“Melbourne should have been the capital … nevertheless it’s bordello style architecture … the heritage nuts are over the top …”

Paul Keating was in fine form last week, waxing lyrical on matters now closest to his heart, design and architecture. Speaking at a book launch with Malcolm Fraser, their comments on Canberra exemplified the difference between the two men. Keating: Canberra was a mistake, aesthetically and culturally. Fraser: the new Parliament House was y’know, too expensive.

The same week, the stories began emerging of another Keating obsession — pianist the late Geoffrey Tozer, and his sad decline over the past decade, ending in his recent death, of liver failure from both hepatitis and alcoholism. Tozer, the recipient of, and inspiration for, the Keating genius grants, has been nominated by many as an extraordinary concert pianist, one in a million. His failure to get full symphony orchestra performance gigs over the past years Keating attributed to the bitchiness and viciousness of the professional music establishment.

That can well be believed, although orchestra managers have given another account — that alcohol was making Tozer so erratic and unreliable that concert standard performances were becoming difficult to arrange. That’s believable too. Tozer, like many an “eidetic” musical genius — he could play separate pieces with right and left hand — was, by all accounts, lonely and isolated, prone to obsessive infatuation rather than love, and on endless retreat from the world.

The question is whether acclaim as a genius and a flow of high-profile work would have saved him, or whether anything would have. It is a question more about Keating and the attitudes about art and civilisation that he projects onto this country, than it is about a benighted pianist.

Beginning in the latter years of his premiereship and continuing after it, Paul Keating has argued a particular version of art and civilisation whose influence has been both significant and highly questionable. For Keating, a self-taught art and design obsessive, focussed on European styles of the nineteenth century (especially the “nation building” approaches of people such as Karl-Otto Schinkel), Australians were excellence-phobic, the culture falsely elevating diversions like sport to a position of centrality, the arts establishment of the 80s obsessed with community arts and outreach, collective enterprise rather than the great individuals.

Keating’s genius grants were the answer — going to people such as Tozer, poet Les Murray, fiction writer Frank Moorhouse and others. They were of sufficient size to give the recipient a real upper-middle class professional income, not the one-year school-teacher’s stipend of even the largest individual Australia Council grants. The genius grants paid off, though not always in the manner expected. Les Murray wrote more expansively than he might have, though it also gave him more time for his paranoid politicking (once he was free of the Oz Council’s funding process, he denounced it as a “Marxist” organisation). Moorhouse wrote two large novels, which may or may not be a step beyond his earlier work of interconnected short fiction … and so on.

The grants also won Keating the devotion of the arts “community”, culminating in Jackie Weaver’s statement to him that “you do not know how much you are loved” — all of which became a stick that John Howard could pick up and beat him to death with in 1996, when Australians decided they were tired of increases in both nagging and taxation.

Keating’s genius grants were not unanimously supported by the arts comunity — indeed one or two of the recipients expressed nervousness about the effect of a sudden inrush of cash on the tricky process of artistic motivation and the possibility, to put not to fine a point on it,  that a lot of it would get literally pissed up against a wall. Such grants had been tried in the Whitlam era, and there was no doubt that they destroyed a couple of careers, by allowing the recipients to drink themselves to death, while working on the magnum opus that never eventuated. One could berate the artist for that, but a quoi ca sert? If you believe that genius exists, you’d have to believe that it’s an instrument both lightly balanced and tightly strung, and the first thought on receiving an avalanche of money is not going to be topping up the super fund.

In Tozer’s case the hard question has to be asked — did Keating’s genius grant contribute to the man’s destruction, rather than forestall it? Genius is as useless to a genius as beauty is to a Venus — it’s just there and doesn’t make you get up in the morning. What Tozer and people like him need — people whose genius has grown at the cost of other facilities — is work and structure. Things to do, and places to be. The truth is that Tozer may have had a happier and more fulfilled life as a repetiteur or pro pianist than as a genius, better off in the pit than on the pedestal.

There’s a deeper irony here as well — Tozer couldn’t function in the sort of world that Keating had done so much to create, a world of marketised outcomes and benchmarks, indicators and bottom lines. By the 90s, that sort of process had transformed the production of high culture. In an earlier era, symphony orchestras could afford to have a pianist like Tozer on the books, and wear the occasional washout. In the new world, we are all self-marketing entrepreneurs, and it is assumed that the autistic watercolourist of breath-taking talent is as robust and self-starting as Alan Bond, pausing between grant applications and updating their online sales website to dash off a work or two.

“I don’t like wimps,” Keating once remarked on a Four Corners interview, when quizzed about his relationship with property developer Warren Anderson. Well Tozer was the ultimate wimp, as many artists are, if by such we mean people who are inward, unassertive, frail, and vulnerable. The disjunction of Keating’s sentiments goes to the thing he gets utterly, utterly wrong about art and culture, and that is the relationship between individual works of genius and a wider context of creation.

That comes out in his disdainful remarks about Melbourne Victorian architecture, which was, for this correspondent, the glass-turning over moment in the whole debate.

Melbourne produced three world class Victorian buildings — Parliament House, the Exhibition Buildings, Flinders St Station (completed post-Victorian) and maybe Wardell’s St Patrick’s Cathedral — but its great triumph has been the Victorian and Edwardian suburbs that surround them, and stretch out beyond the city. A street of the “boom style” Victorian terraces Keating derides as bordello building is a masterpiece of variation within a theme as far as I’m concerned, and the equal of many of the individual works he finds of more interest.

Maybe he was being fondly teasing — it’s impossible to tell from the transcript. But it does go to the heart of Keating’s misunderstanding, or misemphasis, of what culture and creation is. Great art comes from the culture that mulches down around it, from the excellence that surrounds you in the everyday.

What Paul Keating knows about art could fill a series of volumes — what he doesn’t about how it comes about could create a separately bound appendix. The ambitious kid from Bankstown with his own darkroom and his early aesthetic enthusiasm — jeez he must have been odd! Jeez his parents must have crouched in the living-room proud and petrified at what they’d hatched! — took up the Romantic theory of the artist early, and he never let it go. Though the truly great geniuses — Shakespeare, Bach, Michelangelo — worked effectively as artistic tradies, turning it out, the Romantic idea that genius evolves entire and finished works out of its own inner consciousness, captivated the world for a century and a half (you can see this for example in Irving Wallace’s The Agony and The Ecstacy, a 50s novel, which constructs Michelangelo as the tortured neurotic that he plainly wasn’t).

Keating’s conception of life orbits that romantic notion, in politics as as much as art (a la the Placido Domingo speech), in a manner characterstic of a certain type of autodidact. It lead him into strange territory in both. Those of us who soldiered through the trenches of the humanities had one big thought dunned into us, and one that is indisputable – Romanticism died in the death camps. “No lyric poetry after Auschwitz” Adorno noted (he is often misquoted) — meaning, no celebration of humanity, or nature that does not see also the shadow that it throws. The shadow of genius, excellence, High Culture is a notion of purity that allows for a separation of one’s acts from one’s intentions or self-conceptions. In 1943 both Dachau and Treblinka had better orchestras than any Australian capital city, and if that does not make you understand that there is a problem with the uncritical celebration of High Culture, go back and start again.

Keating is pre-Adorno on these matters, and that lack of insight effects both his political and artistic judgements. To say, as he did, that the loss of Tozer was similar to the bombing of Dresden is appalling, a moral error of the highest order. Not only does it diminish the deaths of tens of thousands as a mere aesthetic event, it also manages to dehumanise Tozer, as though he was nothing but a ruined city full of broken china. It’s a judgement that is all about the genius, and nothing about the man who spent much of the last decade of his life crouched lonely and frightened in his rotting suburban house.

It is of a piece with his oleaginous celebration of Suharto, where his entirely arguable defence of the man’s ultimate record is traduced by an inability to speak of the events of 1965 or the Timor occupation as incidents of sustained mass murder. In that mode, Keating sounds like the worst sort of Stalinist, talking of the ‘events’ at Katyn or elsewhere.

Different cultures need different things. It is good, for example, that the Germans are now more interested in soccer than in starting land wars. Australia needs to go the other way, and Keating was always right about this. The “comfortable and relaxed” period, when Sandy Stone’s goldthread dressing gown near became the new national flag, is over. What has replaced it, from government, is a fairly ersatz notion of excellence, yoked to managerial processes a la the 20/20 travesty. It certainly won’t come from there, and Australian artists who become wreathed in Rudd’s state-building will do themselves and their art a disservice. The Keating-Howard culture wars — Paris vs the banana-lounge — is a ridiculous false dichotomy that’s wasted an enormous amount of energy.

Funnily enough, as I was writing the first parts of this, the ABC arts show was broadcasting a piece about Sydney Luna Park — both the original artists who decorated it in the high period, and the great moment in the 80s when artists like Martin Sharp were allowed to renew the tradition in a more self-conscious way.

You didn’t need to see more than a half-dozen panels of each to see that there was genius to burn, so to speak, there. The original artists were Giottos of a certain style — naive, whimsical, in commercial service. Sharp’s work was genius of another order, every panel reinventing but incorporating the carny tradition, in bursts of colour, form and symbol.

This is the sort of stuff Keating once dismissed as “bottle tops and cigarette cartons”, yet it’s where a distinctively Australian genius comes from — sun-bleached, hedonistic, innocent and simply happy. Happy in the sort of way that poor old Geoffrey Tozer could have done with more of, I suspect.

It’s the sort of thing that I suspect drove Keating to consider the Paris option. But as far as the last century and this one goes, it’s about as far as you can get on this planet from Dresden, and that’s got to count for something.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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