Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.
Once upon a time Sydneysiders were content with a modest fireworks display which, it was agreed, enhanced the beautiful environs of Sydney Harbour, ushering in the new year with suitable éclat. Then two fireworks displays were thought more generous, one for the kids earlier in the evening and one for the kidults at midnight. The Harbour Bridge was discovered to be the perfect setting for all manner of fireographics. These displays began to be broadcast overseas whereupon fascinated backpackers from all over the world, and fleeing the northern winter tempests, disported themselves under the Southern Cross along with several hundreds of thousands of locals. Next it was decided that just two fireworks extravaganzas were just too ho-hum. Why not have, for the midnight show, three concurrent fireworks displays at different points along the harbour. This would be the spectacle to outdo them all and make, say, the tepid fireworks in To Catch A Thief as Grant and Kelly smooched, look truly pitiful (sexual metaphor or not). Now these events have further catapulted themselves into a ginormous extravaganza wherein, it seems, millions of people formicate along the shoreline and one wouldn’t be surprised if Juvenal put in an appearance to tell everyone they didn’t need their bread and circuses. Not that he would be heard above the din. The fruit bats might scatter, dogs whimper and cats lose some of their nine lives: Sydney’s citizens are getting what they have come to expect. But this year I was in no mood for this visual delight and had to be pushed into taking the usual spellbound visitors to a suitable vantage point. I was suffering from a previously undiagnosed psychiatric condition—fireworks display exhaustion syndrome.
Which I think might just stand as an image for a cultural malaise at the present moment. Excess is all. One cannot look carefully at a few paintings or prints by the artist. You have to have the entire oeuvre thrust upon you—the blockbuster. What happened to the good old Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver tennis matches, a glass of lemonade to hand. Now the poor things often sound like they are being tortured on court as the 200 kph balls whizz towards them (‘bruised ribs’, ‘withdrew with a groin injury’, ‘knee surgery needed’) and gross advertising gets in the way of everything. I was pleasantly surprised recently when I saw No Country For Old Men and was able to listen to quiet on the screen for considerable stretches of time, not have my ears assailed by some caterwauling sound track. The psychopath Anton Chigurh does his killing in relative silence.
But wherever you turn these days there is an unconvincing oversupply of product, whether from various ‘experts’ with their prognostications, who all seem close friends of Megal O’Mania, from politicians who have learned the art of spin, saying at length what they think a majority of the public want to hear, or by the omnivorous eye of the television screen with its teeming banalities. Then there’s Blogolopolis with its strange combinations of the gladsome and the hamstrung.
Perhaps I’m wrong and we have never had it so good. After all, this is democracy in full swing. Do all eras have similar excesses—Victoriana, Baroque church decorations? Maybe this abundance is beneficial, and the sick feeling in my stomach is just sour grapes. It could be that capitalism needs to recycle money to get the engines of increase well oiled, and that the excess of cultural product of all kinds about now is just an efficient way of doing just that. Or it could be that we have reached a decadent phase from which the only way out is a certain steadfastness and modesty. Sobriety. Self-criticism. A renewal of thought and feeling, purged of the garish cyclorama we have taken to be our present due, an abandonment of the idea that we can know everything, or even anything, in comprehensive detail.
‘A major, unmissable theatrical event’; ‘Nothing short of miraculous’; ‘Should be required viewing’. Well, maybe. And then again, maybe not. It always sounds try-hard to me, and the moment I read such over-the-top blurbs my antennae bristle. God knows, I’ve seen the canoes filled with oil, the woeful video installations, the theatre written up that made the thighs ache with boredom, begun the books spruiked, then abandoned them. We all have.
Books I should not have written. Music I should not have composed (I’m not Bach). Paintings I should have put in the compactor. I am not a fount of universal wisdom on culture even though I often imply I am. Director’s cut of favourite film is shorter than the original!
That might seem a fantasy of fulfilment in our present era of hypedom, but how much better would culture be with some rigorous self-appraisal, some denial. Henri Duparc composed a handful of songs. Ravel and Debussy were fastidious composers, not a note too many between them. As paintings grow ever larger, think of Goyas’s etchings. If you’re Tolstoy, OK, write War and Peace, but if you’re not, slash your ‘masterpiece’ to ribbons. Blue pencil those adjectives. Does your article need those extra paragraphs? What is the point (a cheque?) of having millions of people reading your work or listening to your songs if what you have done is sell the human condition short or put out content that is not equal to my depth or to your depth?
Bilious from overexposure, the mind reels with surfeit, febrile, then cloying, finally clotted. Release your own inner Anton Chigurh. Purge yourself of overwriting, overpainting, overproduction. No more three hour plus films. No more compositions for string quartet and helicopters. No more reinforced floors needed to support your towering sculptures.
You may yet realise that you are causing the equivalent of fireworks display exhaustion syndrome and do something to atone for your sinfulness.