Australian nationalism and the cultural cringe

"...that in any nation, there should be an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article. The devil of it is that the assumption will often be correct. The numbers are against us, and an inevitable quantitative in­feriority easily looks like a qualitative weakness, under the most favourable circumstances—and our circumstances are not favour­able."

A.A. Phillips  The Cultural Cringe  Meanjin Volume  IX, Number 4, 1950

Read the full essay

Born in Melbourne in 1900, A.A. (Arthur Angell) Phillips, who coined the term “cultural cringe” was educated at Melbourne Grammar, the University of Melbourne and Oxford University. He taught at Wesley College, Melbourne and died in 1985.

In a 1950 copy of Meanjin, Phillips used the term ‘cultural cringe’ to define the penchant for Australians to see their artists and writers’ work as inferior to anything from overseas, Britain and the United States in particular. As a consequence, many Australians in the cultural field spent time or moved overseas. As a society, we are still arguing about this topic.

Australia in the 1940s was struggling to find its own national Identity. In post-colonial terms, it was still young. Faced with the horror of World War II, some groups of writers and artists looked to Aboriginal mythology and artwork to provide a new culture that differentiated it from old Europe. Literary publications and movements like Meanjin, Angry Penguins and the Jindyworobaks were all trying to forge a new sense of nationalism, which, in their minds was a positive step away from Britain. We can now see their misguided lack of actual consultation with first nations people as problematic, even if their thoughts were radical in the society in which they lived.

“It is obvious that we have not yet fashioned an Australian culture, with a tradition which is a ground of hope, and a goal which will sanctify our traditions… Culture…is a people's continuing response to its own environment—not to conditions of another time and place, however great and ennobling. We cannot fly with borrowed plumes nor run with artificial legs. Our literature and art in all its forms, like our ways of living, our politics and our religion, are vital elements in that complete whole we call culture. It must express our character, and not another's. It must be our response to Australia the expression and means of our living together in our own land.” 

A.P. Elkin Steps into the Dreamtime Meanjin Volume 2, Number 2, 1943 pp15-16

"Almost from its inception, one of Meanjin's chief aims has been to record the writer's reaction to, and interpretation of, the most disparate and confusing cultural environment faced by any generation of Australians. It was hoped that Meanjin would constitute a kind of ganglion embedded in our cultural life. There was a need for a Journal to record the varied phenomena of our literary and art activities, to provide a centre of interest and stimulus, and to help close up the “wide open spaces" of our self-knowledge. It was not asked of our writers that they should be sociologists, but it was suggested that they should, to some extent any way, study the life and living of this Australia somewhat along the lines of the social scientist, and thus make their imaginative contribution in prose and verse."

Clem Christesen Australian Books, March, 1947 pp143-4

"If Meanjin has been a hardy perennial among cultural magazines, this is partly because it has been in a state of more or less perpetual revolution. Most literary magazines have a distinct life-cycle; they start with a rush of enthusiastic idealism, but gradually peter out as their stable of contributors becomes ossified and their views predictable. Meanjin, by contrast, has provided a forum for several generations of Australian writers (a literary generation being far shorter than a biological one). Much of the credit for this must go to Clem Christesen, who founded the magazine in Brisbane in 1940 and remained at its helm until 1974. It was the breadth of his vision, and his sheer bloody-minded determination, that kept the magazine alive against substantial odds. Under his guidance Meanjin not only served as a training-ground for successive generations of Australian poets and novelists, but also promoted interdisciplinary intellectual work long before the term came into currency. Perhaps most importantly, at a time when Australia was still pretending to be a British island that had somehow been misplaced off the coast of Asia, Meanjin acted as a vital link with other cultural traditions, not only publishing significant works by writers from other countries, but also providing a much-needed space for the work of Australian writers of non-British origin."

The Temperament of generations : fifty years of writing in Meanjin Carlton, Vic. : Meanjin/Melbourne University Press, 1990. p. ix