey. The situation deteriorated quickly in Al Hasakah as war arrived at its footsteps, forcing the family to flee south. 

“We fled to Damascus by bus and from there we headed to Lebanon.

“We spent hours being checked and investigated at the Lebanese and Syrians checkpoints.”

George Karam and his family.


In Lebanon, the family was received by the Assyrian church.  

Mr Karam began working as a hairdresser to make ends meet, and he also built a small studio where he composed and produced music for local artists.

“The rent was very expensive in Lebanon, between 1000 and 1200 US dollars a month, I wanted to work as a musician but I couldn’t depend on this only, so I worked as a hairdresser as well.”

The family fell on hard times in Lebanon, as the local population became bitter at the refugees who shared the country’s resources.

“Some families really treated us well, and we had friends, but others were unwelcoming and this due to the tough economic conditions they go through as well.”

He continued writing his song, trying to better encapsulate the journey through music, which he considers the closest medium to his heart.

In 2017, the family applied for asylum in Australia through the sponsorship of Mr Karam’s sister, who was already a resident.

After eight months waiting, they were granted Australian visas and they arrived in November 2017.

As soon as they touched down in Australia, the family was assisted by Settlement Service International (SSI) who met the family in the airport and took them to a fully furnished flat in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, which is home to a large Assyrian community.

Through SSI, Mr Karam was able to finally complete his music piece. Listen to ‘The Escape’ below. 


“It starts with the sound of water and birds. The start represents the normal life we used to live in our villages, where we had calm, peace, security and joy.

“The beginning is really a reflection of the soul of the Assyrian villages.

“Then, the tense oud playing takes us to the IS attack, where we hear strained tunes that move quickly between a deep and high pitch, this is the phase of news spreading about IS closing onto our area.

“It gets faster as the exodus begins, we start hearing the drums as people flee until the piece reaches its peak, then the fast tempo stops suddenly and we have a reflection on the silence and stillness that followed the escape. It becomes slower and sadder to depict the tragedy people were engulfed in.

“The tune is then lifted as we arrive in Australia where we were given hope again.”

Mr Karam is now a part of a multicultural band fostered by SSI called Collusion, where he collaborates with Uyghur musician Shohrat Tursun and producer Richard Petkovic.

The group Collusion


He plays the oud, Mr Tursun plays the dutar and Mr Petkovic plays the guitar, and together they play ‘The Escape’ as well as other original pieces.

“I want to work as a musician; I have degrees in music that I am currently trying to translate, so I can work in an institute or even set up my own shop to teach oud, keyboards and oriental things.

“My dream is to set up a music shop; I will keep working until my dream comes true.”