Recipient of the ArtLink Writing Award Year 3.
Essay by Lexi Appleby as part of Contextualising Practice course.
In this essay, I will explore the growing disparity in cultural capital between rural and urban Australia. I endeavour to develop a language that can address key issues in Australia while being accessible to rural audiences. I will argue that this is achievable through an approach that takes into consideration the development of working-class culture and mythology, citing the successes of artists Grayson Perry and Sidney Nolan. Informed by Bourdieu’s theory of Cultural Capital I will explore how distance and economic inequalities negatively affect communities in rural Australia, as well as the development of taste and culture in these rural settings. I believe that in understanding these cultural nuances, artists can appeal to an extended audience, and begin a constructive discourse that addresses socio-cultural polarities.
My interest in the relationship between rural and urban Australia stems from my experiences as a member of both communities, engaging in discussions of rigid politics and opposing ideals. I was born in Bendigo, Victoria and spent my formative years moving from farmstead to farmstead, as my dad worked as a cattle drover, station hand and shearer and my mum worked evenings as a nurse at the closest hospitals. We settled when I was eight in a small, remote town in New South Wales. By seventeen I had defected to the city in hopes of finding a fantastic place of belonging and stumbled through my twenties trying to establish an identity that distinguished me from what I experienced to be a socially conservative rural mentality. Time spent dissecting the social and personal identities of my peers has led me to believe that it is dismissive to label rural groups as ignorant without considering the obstructions faced by members of these groups in their access to education and cultural activities. Furthermore, the experience and knowledge of rural groups holds value and can be used to challenge assumptions and ignite productive discussions.
Applying French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to Australia, we can identify a class structure that places low-income Australians in rural areas at a disadvantage in their access to cultural capital through normative class distinctions, amplified by their distance to metropolitan centres (Corcoran, Faggian & McCann 2010). Our capital cities continue to maintain a firm grip on our cultural and economic wealth, fuelling the migration of ambitious youth from rural localities (Corcoran, Faggian & McCann 2010). The communities left behind face growing isolation and a reduction in tertiary educated populations, intensifying the shift towards social conservatism (Paternoster, Warr & Jacobs 2018). Tastes evolve in classes to establish a class-relevant cultural norm, in which a member of that class may hold a high degree of social capital, being their perceived belonging to that class, which does not equate to high overall cultural capital or class mobility (Bourdieu 1973). Limited access to institutions of cultural capital in rural areas, such as galleries, museums and universities, lead to a mentality of suspicion directed at these institutions and those that attend them.
Coined by A. A. Phillips in his 1958 book The Australian Tradition: Studies in a Colonial Culture, “cultural cringe” refers to a particular form of self-awareness that manifested in colonial cultures, leading to an inferiority complex that results in anti-intellectual and anti-authoritarian attitudes. The historian Russel Ward stated in his 1958 work The Australian Legend that by the twentieth century a national mystique had emerged, celebrated in contemporary culture as egalitarian and collectivist (Ward 1958). This idea manifests as a central figure of our Australian mythology, embodied by the swagman, the bushranger, the ANZACs, and the sporting legend larrikin (Waling 2020). It is worth noting that this definition of what it means to be Australian centres predominantly on the image of a white male. This mythology persists in the contemporary Australian culture, particularly in stereotypes of working-class Australian men as either the Bloke or the Bogan. The term bloke conjures images of a hardened, honest, patriotically ‘true blue’ Australian male. The bogan on the other hand is rough around the edges, drinks excessively and exhibits inappropriate racist or sexist behaviour. While the Australian bloke might be an aspirational epithet that sometimes eludes class definitions, the term bogan infers undesirable traits seen as hyper-masculine and problematic (Waling 2020).
Despite these negative connotations, the term bogan is still claimed proudly as an identity by some working-class Australians and acts as a taste marker that can be exchanged for social capital in their communities. Bourdieu elaborates further on the sociological theory of taste in his 1984 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, in which he argues against the belief that cultural taste is a gift of nature bestowed upon an individual, and asserts that scientific observation could prove that taste is the result of primarily education and secondarily socialisation. Groups that share social spaces will engage in the mutual judgement of these tastes, such as middle-class disdain for the cultural signifiers of the lower class, as this allows the classes to establish a boundary or point of difference that reinforces their belonging to their group (Bourdieu 1984). According to Bourdieu, taste is relative to our distance from necessity; lower cultural classes, due to circumstance, consume the most convenient and accessible cultural commodities, while those in higher cultural classes have the freedom to enjoy elevated and more exclusive cultural commodities. Restricted access to these exclusive taste markers fosters concepts of legitimate and illegitimate culture, resulting in the perceived vulgarness or kitchness of lower-class cultural artefacts. The ability to employ elements of the vulgar or kitsch within art, such as narrative or popular iconography, allows artists to interrogate social issues while still appealing to groups of low cultural capital.
Class is something bred into us like a religious faith… we learn the texture of our place in the world from the curlicue of a neck tattoo, the clank of a Le Creuset casserole dish, or the scent of a mouldering hunting print (Perry, 2014)
Grayson Perry is a contemporary UK artist who works predominantly with ceramics and tapestries. Since winning the Turner Prize in 2003, Perry has gained notoriety for his social commentaries, as well as his public persona and female alter-ego “Claire”, solidifying himself as one of the UK’s most beloved artists. Perry has had a significant influence on my practice due to his use of ceramic objects to explore the perception of fine art and material value. Perry’s utilisation of craft objects to investigate social and political concepts allows those outside of the elite art establishment to approach and understand his artwork; a subversion of mainstream contemporary art. Traditional methods, such as pottery or tapestry, are employed to create this approachability, using forms which are recognisable and sit comfortably within a low-cultural class understanding. Perry favours traditional Western silhouettes that are easily read by the audience and almost invisible in their predictability. Ceramic objects provide a neutral ground for the delivery of art, being considered a more accessible cultural artefact in European history (Pearce 2020), and requiring the physical labour associated with the working lower class to produce. The decorative elements of his artworks wrap around the entirety of the form, causing the viewer to spend time examining the object, allowing a prolonged experience with the piece that can exist outside of the static norms of the contemporary gallery hang.
Another influence of Perry’s on my own work involves his exploitation of cultural icons and deconstruction of classist narratives. The Vanity of Small Differences, a series of six large tapestries created by Perry in 2011, is an example of this. The tapestries depict the journey of Tim Rakewell, modelled off William Hogarth’s18th century series, A Rake’s Progress. Born into the Sunderland working class, Rakewell attends college and progresses through the social hierarchy, eventually crashing his Ferrari as a middle-aged man and dying a premature death (Boulton 2014). Here Perry appeals to the kitsch in several ways, with references to classical European artworks, religion, British class systems and popular culture, the title itself is an allusion to Freud’s The Narcissism of Minor Differences. The use of gaudy clashing colours sits at odds with assumptions regarding taste and the social symbology awarded to tapestries historically. The works are littered with the cultural capital iconography of Britain’s social classes, which were explored by Perry in the 2012 documentary titled All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Boulton 2014). This involvement of class communities in the artwork itself grants a particular empathy to the subjects; the artwork is less a judgement of taste than an investigation into the desire for belonging and the ways in which cultural capital informs our journey throughout life.
I find the desire to paint the landscape involves a wish to hear more of the stories that take place in the landscape… which persist in the memory, to find expression in such household sayings as ‘game as Ned Kelly’. (Nolan, July 1948)
Sidney Nolan is known as one of the most significant painters in Australian history, pioneering the modernist style and revolutionising the conservative art scene of twentieth century Australia. Nolan is of significant influence in my practice, both as a consistent reference in the symbology and landscapes depicted throughout my work, but also in his exploration of the Australian psyche through narrative and myth making. A proponent of modernist art movements including Surrealism and Expressionism, Nolan sought to identify a mythological archetype that could embody the national identity of Australia post World War Two (Basu 2012). The concept of narrative within colonial Australian art was not specific to Nolan or his contemporaries; story telling had maintained an important role throughout the previous century, shaping both nineteenth century Australian painting and poetry. As a young colony Australia had sought to define itself through these narratives and forge a sense of nationalism amongst its population (Duggan 2003). Australian artists such as Nolan used this tradition to create a unique combination of European modernist ideals, with the landscape and identity of their surroundings (Duggan 2003).
Nolan’s 1946-47 Ned Kelly series has become one of the most recognisable examples of this era in Australian art history. The Ned Kelly series includes 27 paintings that explore both historical and imagined events, inspired by detailed police reports and media coverage of the Kelly gang saga (Mitzevich 2018). In Kelly, Nolan saw not just an outlaw, but a hero and metaphor for resistance. Nolan drew on the work of modernist artists in Europe to create the sharp silhouette of Kelly’s helmet, masking the identity of the individual. This simplification of Ned Kelly to a black square with two round and sometimes floating eyes accentuated his mythological status as more than a mortal human, juxtaposed against the Australian landscape, creating a scar or void across the canvas (Mitzevich 2018). The success of this series illustrates the significance of mythology and legend in the Australian psyche. Appealing to Australia’s predilection for anti-authoritarianism, Nolan’s telling of the Kelly story solidified the bushrangers’ status as a national icon and reinforced the association of narrative with the depiction of rural life.
My artwork, The Hunt, is a large ceramic vessel depicting a group of men engaging in the sport of wild boar hunting in rural NSW. The association of masculine ideals in rural Australia with the excessive consumption of alcohol and violence, such as hunting, plays out in both the physicality and narrative surrounding this artwork. The shape of the vessel is an exaggerated reference to long-neck beer bottles, alluding to the value of alcohol in the exchange of social capital in rural regions. The consumption of alcohol pervades a vast range of social occasions throughout Australian culture as an essential element in the celebration of our most important life events. Alcohol is also a major contributor to death, illness and preventable disease, fuelling hospitalisations, accidents, violence and suicide (Allan, Clifford, Ball, Alston & Meister 2012). In rural Australia, these burdens are amplified by limited healthcare, yet the consumption of alcohol per capita remains higher than in urban areas (Allan, Clifford, Ball, Alston & Meister 2012). The work explores concepts of value in areas of low financial capital, where egalitarian attitudes persist and the exchange of alcohol as currency, such as paying someone for work, is not unheard of (Allan, Clifford, Ball, Alston & Meister 2012). The boar hunt depicted on the vessel is inspired by events recorded in our family photo album from the 1980s. The hunting of wild boar as a pastime can be considered a taste marker acquired by the lower class, operating as a form of social and cultural capital. The sport requires specialised equipment and the breeding of dogs, which aligns with hyper-masculine ideals in rural Australia, also affording masculinity the ability to partake in a social ritual and rites of passage.
The Woolshed is an audiovisual installation, created for the Natimuk Fringe Festival in 2019. The video was projected onto the walls of a small timber shed reminiscent of the shearing sheds scattered throughout the Wimmera region, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the work. The visual element of the installation centred on my dad, who at the time was 62, as he carefully sheared one of his sheep in preparation for the warmer months. The imagery was paired with a deep, haunting soundscape, interrupted by the occasional chime of a meditation bell. The imagery might be considered unsettling for those not familiar with agricultural practices and who have not witnessed the shearing of a sheep before. Animal welfare concerns are well founded, as the Australian wool industry has faced criticism over live export and mulesing practices (Sneddon, Soutar & Lee 2014). The slow methodical movements and meditative soundtrack contrast starkly with media representations of gun shearers and the wool industry in Australia, and are intended to provide an atmosphere of reflection. The artwork serves as a reminder of the human labour often overlooked in the agricultural industry, where jobs such as shearing can affect not just the physical health of workers, but can produce a heavy mental burden amplified by the stoicism of rural identity. By depicting the physical labour of the working class, I appeal to the cultural tastes of rural Australians, allowing the empathetic and emotional tone of the artwork to engage a broad audience in perspectives and ideas that might otherwise not be confronted.
In conclusion, I believe that creating artwork that is accessible and readable by a diverse audience it is possible to ignite a conversation that can avoid polarising debate. By engaging rural Australians in the cultural discussion, we enable a thoughtful exchange of ideas that may result in an altered perspective on either side of the socio-political spectrum. Communities of low cultural capital can benefit from artistic engagement and are more likely to respond in a positive manner when their sensitivities are considered with empathy.
Allan, J, Clifford, A, Ball, P, Alston, M & Meister, P 2012, ‘You’re Less Complete If You Haven’t Got a Can in Your Hand’: Alcohol Consumption and Related Harmful Effects in Rural Australia: The Role and Influence of Cultural Capital.’, Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford), vol. 47, no. 5, pp. 624–629.
Basu, L 2012, Ned Kelly as Memory Dispositif: Media, Time, Power, and the Development of Australian Identities, 1st edn, De Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 102- 106.
Boulton, M 2014, ‘The Vanity of Small Differences: Grayson Perry Tapestries, and: Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences by Caroline Douglas, Grayson Perry et Al. (review).’, Modernism/modernity (Baltimore, Md.), vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 851–854.
Bourdieu, P 1973, ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction’, in R Brown (ed.), Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, 1st edn, Routledge, London, pp. 71-112.
Bourdieu, P 1984, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1st edn, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massechuses.
Corcoran, J, Faggian, A & McCann, P 2010, ‘Human Capital in Remote and Rural Australia: The Role of Graduate Migration.’, Growth and change, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 192–220.
Duggan, L 2003, ‘Manmade Modernism: Mythical Space in Australian Painting, 1940-1970.’, Antipodes (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.), vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 158–163.
Mitzevich, N 2018, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, exhibition catalogue, 2 March – 26 May, Geelong Gallery, Geelong.
Paternoster, H J, Warr, D, & Jacobs, K 2018, ‘The Enigma of the Bogan and Its Significance to Class in Australia: A Socio-Historical Analysis.’, Journal of sociology (Melbourne, Vic.), vol. 54, no. 3, pp. 429–445.
Pearce, J 2020, ‘An Art for Everyman: The Aspirations of the Medieval Potter’, in Duits, R (ed.), The Art of the Poor : The Aesthetic Material Culture of the Lower Classes in Europe 1300-1600, 1st edn, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, pp. 132-142.
Sneddon, J, Soutar, G & Lee, J 2014, ‘Exploring Wool Apparel Consumers’ Ethical Concerns and Preferences.’ Journal of fashion marketing and management, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 169–186.
Waling, A 2020, White Masculinity in Contemporary Australia: The Good Ol’ Aussie Bloke, 1st edn, Routledge, Oxford, UK.
Ward, R 1958, The Australian Legend, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.