Saturday, May 19, 2007


It's not often, as you're huddled in an armchair on a Saturday morning, leafing through The Age and waiting for your hangover to abate to a more manageable level that will actually allow cognitive thought and beyond-basic motor functions, that your own name unexpectedly leaps off the page you're attempting to read and sears itself into your retinae.

Ten years ago, essayist and author Mark Davis published his remarkable, timely and well-argued polemic Gangland; an exhaustively detailed critique of the poisonously pervaisive influence of certain coiteries of commentators over Australia's arts and media. Not surprisingly, said cultural gatekeepers closed ranks after the book's publication and in a classic example of shooting the messenger, launched a series of venomous attacks upon Davis and Gangland in order to discredit his hypothesis that "an older generation of cultural apparatchiks, used to being at the centre and having a strong media presence, more or less systematically set out to discredit young people and their ideas, even progressive opinion generally".

The impact of Gangland was remarkable, at least in the circles I moved in at the time, which were predominantly comprised of writers, poets, spoken word performers, zinesters and other literary-minded folk (overlapping with punks, goths, musicians and other subcultural and creative types). It articulated a gnawing sense of unease and powerlessness that many of us felt, and was widely discussed at festivals and in the media.

Consequently, and in a classic example of closing ranks and shooting the messenger, many of the people named by Davis as part of the very system he was critiquing, launched a series of vitrolic attacks designed to minimise the book's impact upon their influential cliques and their collectively massaged egos.

Thus we saw Peter Craven belittle the book's central argument by describing Gangland as "
a prolonged exercise in go-getting infantilism [and] opportunistic journalism", in his review of Gangland in Australian Book Review (ABR); but only after making a faint, fatuous claim that he didn't really want to review the book in the first place, owing to the fact that he was "a specific target of [Davis'] attack".

Craven could, of course, have refused to have reviewed the book all together if he really wanted to maintain a semblance of impartiallity. He didn't. Instead, he penned a patronising and contemptuous review that seemingly willfully misrepresented Davis' position, by focussing in part on the furphy that Gangland was an attack on the Baby Boomers, despite the fact that Davis specifically notes in his introduction that "this is not a book that sets out to attack baby-boomers."

Simultaneously, the critic also leaps to the defence of author Helen Garner, whose reputation he clearly felt Davis had slighted in Gangland in those passages that discuss her book The First Stone. In doing so Craven unwittingly gave weight to one of the book's main theories: that these coiteries of patronising pundits maintain their hold on power and influence in our media by endlessly slapping each other's backs and praising one another's work. Or in Craven's own, unintenionally damning words, they "
back each other up and review the same books as an exercise in pissing in each other's pockets".

A more even-handed, albeit idiosyncratic review of Gangland by queer author Dean Kiley saw a pithily accurate summation of the book.

Gangland...provides a detailed and comprehensive analysis of disparate 70s cultural elites, and especially Baby Boomer over-representation, in a wide range of venues for cultural discussion – radio, TV, newspapers and book publishing. It examines the professional, political and cultural factors that have established a line-up of Usual Suspects as official border-patrols of Australia’s public-debate territory. If at times the identikit picture is too neat, nonetheless the individual identifying features are well defined. Davis provides compelling and extensive evidence on the attitudinal trends, clusters of ideological approaches, and the rhetoric of generationalism used by this New Establishment to lockout interlopers."

Which brings me back to this moring, and The Age.

In an edited version of his Overland Essay, which Davis will be giving as part of the 2007 Emerging Writers' Festival at 11am on Saturday May 26 at Melbourne Town Hall, Davis said:

"The same voices are still being set up, and setting themselves up, as cultural arbiters... Instead of the usual suspects, why aren't Ryan Heath, or Cath Albury, or Kath Wilson, or Marni Cordell, or David Madden, or Damien Cahill, or Louise Swinn, or Tim Dunlop, or Tim Thornton, or Richard Watts, or Kate Crawford, or Jason Soon, or Nigel Bowen, or Susan Harris Rimmer, or Anthony Lowenstein, or Andrew Leigh, or Eve Vincent, or Nathan Hollier, or Miriam Lyons, or Madeleine Byrne, or Jeff Sparrow, or Joo-Cheong Tham, or Peter Tynan, or Thornton Macamish, or Marcus Westbury, or Zoe Dattner, or Priya Sarat Chandran, or Simon Castles, or Sam Tormey, or Stuart J. Barnett, or Taimor T. Hazou, or Daniel Donahoo, or Jason Sternberg, or Macgregor Duncan, or Amir Butler, or Rebecca Huntley, or any of the other thinkers and writers who have emerged over the past decade with a determination to help set Australian political and cultural agendas being published?"
To say that I was taken aback was an understatement. An excellent way to start the day, and an excellent reason to revist Gangland and its still timely and relevent arguments.


Alison Croggon said...

All excellent stuff, and kudos to you Richard. He didn't mention me, the bastard, thus deliberately freezing me out of the cultural elite...:)

Anonymous said...

Craven has a point. But while I haven’t read Gangland, I don’t know that there’s necessarily a conspiracy of an arts mafia — I doubt they could organise such a thing! Maybe it’s just human nature, and largely subconscious.

Hugh MacLeod illustrates this in one of his Gaping Void cartoons.

If someone’s initial emotional reaction is negative (read: reptilian response = fear) they’re more likely to focus on negative aspects of that person’s ideas and writing — the cover story in New Scientist included this point a couple weeks back.

They’ll talk to their colleagues, who’ve all had the same reaction, and whammo! A consensus! The Evil Newcomer Must Be Ignored.

richardwatts said...

Alison: I confess I was quite flattered. That said, I couldn't help but notice a great many names not on Mark's list, such as Marieke Hardy to name but one, as well as your good self and many others. That said, such a list could well have gone on for the entire feature...

Stilg - a valid point, but the arguments made in Gangland are somewhat more complex and broad-ranging, I feel; and also abundantly illustrated...

Anonymous said...

Richard, I made a serious mistake! I didn’t mean to say “Craven has a point”, I meant “Davis has a point”. Scanning back to the post while writing, my eye landed on the wrong name — which completely skewed what I meant to say! Biiiiiiiiiiig oops!

I certainly agree with David (not Craven) that there’s a certain well-established viewpoint that I see repeated over and over again. And it seems to be best illustrated in the while tone of arts media that I see almost everywhere.

I guess that’s why I don’t watch arts programs on TV to find out about art...

Tim Norton said...

Go Team Richard!

Anonymous said...

yeah...where's Sean M Whelan in that list - I want to know!

richardwatts said...

Phew - was worried you were siding with Craven there, Stilg - thank god it was only a typo!