W. F. E. Liardet, Landing at Melbourne, 1830, watercolor/Copyright held by State Library of Victoria

It has been thirty-four years since I was last in Melbourne, and physically it has not improved in the long interval. I remembered it as a handsome, if not characterful, city; now I was aghast as I walked down Swanston Street, one of its principal thoroughfares, at what had been done to it. It was like a vast open-air museum of modern architectural pathology, waiting for unesco to declare it a world heritage site.

It was not that insufficient money had been spent on it; on the contrary, it was that the architects had tried too hard.

To do what, exactly? One sensed that they were in competition—on the city’s behalf—with Sydney, to make it appear more dynamic, more modern than Sydney, despite it always having prided itself on being the Athens to Sydney’s Rome, or at least the Boston to Sydney’s New York. It was cultivated where Sydney was brash; its money was older or more respectable (or had the aura of such) despite having been founded later in Australia’s short history.

The architects had risen (or fallen) to the challenge by trying to be original, and there is little more damaging to the fabric of a city than the attempted originality of architectural mediocrity. The buildings were given eccentric shapes for the very sake of that eccentricity, but there was no attempt at harmony; they were a choir of cats trying to screech the loudest. As for the decorative features, they were those of the manic-depressive woman who, in her manic phase, applies cosmetics too liberally, with insufficient attention to the contours of her face. The modernity of Sydney by comparison is unselfconscious and self-confident, with much better and more elegant results.

The architects had tried too hard.

Swanston Street debouches—or debauches—on to Federation Square, an assemblage of buildings intended for cultural purposes, scarcely credible in its hideousness. Its architect had evidently taken a spider’s web as his inspiration—but that of a spider after it had been given marijuana that rendered its web random and disorganized. Future generations (let us hope) will wonder at our age’s inability to erect minimally pleasing public buildings: the problem is far from Melbourne’s alone.

The advance in Australia of political correctness in the last few years has been startling: it acts as a viral infection, so that some do not even know that they have caught it, even as they oppose it. But of all the Australian states, so I was told, Victoria—Melbourne beings its largest city by far—is the most politically correct, indulging in what a Dutch friend of mine calls “creative appeasement.”

St. Paul’s Cathedral, viewed from Federation Square, Melbourne

Opposite the buildings of Federation Square is the Anglican St. Paul’s Cathedral, a sandstone mock-gothic church constructed in the heyday of Victorian municipal pride and architectural grandiloquence. Prominently displayed on its frontage was a large banner bearing the legend “Let’s fully welcome refugees.” There is a Christian duty of compassion towards the suffering of others, but, in a manner typical of the politically correct, this legend evades the difficult questions about the current wave of refugees from the Middle East, of whom Australia has so far been rather wary, to put it mildly. It has stopped the influx of refugees by not allowing their boats to land and parking them on the Central Pacific island of Nauru, which was once rich (thanks to its phosphate, now exhausted), and that now derives its income from renting a camp to Australia for the refugees. The boats have stopped coming.

How many refugees should Australia welcome, who should do the welcoming, does it matter where the refugees come from, does Australia have an infinite duty of care to the refugees of the world, and so forth? If sentimentality is the luxury of an emotion without having to pay the price for it, as Oscar Wilde put it, here was a perfect example of politically correct sentimentality.

It is difficult to get away from political correctness in Melbourne once you notice it. On the other side of the Yarra river is another arts center. The surrounding lawn has a notice:

Keeping the Arts Centre Green

The Arts Centre strives to maintain and operate its facilities responsibly, with respect to the environment and climate conditions. These lawns are maintained with recycled water which is not suitable for drinking.

It is obvious that anyone who has real respect for the environment would agitate strongly for the immediate demolition of the concrete buildings of the arts center, which scour the eyes with the aesthetic equivalent of wire wool.

In an effort to escape political correctness, indeed to have an antidote to it, I went to a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by the Melbourne Theatre Company, which is a department of Melbourne University. Whatever else may be said of Strindberg, he was not politically correct, however much his views might have careened through a large spectrum of thought and opinion: and if ever a man were a misogynist, Strindberg was that man.

Political correctness is a lens through which anything can be looked at.

I was naïve. Political correctness is a lens through which anything can be looked at; and while multiculturalism is in theory an important doctrinal component of that correctness, it is severely monocultural when it comes to the past. For the politically correct, the past is not a foreign country where they do things differently; it is the same country where they do everything the same. Hence the text of Miss Julie as rendered by the Melbourne Theatre Company was littered with the word fuck and its cognates.

But if we, or at least the most enlightened and sophisticated among us, use the word constantly to demonstrate our liberation from bourgeois rectitude, it follows that they must have used in it Strindberg’s time too. Now Strindberg was certainly not the kind of man to respect a taboo, including that against strong language, but Miss Julie is a play from his naturalistic period, written in the late 1880s, when it was very unlikely that such language would have been used (and indeed no other translation uses it). It was, after all, nearly forty years before Shaw’s Pygmalion caused a sensation on the London stage by the use of the comparatively mild word bloody. The use of fuck in this context, as well as being jarring, adds nothing to the meaning. It is an attempt to be bold without risk, original without talent: the same deformation as the Swanston Street architects.

Even worse, however, was the provision of a happy ending to Miss Julie. In the original, Jean (the valet) suggests in the final scene that Miss Julie (the daughter of the count) has no choice but to commit suicide; she walks off the stage, presumably to do so. Strindberg, who was going through his Social Darwinist phase, suggests that she was a loser in the struggle for existence; but in the Melbourne production, the last scene is given moral uplift, when the cook, Kristine, suggests at the end that Miss Julie must keep her pecker up, to use an old British colloquialism. I was reminded of the days when as a student I shared a house with a hard-line Marxist-Leninist, who regarded suicide as a petty bourgeois deviation, the failure to accept the total sufficiency in life of Marxism-Leninism.

Nearby the theater is the National Gallery of Victoria where paintings in the permanent collection are well-displayed. Large crowds were drawn to a comparative exhibition of the work of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, not necessarily full of people whom one would normally expect to see at an art exhibition. This was confirmed when I bought the catalogue at the gallery’s bookstore. The woman at the counter in front of me said to the man behind it, when asked what she thought of the exhibition, “It resonated with the kids,” to which he replied, “That’s exactly right.” What surprised me was not the actual words of this interchange, but its tone of approbation: the exhibition was good because it resonated with the kids.

And indeed the atmosphere inside was not the one of hushed awe that would have prevailed had the exhibition been of the works of Piero della Francesca or Poussin. It was more that of the funfair than of a temple of the Muses. And this was not altogether surprising, given Ai Weiwei’s dictum that everything is art, and that one of his works exhibited consisted of floating balloons in the shape of birds or dragons, into the midst of which the public was invited:

We invite you to enjoy participating in this artwork

Please follow the instructions of the staff &:
Tap the balloons gently
Refrain from striking or kicking the balloons
For safety and enjoyment, ensure that children in your care are supervised.

An introduction to the catalogue, written jointly by the Directors of the National Gallery and the Andy Warhol Museum, puts it:

Warhol and Ai are remarkable for the ways they have redefined the role and identity of the artist in society . . . they have transformed our understanding of artistic value and studio production.

Transformed, certainly, but improved or deepened? That is another matter on which the catalogue remains oddly and resolutely silent. When it refers to Ai Weiwei’s study of art history during his period of residence in New York, it is clear that anything before 1950 is not history, but artistic pre-history, like the cave paintings at Lascaux.

Orica House, Melbourne

Not that either of the men was untalented, far from it. And indeed many of Ai Weiwei’s works, in particular, are extremely evocative. Taking Warhol’s idea of filming the Empire State Building throughout a single day as an inspiration, Ai had the idea in 2003 of filming a car journey round one of Peking’s ring roads through the windshield, without moving the camera at all. The result is strangely mesmerizing: the longer you watch, the magic charm suspended from the rearview mirror and jiggling constantly, the stronger grows your awareness of the sheer grind, soullessness, and ugliness of life in a city that has grown enormously without regard to anything except growth itself. The traffic continues in Sisyphean fashion, without any evidence of end or purpose; and Man seems to have exiled himself from his own works. And when Ai inscribes the Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty vase, he is making a comprehensible and powerful comment on the current culture of China.

To disrespect everything is the best way to devalue your own disrespect.

Nor can it be said that Ai Weiwei is attached in any romantic way to China’s immediate past before there was Coca-Cola. His father was exiled to the remote west of China during the Cultural Revolution as a potentially hostile intellectual. Ai Weiwei has known political oppression as few of us have known it.

But is this enough to make a great or even a good artist of him? When people walk past his installations saying to one another, “Cool, this is cool,” I am inclined to doubt it. He is clever, ingenious, inventive, suggestive, but also self-advertising, shallow, and glib as, for example, in his famous series of pictures in which he gives the finger to the White House, the Houses of Parliament, the Reichstag, the Louvre, the Sydney Opera House, Shanghai, and St. Peter’s. To disrespect everything is the best way to devalue your own disrespect. Moreover, there is an aesthetic thinness to Ai’s work that causes an overvaluation of originality: the fault of the very Melbourne architects.

The fawning nature of much of what is written in the catalogue is the latest manifestation of the famous, or infamous, Australian cultural cringe: the feeling that, as a distant and new outpost of European civilization, Australians have no culture of their own to speak of and must defer to whatever metropolitan countries bring them. But actually Australia has a distinguished artistic tradition of its own, as a visit to the Australian section of the National Gallery of Victoria (located in the deranged spider’s web) will quickly reveal. There is more real sustenance in Sidney Nolan or Russell Drysdale—among many others—than in Warhol or Ai Weiwei, if people would but look and see it.