What Does It Mean to 'Feel like an Australian'?

By M. S. Mason of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

What Does It Mean to 'Feel like an Australian'?


M. S. Mason of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore" (PBS, Sept. 5-7, nightly 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is a love letter from renowned art critic Robert Hughes to his native land. "With a few recriminations, as there tend to be in love letters," he added in a recent interview.

Mr. Hughes is still an Australian citizen, though he has lived and worked in the United States since 1963, writing for Time magazine, and producing 16 books and dozens of TV documentaries mainly for BBC and other British companies.

His is a powerful voice in the art world, sometimes irascible, but always perceptive. His brilliant commentaries on the relationship of art to the culture from which it comes have won him prestigious awards.

Hughes became known to a vast American audience in 1981 with his television series on modern and contemporary art, "The Shock of the New," seen by some 52 million people around the globe.

Now he focuses on his own country - one he says has developed a high level of civilization and yet still labors under the illusions of an 18th-century monarchy.

A devoted republican, he investigates the Australian republican movement for home rule in the course of this fascinating six-hour documentary that covers much of the continent's culture: history, industry, farming, mining, art, education, politics, and social character.

It is a personal film in many ways. It was made as he was recovering from a car accident on a bleak Australian highway. It took extra fortitude and dedication to make the film, and the moving and meaningful results are well worth the effort.

"I'm always going on about how I feel like an Australian, but what does it mean to feel like an Australian?" he says via telephone from New York. "[Making this film] was in part to sketch an answer to that - to give myself an opportunity to say something coherent about the country and the people from which I come - warts and all."

The film is no reinforcement of the "Crocodile Dundee" stereotype. Nor is it, like so many documentaries about Australia, a portrait of the animal life. Instead, it is a complex picture of a people and of a country that is itself a continent - largely an uninhabitable wasteland in the interior, with one-third of its population (about 19 million) living within a 15-minute drive of the beach.

"It is very different from the picture Americans have of Australia," Hughes says. "America and Australia have some similarities, because they do share an English heritage. But they are very different.... One of the biggest differences is in their founding ethos. Australia began as a jail and America began as a series of attempts at Utopia."

Another big difference is the way Americans look at empty spaces - in America, great spaces suggest hope and faith in the future, he says. …

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