Image: Jeff Busby
Artists are allowed to do whatever they want.
In Australia, any subject is fair game. Formal rules may apply, but these can be massaged, depending on genre and audience.
With this freedom comes no responsibility. Certainly, the market exerts a regulatory influence, and an artist’s status can rise and fall with the reception of a work. Similarly, literary cliques may protect some artists and lock out others.
The broad scope accorded to western artists informs our perception of their iconic and subversive status. Contrasted with the conventional stereotypes propagated by the mainstream media, or the conservative treatises of policy makers, artists become, as Anita Brookner said, ‘saints for the godless’. Artists get to speak out against rigid or oppressive thinking. They get to do something against the grain.
So it’s weird when they don’t do that. And it’s weird when people say they do.
Commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company, Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime has been widely praised for taking risks, being provocative and not at all politically correct, exhibiting moral ambiguity, being ethically knotty, bold, ballsy and brave and extraordinary. In one voice of dissension, The Sublime is criticised by Anne-Marie Peard for being a cowardly work that condones rape culture.
The Sublime tells the story of two brothers, Dean (Josh McConville), an AFL star, and Liam (Ben O’Toole), a League star, who both enter into sexual relations with the same 17-year-old girl, Amber (Anna Samson), an aspiring Olympic runner. On a League trip to Thailand, Amber gives Dean a blow job. Later that night, her friend Zoe is raped by Liam under the orders of his team captain, Nick. Amber films the rape on her phone.
This MTC production is an excitingly crafted, charismatic and compelling show; Red Bull theatre which is brilliantly served by some strapping acting, particularly from McConville – perhaps because the men have more to work with?
The fact that all three characters are unlikeable is par for the course in this production. All three are saturated by the influence of malevolent environments and the high personal costs on show are a broader indictment on our culture at large. In this way, the collusion of Amber’s parents in her sacrificial offering to a pack of drunken sport stars is a nice critique of the way the family is implicated is the transmission of ideology.
When League captain and rape instigator Nick goes on the footy show wearing an 'R U OK? Day' T-shirt, the hypocrisy of exalted institutions is illuminated. Despite the occurence of a violent crime with evidence and witnesses, the absence of legal restitution also seems realistic. From everyday misogyny to rape, Liam’s attitudes and behaviour towards women accurately reflects particularly foul yet dominant narratives of heterosexual masculinity. After all, we’re yet to see a footballer spring to the defence and accuse Cowell of misrepresentation. The play’s nod to the homosocial and homophobic culture of elite male sport also acknowledges problems in its own subjugation to heterosexual patriarchy.
All these elements of our culture are horrible (homosociality excepted), yet they ring true. Together they constitute a realist representation of one realm of contemporary Australian life. As the MTC states in a defence of the work (that hardly seems warranted given its extensive praise), and invoking Stendhal’s description of the realist novel as ‘a mirror carried along a high road’, the play: ‘holds up a mirror to our society right now’.
The problem is that the realist elements of the play – arguably its strongest feature – break when it comes to the female character. And so does the company’s defence of Cowell.
For realist credibility, Cowell leans on an implied referent to Kim Duthie, the so-called 'St Kilda Schoolgirl' who in 2010 made public claims (which were later revealed to be false) about being pregnant to an AFL footballer; she also circulated naked photos of football stars that had come into her possession. Duthie becomes a foil for Cowell’s female character as a realist character based on an implied parallel that doesn’t exist. Unlike Cowell’s Amber, the St Kilda Schoolgirl never alleged sexual assault. And unlike the realist representation of entrenched masculine football culture, the St Kilda Schoolgirl was an exception, not the rule, to codes of contemporary femininity. Thus Cowell departs from his realist brief at the same time that he’s asking us to allow him to hold the mirror up to society.
Certainly there’s no disputing that women can be ignorant, shallow, attracted to powerful men and desirous of money and babies. Yes, it’s true that women lie.
However, women tend to lie less about sexual assault than about their dress size or how much their boyfriend earns, to invoke other misogynist clichés. This is because sexual assault cases involve hugely traumatic large-scale legal proceedings and are rarely successful. Are there any examples of women who have been celebrated by the mainstream media and associated institutions, who have been propelled into positions of prestige and influence as a result of a successful sexual assault claim? No, there are no rewards. The truth is that women tend not to report sexual assault at all.
In the MTC’s apologia for The Sublime they claim: ‘These stories need to be told because they make us confront the existence of appalling behaviour and, most importantly, question why it exists.’
Yet unfortunately for the MTC, Cowell’s own framing of the play, in a short clip from the MTC 2014 season launch, appears to contradict the company’s defence of authorial responsibility. Cowell states that: ‘It’s about how a teenage girl with an iPhone can destroy not only a man’s life but entire power structures and industries who are victims in this play.’
Here Cowell shows his brilliant capacity for fiction, in no way acknowledging how those very power structures are built on the sexualisation and objectification of female naivety for sexual and commercial gain. It’s a shame that a celebrated playwright needs reminding, in 2014, that when a woman’s status is dependent on ignorance, on an inability to defend herself and on a narrow and highly contingent code of appearance, then she is not powerful.
In another section of the MTC’s defence of the work they locate The Sublime ‘in a long tradition of representing the less savoury aspects of Australian culture – particularly group masculine behaviour – from Wake in Fright to The Boys to Blackrock to Savages.’
However, The Sublime can also be situated in the rich historical tradition of representing female liars and undermining the credibility of women making sexual assault claims.
In The First Stone, Helen Garner wrote about a case of sexual harassment at Melbourne University’s Ormond College. Among a host of criticisms about the female complainants' clothing, backgrounds and behaviour, Garner alleged the women were punitive and puritanical in their response to the sexual assault perpetrated by the Master of the College, a reputable authority figure in the college and at large. Initially six women made complaints against the Master on the night in question, but only two followed through with the claims. On hearing of the case, Garner wrote a letter of sympathy to the Master. While The First Stone is sold in the non-fiction shelves of bookstores, neither of the women ever spoke to Garner (or the media) and her representation of their lives is completely fictionalised. Like The Sublime, The First Stone takes its constitutive validity from a real-world case that it completely invents along the way. Garner is one of Australia's foremost literary heroes.
The other genre The Sublime engages in is the tradition of representing female liars, a narrative employed ruthlessly against our former Prime Minister. In David Williamson’s Brilliant Lies, a woman lies about her sexual relationship with a former employer in order to receive a sexual harassment payout. In Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, Connie accuses Hector of rape after he breaks off their affair.
The Sublime’s genealogical connections to this revered Australian tradition surely counters attempts to frame the play as either original or provocative. But certainly it is a safe position to write from and one highly approved of within Australian literary culture. The accolades these authors have received go some way to explaining why a playwright might want to redeploy these themes.
The final factor protecting Cowell from harsher scrutiny is the defense that the play is morally ambiguous, a contention that seemingly encourages we lesser beings to think a bit harder and embark on a long-overdue process of cultural, social, historical analysis and self-examination.
However, if we accept from the outset that everybody lies; that people are constituted from multiple and contradictory drives; that moral ambiguity is a constitutive part of subjectivity insofar as our own motivations are often opaque; and that this situation is intensified in youth before self-knowledge is developed – then the cause celebre of moral ambiguity appears little more than a device that projects stupidity on to the broader populace for the sake of artistic ego.You dummy! Things are complex! Vive les artistes!
If we accept that moral ambiguity is no longer the end point of creative practice, and rather that it is something we all live with on a daily basis (and that there are still legal implications for certain behaviours), then the moral ambiguity argument has little traction. If we understand moral ambiguity as a point of departure for artists and critics, rather than a point of arrival, then artists might also be more likely to interrogate why they make certain moral choices and not others.
As a result, by creating transparency between the artwork and the artistic ego, we might see more Australian art that resists rather than thematically restages the very power structures that continually reward a certain clique of Australian artists. We might see a different sort of art.
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