Exhibition combines the erotic with the spinsterly

Last week I passed a very satisfying hour and a half viewing the O'Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Margaret Preston Self Portrait 1930

In going, I was a bit half hearted, as I thought I'd seen enough of Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith in the past. They're both well known women artists from the first half of the 20th Century who spent most of their time on Sydney's North Shore.

As for their US contemporary Georgia O'Keefe, I'd never heard of her. Such is my ignorance. The Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald says she's one of the most famous female artists of all time, with an auction record of $US44.4 million for a flower painting.

Not that he thinks much of her. He finds her 'mechanical and deliberate' touch 'unexciting', with there being 'something so drab' about exhibition itself.

Georgia OKeeffe Blue Line 1919

A few other grumpy critics are unimpressed with the show. The Australian's Christopher Allen dismisses Preston and Cossington Smith as 'minor' and O'Keeffe as 'niche'.

But he struck a chord with me when he praised O'Keefe's 'erotic vitality' in contrast to 'the rather spinsterly sensibility of the two Australians'.

Georgia OKeeffe Pink and Green 1960

I went into the exhibition before reading this but instantly recognised and appreciated the magnetic eroticism in the shapes in her paintings.

I also found pleasing familiarity with the arid rocky New Mexico landscapes, which I'd fallen in love with when I did a road trip through that rocky and arid part of the US in 2003.

I think Allen means 'spinsterly sensibility' as a put down. But that's what I liked about Preston and Cossington Smith.

Grace Cossington Smith The Curve of the Bridge 1928-29

Their works were at the same time ordinary and elevated. Still paintings that had a certain 'otherness' about them that evoked the old Australian monoculturalism of Mosman and Turramurra and other parts of the North Shore.

I was keenly aware that they were painting there during the 1930-35 period during which my father's family sold their farm in north-eastern Victoria and relocated to Mosman, witnessing events such as the completion of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


Links: AGNSW McDonald Allen

Taking control of life through bodybuilding

Last night I watched Destination Arnold, a documentary about indigenous woman bodybuilders Tash and Kylene. It was on ABC iview after having been screened earlier in the week on ABC2 and before that at several film festivals.

Still from Destination Arnold

It's a warm, entertaining and completely unpretentious film about setting goals, personal empowerment and overcoming trauma.

Kylene is a mother of three who is picking up the pieces of her life after having lived with a violent partner who once broke her jaw.

'They make you feel like you need them, and in all honesty, you don't. You just need yourself to pick yourself up.'

The two women are working to make it to the Arnolds, an invitation-only bodybuilding competition being held in Australia for the first time. It was a far cry from excess eating as a child.

With Arnold

'Here I was, a fat kid. I thought I could never do that. Now I am doing that.'

In many ways it parallels my own experience of overturning poor body image. In recent years I have discovered the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind as the secret of good self esteem and quality of life.

I was a fat child. Then as a younger adult, I was quite doctrinaire and counter-cultural in my outlook, as I associated attention to body image with the excesses of the consumer society. Lack of attention to the shape of my body and the clothes I wore represented the particular virtuous statement I wanted to make to the world.

Still from Destination Arnold

Now I lift (lesser) weights at the gym most days, but the particular goal that I've proudly managed to achieve and maintain for nearly two years is normal weight and double the recommended number of steps. I have no ambition to make it to the Arnolds.

Mostly what I would like to take from these two inspiring women is their cheerful and honest spontaneity in the way they frequently stumble but always manage to pick themselves up. They don't think too much about what they want to say and do. They just act.

There's also the self-knowledge and the ability to challenge each other. When Tash gets close to dropping out, Kylene tells her exactly what she thinks. Tash knows her weakness for Nutella ('Nutella I love you') and struggles to keep it under control. But in the end she does.


Links: iview Destination Arnold

The rudeness contagion

In a few weeks I will celebrate my fifth anniversary of not owning a car. One thing I don't miss is rude drivers.

Sometimes I'd be driving on a narrow country road at what I considered a safe speed. Impatient drivers would come up behind me and flash their lights aggressively.

I had two reactions. I might meet rudeness with rudeness and slow down to annoy the other driver. Or I would just pull over when I could and let them pass.

Cover of I Cant Believe You Just Said That The truth about why people are SO rude by Danny Wallace

Rudeness is a contagion. You need to go out of your way to short circuit it or it will eventually destroy your relationships and spoil your quality of life.

If you've experienced or witnessed rudeness, you're more likely to be rude yourself. According to British author and comedian Danny Glover, 'rudeness gets into your brain, it makes you less creative, less able to cope with situations'.

Last week I listened to Glover on a podcast speaking about his new book on what he calls the 'new rudeness' - I Can't Believe You Just Said That: The truth about why people are SO rude.

Are you rude

It is a serious issue at the moment because the most powerful man in the world has successfully made a virtue out of rudeness. He's setting a tone that other leaders including our own are following. It's not just everywhere in the Murdoch press, it's right through the policies of our Federal Government.

Glover says: 'Stupid people think yes I can be rude. Because that guy's being refreshing. He's being politically incorrect. He's saying whatever he wants. If he can do it, I can.'

He addresses the trend to put down political correctness.

'It's not something to be frowned upon. It's a system developed to protect people. People in a vulnerable situation, minorities, from not having people in positions of power run their mouth off and do them down and make them victims.'

Comedian Danny Wallace

He says it goes hand with people who disparage so-called do gooders.

He describes the positive community spirit that caused Britons to rally around victims of recent acts of terror in the UK.

'What would you rather have? Do nothings? Do badders?'


Links: podcast book

ABC set to remove punch from religious programs

The Australian newspaper is always looking for an excuse to attack the ABC. But it is on more solid ground than usual this week, with articles yesterday and today criticising moves by management to replace the specialist editor for religion and ethics Jane Jeffes with a non-specialist.

Specialisation is what gives public service broadcasters their punch. It distinguishes their output from the infotainment programming of their rivals, at least by degree.

ABC Religion cuts from The Australian

Specialists are equipped to go beneath the surface and give the public an understanding of issues they would not otherwise get. For instance how to distinguish Muslim fundamentalists from those who are simply trying to live their faith in the Australian community and maintain their heritage.

ABC management has been trying to kill its religion specialisation for at least three decades. I remember battles from my own time there, when I worked in ABC religious radio for four years from 1988. There was a familiar pattern in which religious programs were threatened, church and other religious leaders would vent their outrage, and there was subsequently a reduction in the scale of planned cuts.

Can that happen again this time? Probably not.

With the sexual abuse scandals and the recent Census statistics charting a significant rise in the number of non-religious Australians, church and other religious leaders don't have the authority they once had.

However ABC management would be doing Australians a disservice if it exploited this as an opportunity to kill specialist religious programs. For the religious unit services non-religious 'searching' Australians as much as it does those who are formally religious.

It is been doing this for years. In 1987, the visionary head of the religion Dr David Millikan commissioned Caroline Jones to present the radio program The Search for Meaning.

It was a departure from traditional religious programming that had a wider impact. After it ended in 1994, Caroline was invited back to ABC TV to help foster a reflective, values-based approach to news and current affairs programming in the long-running Australian Story.

This more inclusive style was also evident some time ago in the coupling of religion and ethics in the brief, and formal designation, of the 'religious' programming genre.

While the article in The Australian seems to suggest that this represents a weakening of the religious programming strand, I believe the opposite is true. Indeed the study of philosophy and ethics was an integral part of my Jesuit religious training, as it is in other Catholic and some Anglican traditions.

The idea is that it helps to remove religion from the religious ghetto. The participation and leadership of specialists ensures that there is an informed conversation between religious and non-religious Australians. That is why the ABC needs a specialist to oversee its programs in this area.


Link: yesterday today

Subverting celebrity worship

One of my family's treasures that has been passed through the generations is a set of two watercolour miniatures of my progenitors. They were painted by an itinerant artist on the Victorian goldfields soon after their arrival in Australia from Ireland in the 1850s.

I was reminded of these miniatures on Saturday when I visited the Dempsey's People exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Little John the Colchester lunatic c 1823

The mostly watercolour images of British street people were painted by itinerant artist John Dempsey during the first half of the 19th century. It was the era before photography put itinerant artists out of business.

As the exhibition notes put it, they were 'the real-life models of the proletarian grotesques in Charles Dickens' novels... the kind of people who came to Australia as convicts and as free settlers during the early colonial period'.

The Ayrshire hermit

It is rare and refreshing to see portraits of people from the 18th and 19th centuries who were not the wealthy and influential celebrities of their day. It seems that it was almost an act of subversion to paint street people in a style that made them look as dignified as the nobles and rich merchants that dominate the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In particular I appreciated the paintings of the Ayrshire hermit, the Durham beggar, 'Little John' the Colchester lunatic, the maniac, and the old soldier from Salisbury. Each of them was painted in a way that made them stand tall, not reflecting the crushed demeanour and self-image that you would expect from their lowly circumstance and class. The stigma of the descriptors, lacking modern day political correctness, was turned on its head.

The old soldier from Salisbury

I was interested to read about 'old soldiers' in the notes about the exhibition. After the final defeat of Napoleon, the troops flooded home to an undeservedly less than rapturous welcome. The Duke of Wellington described them as the 'scum of the earth'. There was little work and few prospects for them in the towns and villages, where the derelict Old Soldier become a familiar figure.

This came home to me yesterday when I was talking to an incapacitated former Australian soldier who had been wounded in Afghanistan. It seems that the scant regard for 'old soldiers' is still a reality in our time. I think this applies generally to the way marginalised and dispossessed people in our community are stigmatised and represented adversely in the portraits painted by our celebrity dominated media, and - consequently - in our own attitudes.


Link: Dempsey's People

Cardinal Pell's preference for spin doctors over truth tellers

Cardinal George Pell told the media in his short but candid statement yesterday that he was returning to Australia to 'clear my name'. He repeated that phrase, 'clear my name'.

That came after his double barrelled opening reference to the media's 'relentless character assassination - relentless character assassination'.

He did not say that he was coming to Australia so that justice could be achieved or truth uncovered. That was left to Pope Francis, whose reference to the 'foster[ing of] the search for truth' was conveyed immediately after Pell's statement.

The cardinal did not mention truth or justice.

Cardinal Pell at Vatican media conference

What he said at the media conference was perfectly consistent with his attitude and actions with regard to the media all along. Arguably an indifference to, or even fear of, their role in the search for truth in the context of justice.

The evidence for this is in his habitual hostility to media practitioners who see their role as uncovering and reporting the truth regardless of the consequences for the good name of a person or an institution. He was true to form when he began yesterday's statement with a criticism of the role of the media in the laying of charges against him.

One of his first actions after becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 was to close the Archdiocese's Communications office.

Over the years, Catholic Communications had gained considerable respect, particularly from its secular media peers, for its practice of objective journalism in radio and TV production. That is where I learned my first principles of journalism and media practice in the 1980s.

The sacked director of Catholic Communications Peter Thomas had a Vatican II view of the 'pilgrim' church of the people. In media terms, this translated into practice that owed a lot to that of public service broadcasters like the ABC and the BBC.

Pell's ecclesiology represented a retreat from Vatican II to a more 'top down' hierarchical model. For him, the Church was more like a corporation that was best run along business lines. That is why he replaced Catholic Communications with an outsourcing of the work to corporate communications firm Royce Communications. I would suggest that this represented a decisive and deliberate shift from truth tellers to spin doctors.

Cardinal Pell's actions and attitudes towards the media over the years have demonstrated a lack of appreciation of its role in truth telling. If, as he stated yesterday, he is innocent of the 'false' charges laid against him, it is in his interest not to condemn the truth telling media but to trust and embrace it.


Link: statement

The spirituality and moral purpose of 'no religion'

I remember where I was when I first heard that Catholics had overtaken Anglicans to become Australia's largest religious denomination numerically. I was with a group of Jesuits at a school in Adelaide in 1979 and one of them said that he had read it in The Australian newspaper.

However religious sociologist Gary Bouma contradicts that in The Conversation yesterday. He says it was 1986.

Whatever the year of that particular milestone, yesterday's big news was that the 2016 Census data revealed that Catholics themselves had been overtaken by a new group called 'No Religion'.

No Religion Census Data graphic from The Conversation

I think it is significant that it is not being mis-reported that atheism is the majority. At least not by Bouma, who gets it right when he makes this distinction:

'Declaring "no religion" does not mean that someone is anti-religious, lacking is spirituality, or an atheist. It means they just do not identify with a particular organised form of religion.'

It seems that this middle ground majority is reluctant to identify with the various mainly Christian denominations that are associated with their particular cultural or ethnic heritage. The 'Irish Catholics' of a generation ago now see themselves as 'no religion'.

They are the ones who count themselves out when Cardinal Pell and other conservative church leaders declare that being a Catholic is a 'package deal'. These leaders say that you can't be a 'cafeteria Catholic', which means accepting some teachings while rejecting others.

This view reflected these words of Pope John Paul II in 1987: 'A large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic", and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error.'

Today the majority of Catholics including myself are cafeteria Catholics. I like to think that we are nuanced in our practice of the faith, combining conscience with guidance from credible moral leaders, whoever they may be. This group does not think twice about using artificial contraception or supporting marriage equality.

But its members are still concerned about issues of social justice. They send their children to Catholic schools believing they will develop a moral compass to guide them through life.

Even so, they won't be told what to do by the Bishops and other church leaders, whom they see as having covered up child sexual abuse to protect the Church. They look elsewhere for guidance on important issues that are not cut and dried, such as to Andrew Denton on euthanasia.

Denton is an entertainer who has become a credible moral leader because religious leaders have given up the ground. I don't agree with him on euthanasia but many Catholics do.

Pope Francis has shown the world what moral leadership from religious leaders can be about. Locally there is a handful of contrite church leaders with a credible moral and social message, such as Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta. But it will take at least a generation before there is a possibility that the Catholic Church as a whole could make up the lost ground.

Last year I declared myself a Catholic on the census form because I think it's important for 'nuanced' Catholics like myself - and indeed my confreres from other Christian traditions - to claim our damaged religious brands in the hope that they can eventually be rebuilt to reflect the more inclusive spirituality that is currently described as 'no religion'.


Links: Bouma cafeteria Denton

Planning my inurnment

I spent the weekend staying with relatives in their home by the beach on the coast at Gerroa, in the Illawarra region south of Sydney. Yesterday I accompanied my cousin when he went to the Memorial Garden at his local church to carry out an inurnment.

I'd never heard the word before. It refers to the placing in a 'niche', or some other resting location, a person's cremated remains that are contained in an urn.

Memorial Garden at St Marys Star of the Sea Gerringong

Following a ceremony at the end of Sunday Mass, my cousin dug the hole in the designated niche and put the urn in place before covering it with dirt and planting flowers over it.

The Memorial Garden was constructed and opened eighteen months ago. It is a variation on the form of the traditional labyrinth or maze and was inspired by the labyrinth in the Vatican Gardens.

It was suggested by my cousin's 91 year old mother, who had an urgent need to find the right resting place for the cremated remains of her husband - my father's cousin - who died in 2007.

Plan for Memorial Garden at St Mary Star of the Sea Gerringong

After the parish subsequently took up the suggestion and completed the design and construction, his remains were placed in niche 407. Adjacent niches are reserved for other family members and friends.

Yesterday I made a spontaneous decision to purchase niche 406, as I have become increasingly conscious of the need to specify what I would like done with my remains after I die.

Actually I've never had any particular wishes in this regard. For whatever reason - possibly to do with residual lack of self esteem - I've had an 'I don't care' attitude.

But increasingly I've felt concern for those around me when I die. They would be scratching their heads wondering what my unexpressed wishes were, and perhaps justifiably frustrated or annoyed that I had remained silent on the matter.

As of yesterday, this is resolved.

inurnment at Memorial Garden St Mary Star of the Sea Gerringong

But it does cause me to reflect upon the changing sociological profile of the community and the reality that many people including myself no longer fit neatly with established church or other traditional rituals surrounding death and how they would like to be remembered.

I don't know how this plays out in practice. But I imagine that the circumstances for many people become awkward when they have not expressed what they would like to occur when they die, and have never been asked. How do you pay respect to a person who was single or lived a life that was singular?

This happens to people at all levels, with many not part of a traditional family when they die. They may be comfortable with that - as I am - but there's no pro forma, and it's important for us all to accept that we are worth remembering and to decide how we would like this to occur.


Link: Memorial Garden

Moral combatants in war

The Sydney Film Festival's notes on the documentary Last Men in Aleppo describe it as 'an unforgettable and visceral portrait of White Helmet volunteers toiling amidst the rubble of the besieged Syrian city'.

While viewing it, I found myself questioning the point of a visceral account of a war, in which emotions take precedence over the facts. Was the film presenting truth or fiction, or perhaps something in between?

Last Men in Aleppo

A few months ago, I'd read of accusations that the White Helmets had passed on false information about the Idlib chemical weapons attack because they wanted to see the end of the Assad regime.

The attack was being described as a propaganda event staged by the 'pro-western' White Helmets. I was shocked that an organisation charged with providing humanitarian assistance could be accused of taking sides in a war.

That is apparently quite common now. As it is with news organisations, which used to pride themselves in reporting facts rather than passing on propaganda.

I remember there was disquiet at the embedding of reporters with elements of the military during operations in the Iraq War. Now this kind of thing has become the norm, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that war reporting cannot be trusted to the extent that it could in the past.

Yesterday I listened to an interview with the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, whose book War and the Death of News was released earlier this month.

Martin Bell - War and the Death of News Reflections of a Grade B Reporter

He believes there is little hope for truth in war reporting, and in journalism in general. 'We don't have a clue what's going on ... As technology advances, journalism retreats.'

The problem is that Bell himself was influential in the unravelling of objectivity in war news reporting.

A few years ago I was studying journalism and remember his championing of what he called the 'journalism of attachment' while he was reporting the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

This was defined as journalism which 'cares as well as knows'. War reporting as we knew it had been an amoral activity, which is not surprising given that it sought to be objective and dispassionate. But Bell argued that it needed a moral purpose.

At first glance, I liked the journalism of attachment. But then I began to wonder what journalism is about if it is seeking something other than the whole truth. It is as if we are on a slippery slope towards what is now referred to as 'fake news'.

Marie Colvin

Practising 'attachment', war journalists - like the White Helmet humanitarian workers - become moral combatants and subject to strikes from the opposing side. That explains the death of the celebrated Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and her photographer while covering the siege of Homs in 2012, allegedly targeted by Syrian artillery fire.

Colvin said she considered her job was to shine a light on 'humanity in extremes, pushed to the unendurable... I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village.' But this made her a player in the war rather than a resource that can be respected by both sides.


Links: Last Men interview book Attachment

Hope is school builder Zac's greatest resource

The big drawcards at this year's Sydney Film Festival included Nicole Kidman's latest The Beguiled, and Ben Mendelsohn's Una, which opens in cinemas tomorrow. To enter the screening of Una, I stood in a queue that snaked several hundred metres down Market Street and around the corner into Pitt Street.

They were both good films. But I found myself more drawn to Tom Zubrycki's documentary Hope Road, which is about raising money for a school in South Sudan. There was no queue to get inside for this one.

For gorsake stop laughing - this is serious

Zubrycki is now 70 and has spent many years perfecting his particular style of his observational documentary that is defined by the films' closeness to their subject.

The subject matter may be worthy but I always find the execution quite nail biting, and often humorous in a subtle way that is recognisably Australian. I am reminded of the famous 'For gorsake stop laughing - this is serious' cartoon by Stan Cross that was first published in 1933.

Zac Machiek

Oddly this state of mind is characteristic of the White Australia era that preceded multiculturalism, yet Zubrycki's films reflect the vision of his father Jerzy Zubrzycki. Zubrzycki senior was a university academic credited as one of the main architects of the Australian government's multiculturalism policy that began in the 1970s.

But of course the genius of multiculturalism is that it was able to bring 'old' and 'new' Australians together in one magical harmony. That is exactly what happens in Hope Road, with South Sudanese refugee Zac Machiek getting together with three 'old' Australians including Zubrycki himself, to raise funds to fulfill his dream of building a school in his former village in South Sudan.

Bricks for South Sudan school before they disappeared

It's not promising, on a variety of fronts. They can't find a major sponsor for their walk to raise funds. One of the fundraisers has to have surgery for a brain tumour. Zac's marriage breaks up and he becomes a single father. The escalating war intervenes and the bricks they've bought to construct the school disappear.

Because the war is unlikely to end any time soon, the vision itself is challenged by the suggestion that scholarships might be more practical than building a school.

Plans for South Sudan school

But Zac insists on the school and hope is their greatest resource. The film ends with plans for the school still a long way from realisation but the team's hope as strong as ever. As a film goer, it has you longing to see the sequel. As a human being, it makes you want to donate to help the project along.


Links: Zubryki Hope Road Donate