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Newsletter 468

Published December 5, 2022
I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden

At last the damn thing is open! Yes, this week saw the grand launch of Sydney Modern, the long-awaited ‘extension’ of the Art Gallery of NSW. Director, Michael Brand boasted the building was on budget and on time, which is a truly remarkable achievement at a moment when most people struggle to even get a builder. Of course, this was the revised deadline we’re talking about.

As a Sydney Modern sceptic I’m not displeased to see this big, airy building finally open its doors. Now that it’s arrived we need to make the most of it. If I’m not quite ready to abandon my scepticism it’s because there are many questions about this enterprise that won’t be answered for another 6-12 months. Namely: Will people be coming back after they’ve taken a first look? And: Will the state (Labor?) government cheerfully shell out the extra millions of dollars required to run the place? Finally, there’s a big question mark over the new museum’s exhibition strategy, which seems to suggest that exhibitions are an unncessary distraction from large installations.

This week, the Herald published my first Sydney Modern response, which is virtually the only critical note the newspaper has ventured so far. In both the SMH and The Guardian, the coverage has been breathlessly enthusiastic, while the Murdoch press has remained a little more low-key.

The version of the article you’ll read on the SMH website is rather different to the one I wrote, having suffered numerous nips and tucks, which have the overall effect of softening the commentary. If you want to read the unexpurgated version it will be up on the jmcd site next Tuesday. The Herald version, admittedly, has the added attraction of me talking to camera for ten minutes and waving my arms about – if that’s an attraction.

I wouldn’t say I’m suffering from censorship, although the constant fiddling with copy is a pain. Space is certainly a consideration, but also an advanced sense of decorum – a concern about what can and can’t be said. It all tends in one direction: that it’s best to say only nice things about everybody and everything.

This is strangely at odds with the burgeoning trend among politicians and other public figures to say whatever they like, regardless of whether their statements are true or false, wildly exaggerated, plain silly, or demonstrably ignorant. Today they just make it up, spouting whatever comes into their heads with no expectation of being held to account. Shall we blame Donald Trump for the decay of truth? He certainly played a leading role, but the problem can’t be laid at the door of any one person. Scott Morrison did his best to enshrine strategic dishonesty as a guiding principle in Australian politics.

At the Sydney Modern media launch this propensity for making things up was on full display. Premier Perroquet, his Arts Minister, Benjamin Franklin, and various others, spouted palpable nonsense from the podium. They would have been laughed out of sight in Europe or London, but in Sydney the assembled media lapped it up. They assume the press are a bunch of shallow dupes, and the press lives down to expectations. Will we never grow up? We’re getting dumber when we should be getting smarter. Some people might think this is an unduly “negative” opinion, or not truly nice. By this stage we should be bilious with the excessive niceness of the Sydney Modern coverage.

There’s a lot more to be said about Sydney Modern but I’ll leave it for another occasion. The movie being reviewed this week is She Said, a journalistic procedural, in which two crusading reporters from the New York Times strive to bring supersleaze, Harvey Weinstein, to justice. We all know what happened, so the ending is never in doubt, but it’s fascinating to watch the way the story unfolds. Less satisfactory is the all-encompassing air of saintliness that surrounds the two reporters and the Times. It’s yet another example of niceness triumphing over plausibility.

The irony is that while well-meaning progressives fret about not saying anything mean about anybody, this week, the-artist-formerly-known-as Kanye West has been telling everybody about his admiration for Hitler. As one side of politics grows softer, the other grows ever more extreme. This is why we need to stop finding opinion so much sexier than truth.