When the Sydney Opera House was first mooted on the old Sydney tram depot site (itself on the site of Bennelong’s camp), the city was fantastically corrupt. The cops ran Kings Cross, the gangs ran the unions which ran the wharves, the Liberal Party was raking in the cash from re-zonings, and on and on. The idea that the government was anything but a carve-up would have been greeted with derision.
But if you had said to anyone of the new Opera House — as its concrete sails were going up, and after initial resistance to it had crumbled — that one day it would serve as a giant billboard, they would have thought you were crazy. The profane game, the muck and violence, was everywhere. Why run it up the sides of this beautiful thing?
That is one shift between the spirit of that age and ours. Until the last 20 or so years ago, there was a sufficient separation between wider public life and the market, that ideas such as flogging a dodged-up race on the Opera House, or turning a Melbourne public square into a display case for a giant golden iPad, would not arise. But now the market is so co-extensive with everyday life that politicians, hacks and chancers — either naturally cynical, or sniffing the wind — feel they can get away with such.
With a section of the population, perhaps they can. In the new class split that governs our lives, things that were once seen as for “all the people” are now seen as markers of power and authority. As mass working and middle-class culture increasingly became commercial culture, the exuberant profaning of the artistic “sacred” became a sign of the democratic.
Artists themselves desacralised the Opera House by projecting their crappy designs on it. The whole point about the sacred is its austerity and inviolability. Once you put up some bad expressionist tie-in with a piece of German Shrieking from the Sydney Theatre Company, you’re half on the way to hanging Maccas on the sails.
But the degree of disdain for “their” culture has blindsided both Victorian and NSW state governments to the level of attachment that there is to such objects, among those who feel it to be theirs. They’ve also missed how many such people there now are, erroneously believing them to be a few “trendies” or “basket weavers”.
In NSW, this may be turn out to be a big miscalculation. Wentworth is exactly the sort of seat where the visceral anger at Opera House advertising would have a big impact. It’s full of people who understand in their bones what their premier and prime minister purport not to: that a secular “sacred” object, can’t be a little bit of a “billboard”, any more than the nave of a cathedral can be.
The feeling of nauseated dismay that people feel when something shared, free and in common, is co-opted, is now energising, because people feel that everything they care about is disappearing. The distinction between material and non-material issues is a nonsense; this is a material issue because it makes people feel totally crappy about their society: frustrated, angered, dismayed, bereft.
It is more than enough to take another slice off Dave Sharma, especially now that PM ScareCro — the cynical ex-tourism industry flak, with his creeping Jeebus ideas of the sacred — has come out in favour of it. Phelps should go in hard on it.
In the meanwhile, and in parallel, the advertising should be mass disrupted. Unions should green ban it in the first instance; Opera House staff should refuse to co-operate. Angry Sydneysiders are already planning a “light-based” protest on Tuesday. There must be multiple ways to screw this up. Wouldn’t it be great if they all happened? Now that would put that ridiculous steel prison toilet of a city on the map once more.