My visit to Paris and London left me with an understanding of the weight of tradition. Both Paris and London take their art very seriously. Unfortunately Australia still struggles with the arts. The reason is at once simple and complex. The high arts were linked with the aristocracy. Only the rich could afford to buy paintings, attend the opera or attend a play. Only the rich could afford an education; to go to university to study Latin and the classics; to take the Grand Tour through Europe. What did the poor know of these things? Deep in the heart of the Australian psyche is a rebellion against the old elitism and therefore a deep suspicion of the arts as an indulgence of the elites. So when the outcry against Bill Henson reached fever pitch, we began to hear the same old complaints; that those who defended Henson came from the ‘elites’ who were out of touch with the ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ ‘man in the street’.
This is in itself a form of elitism and simple bigotry. The art-world answered this criticism a long time ago and there was a concerted and successful effort to bring art to the masses. Many of the major galleries in Australia are free, yet the average price for an AFL game is $30. There are Australians who have never set foot in an art gallery; who still feel intimidated by art. In contrast the Paris and London galleries are always crowded, with a high percentage of school children. In part this is a failure of our education system, something the major art institutions are desperately trying to fix. But it is hard to fight a deeply entrenched prejudice. And it is a prejudice.
A deeper look reveals deeper divisions. The educated elites embraced the classical tradition. They were taught Latin and the classics. The establishment churches, the Catholic and High Anglican, had similar educations and tolerated the explorations of artists, even commissioning works of controversial painters and sculptors. At this level there was a fusion of Christianity and classicism. It is however, with the more radical Protestant churches that we find varying degrees of objection to the classical tradition and specifically to art.
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