I have been reared to believe that power corrupts and that the WASP value system is only one of many to be considered. Until a few months ago, I would have told you that freedom of speech is one of our most important democratic principles. I teach at the University of Newcastle, in the newly developed bachelor of arts major in creative arts, and endeavour to bring these formative values to my professional life. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself almost irresistibly compelled to censor some of my students' work.
The dilemma was instigated when our creative arts teaching staff decided to publicise the work of our students by holding a multimedia event. The event was to be called "Downright un-Australian!". The students were asked to ponder the statement that "to call someone un-Australian is deeply and paradoxically un-Australian". We asked our students to think about issues of national and cultural identity, and to consider what being Australian or un-Australian meant to them.
With the federal election looming and national identity being used as a potent political tool, we thought that it would be a fascinating and challenging area of debate. We wanted to hear what our students had to say and see what type of work they created.
There was no way we could have anticipated the outcome. The teaching staff discussed the un-Australian issue at length. One colleague, an established multimedia artist based in Sydney, thought that even the Australian flag had been recoded and was being used as a politically divisive image. For a short time in the early 1990s, he mused, people were starting to use the flag ironically. As a country we'd had a brief, happy time in the sun where wearing Australiana became cutting edge and cool. Then Pauline Hanson came along, draped in a flag, and the entire landscape of ideas and imagery changed. "It worries me," he joked, "that I live in this country, and I am happy to live in this country, but whenever I see a flagpole outside someone's house I think they're a fascist."
We were still haunted by the Cronulla riots and the way the Australian flag had been used as a battle standard by the far Right. One of my students became intrigued by newspaper images of the flag-wearing participants. She duplicated the image and arranged them into a slick, neon-coloured Andy Warhol grid: a techno vision of candy-coloured violence.
After Cronulla we watched as Big Day Out concert organisers first tried to ban flag wearing, then backed down when the prohibition was hotly contested.
On the day of the concert so-called generation Y turned out in force wearing the flag in just about every possible way imaginable. It was a public demonstration of collective defiance and a celebration of their right to choose their symbols.
As practising artists, my colleagues and I had followed the debate on sedition laws and their possible effect on artists with keen interest. We felt it was important not to be overly squeamish about reaching into the political arena for our event's theme. We reasoned that if you can't explore controversial issues at a university, where are you going to do it?
Although it is a widely used term, few people seem to be entirely sure of what un-Australian means. Although un-Australian has been formally defined as "not in accordance with characteristics said to be typical of the Australian community", at one point it was popularly used when a person or thing was not getting a fair go. Some sociologists claim that the term also refers to incivility or foreign influence.
The term first appeared almost a century ago when it was used to describe communists or radicals. Nowadays it has such wide and diverse usage that the Macquarie Dictionary is revising its definition.
When I first told my students about the un-Australian event, they all looked slightly confused. They had two weeks to come up with an artwork; they could work in any media: film, sculpture, digital imaging and so on.
The only technical restriction was that the final product must include paint in some way, but this could be broadly interpreted to include photographs of paint or film of a person painting, among other things. (Despite our cross disciplinary emphasis it was, after all, a painting class that I was teaching.)
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