[18 April 2008]
Australians are quick to claim celebrities as our own, even when the connection is tenuous. Russell Crowe is ours (born in New Zealand); Naomi Watts (United Kingdom) likewise. Mel Gibson (United States) was, but that’s been kept quiet since his drunk-and-racist driving incident.
So it’s no surprise to see that J.M. Coetzee, newly naturalized as an Australian citizen, is already thoroughly “one of ours”. The South African-born novelist and Nobel laureate has spent most of his professional career in his homeland, but now resides in Adelaide. His recent works have even taken on Australian characters and locations.
The latest sign of his adoption as an Australian was his invitation to attend the Australia 2020 Summit this weekend. Australia 2020, a talk fest convened by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has some vague nation-building aspirations and Coetzee’s role is to join with 99 others to plan pathways “towards a creative Australia”.
The “creative Australia” stream is heavy with celebrities and big names, so it’s no surprise that our only living Nobel Prize for Literature winner would be invited. Many commentators are asking whether celebrities are the best people to determine national direction—as is how 100 people with individual ideas and agendas can agree on concrete plans for national creativity in two short days. Perhaps Hugh Jackman will go head to head with Baz Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin in a battle over theatre funding, while screenwriter Geoffrey Atherden will try to pitch his latest TV show to Joel Edgerton.
The choice of Coetzee, for all his newness as an Aussie, is one of the better selections. Unlike many of the established voices invited to attend, Coetzee is not part of any local mafia or interest group. He can bring a freshness of approach that the patronage-hungry locals may lack. In all likelihood, though, the notoriously taciturn Coetzee will probably just smile benignly throughout the weekend and write a book about it later.
A problem for the Summit is the vague nature of “creativity”. Australia’s working-class roots still impart to residents a distrust of “high” art from an early age. Television and movies are generally popular, although Australian movies are currently out of favour. Books by footballers and cricketers and J.K. Rowling are popular, but Coetzee sells far fewer copies than fellow South African expat Bryce Courtenay. Opera, ballet, and theatre that isn’t Mamma Mia! are niche tastes.
Yet the 2020 attendees span all these aspects of art and culture—so discussions of funding and priority may be particularly heated. Just exactly who “needs” funding and what Australia as a nation gets out of the arts—these are questions that will hopefully be asked. The contrast between a writer such as Anna Funder, whose excellent Stasiland was assisted by local arts funding, and Coetzee, who comes from a completely different system, will be interesting.
Maybe even a celebrity-heavy discussion forum can give some guidance on the future of Australian art. At least Germaine Greer’s invitation was lost in the post.