The joy of abstract art

Yesterday I took another trip to Canberra and found myself in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

For a third time I visited 'Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now', one of my favourite exhibitions for some time. But I gave most of my attention to the NGA's current blockbuster 'Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London'.

IMG_20210328_153038

I don't enjoy the crowds - and often predictability - of blockbusters. But I saw it yesterday because I was there, and nobody passes up an easy opportunity to witness such a big event.

The Italian Renaissance painting was beautiful but didn't speak to me. The Grand Tour - the right of passage where wealthy young Englishmen would tour Continental Europe - seemed grotesque. But I very much liked some of the other parts of the exhibition including 'France and the rise of modern art'.

This section took me back to the Saturday morning art classes I did as a child at what is now the Albury TAFE. I have retained much of what I learned about this period from the teacher Mrs Smith, including the characteristics of the works of painters featured here, such as Monet, Gauguin and Cézanne (above).

IMG_20210329_082005

These painters departed from realistic depiction of landscapes and other objects in favour of more abstract forms, including broad brushstrokes and geometric shapes. I was fascinated by cacti as a child and Mrs Smith guided me to use broad brushstrokes to paint a Mexican desert landscape that currently hangs behind my bed (pictured).

The progression from realism to abstract in that show provided a good background for the Australian Women Artists' work in the next room (including Dorrit Black's cubist painting The Bridge from 1930, below).

IMG_20210328_160407

The works here held particular meaning for me, articulated here in a section of the exhibition notes:

'Abstract work is a great joy... If you can empty your mind of chatter, and just live with the work for a few minutes, you find this enormous release into a mode of thought that is beyond speech.'

Sexual empathy

Recently I was asked what I thought about consent, in light of the rape allegations that the Federal Government is being forced to confront.

It is difficult to answer this without preaching, and preachers on this subject often fall into hypocrisy.

But having said this, I have strong views about consent in sexual relations that I don't mind sharing.

Specifically I believe that the most important aspect of having sex is our reading of how the other person is feeling - at every moment of the encounter - and our physical and emotional response to this.

Indeed this sense of the other is integral to the pleasure we get from sex. If that's not the case for you, my advice is that it could be better to use a sex robot or a sex toy instead of a real person.

You may wonder where I get this from. It's straight from the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, which gives priority to respecting the person.

My view is that if we don't do this, we become utilitarian and start to think pragmatically about the sex act. We might consider that society is going to be better off if we lay aside that isolated consent transgression and hope that the other person gets over it. That is perhaps how the Government is playing the current allegations.

But while I believe the Catholic Church gets it right on uncompromising respect for the person, I think its leaders got catastrophically lost along the way when they decided that human reproduction had to be the basis of the Church's sexual ethics. That is, you can't have sex unless you're making babies.

To my mind, this does not sit easily with their more important principle of respect for the person, which has made its own contribution towards western society's valuing of sexual consent.

Old school ties

After being re-introduced by a mutual friend, I spent a very satisfying three hours on Friday visiting a fellow student from primary school. We've lived in the same part of Sydney for 30 years but hadn't seen each other in 40.

It made me think about our lost opportunities for meaningful human connection, but also the well-intentioned but unwanted attempts of third parties to have us reconnect with our contemporaries.

A few years ago, I was annoyed by the old boys association of my Melbourne high school. They'd kept including me in invitations to their Sydney dinner events, even though I'd demonstrated my disinterest by never attending.

I was uncomfortable with the upmarket venues, the dress codes, and the culture surrounding the occasions. I indicated this when I grumpily replied to them saying that I didn't own a dinner suit and the cost of the evenings exceeded my budget. I disingenuously implied that I would attend if they changed their tune, not expecting them to do so.

Subsequently I was floored when they began holding dinners at a lowbrow club in the city with minimum dress standards. I was impressed but nevertheless have not considered attending.

A year or so later I asked to be removed from the main mailing list of the association, explaining that receiving their newsletter was for me an occasion of 'retraumatisation'.

I didn't give any detail. They responded cordially and stopped sending the communications. I did not wish to enter into dialogue with them but simply remind them that school provided a mixed or negative experience for some.

I hoped that they would be challenged to consider my view that it was more likely than not that the old boys association - as it has traditionally operated - was most likely to reinforce rather than atone for that.

My high school was an elite all boys institution. Fairly or unfairly, I associate such institutions with the kind of entitled sexist alcohol-fueled exuberance that the Federal Government is currently being forced to face up to with the rape allegations.

I always felt alienated by that culture. That is why I have become increasingly selective when I revisit those times by meeting up with old school friends. Nevertheless it's worth the effort, as I discovered on Friday.

John Howard and the culture wars

Last week the ABC's Tom Switzer interviewed former Prime Minister John Howard ahead of today's 25th anniversary of his history-changing ascension to power in the 1996 Federal Election.

Listening to Howard's reflections, what struck me was his virulent opposition to an apology to the Stolen Generations. 'I didn't think one generation could apologise for the claimed misdeeds of an earlier generation.'

I've had a life-long curiosity about the 'claimed misdeeds'. As a child, I used to wonder about the Aboriginal people who vacated the land that became our farm outside Wodonga, less than 100 years before I was born.

I had one primary school teacher who taught us that there'd been tension between the original inhabitants of the land and the European settlers. But the prevailing attitude was that how the land got to be ours was not something we needed to be concerned about.

Over the years, education fed my curiosity and I came to regard the claimed misdeeds as a stain on our peace of mind about the land we inhabit, not unlike the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.

For now, I believe that the least we can do is to inform ourselves and support the acknowledgement of country that often takes place at the beginning of meetings and events.

I like to study the Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia, and currently I'm reading Henry Reynolds' Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and The Uluru Statement, which was published last month.

Reynolds, who is now 82, was a young historian when I was studying Australian history at Melbourne University. This was not long after his landmark book The Other Side of the Frontier was first published in 1981.

Reynolds' arguments were rebutted by Keith Windschuttle in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002), which is often credited with precipitating the 'history wars' and - by extension - the 'culture wars'.

Windschuttle was a contemporary of John Howard's at school. In 2006 Howard appointed him to the Board of the ABC, which is often recognised as Australia's premier cultural institution. Windschuttle's ideas have clearly fuelled Howard's skepticism regarding the earlier generation's 'claimed misdeeds' against the indigenous population. The culture wars - which are the major source of social and intellectual division in Australia today - have subsequently come to loom large in Howard's legacy.

Celebrating madness

There have always been euphemisms to describe people living with mental illness.

In a conversation a few days ago, a friend referred to a mutual acquaintance as being ‘on the spectrum’, as if he was not like the rest of us.

In the past, these people were called lunatics and ‘put away’ in an asylum. But more recently we have come to accept - and even celebrate - the reality that we are all mad or crazy to a degree.

Indeed the tag ‘Keep Newtown Weird’ has been used - with pride - to promote the part of Sydney where I live. My neighbourhood is a lunatic asylum!

The Scream

Yesterday the Guardian reported on an inscription - ‘Can only have been painted by a madman’ - on one of the versions of Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s famous work The Scream.

The article said that Munch is now thought to have made the marking himself after attending an 1895 meeting in which a medical student said the painting must be the work of someone who was mentally disturbed.

It quoted a curator’s belief that the inscription is ‘a combination of being ironic, but also showing his vulnerability’.

The tortured face of the person in the painting is one of the most iconic images of modern art. It is a famously eloquent depiction of the anxiety that is characteristic of the human condition.

Coincidentally, last week I watched British director Peter Watkins’ controversial 1974 docu-drama on Munch, which has been lauded as one of the best films about art of all time.

The legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman called it a ‘work of genius’, but the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK tried to suppress its distribution. It is remarkable that the ostracism of Munch by Norwegian polite society seems to have persisted from his time until the late 20th century.

His legacy is the now widespread acceptance that it’s OK to externalise our tortured emotional and psychological state, in art and other forms of expression. Munch’s stubborn refusal to keep his mental anguish under wraps ensured that his work would continue strike a chord with subsequent generations of citizens of the modern world.

Making Google and Facebook pay would break the Internet

I’ve been following the Federal Government’s media bargaining code legislation, which could have a profound effect on the circulation of news in Australia and beyond.

It seems the Government is on the side of media organisations in wanting to force Google and Facebook to pay for the right to provide the public with links to content that is not theirs.

I found myself torn. On the one hand I was wanting to see Google and Facebook broken up. I didn’t want them to become more powerful than the governments which are meant to regulate them on behalf of all of us.

But on the other, I strongly believe in the right of all Internet users to freely link to the content of other users’ websites.

Having formed the opinion that Google and Facebook were destroying the Internet by their dominance, I was dismayed - but eventually heartened - to see the inventor of the Internet Tim Berners-Lee apparently siding with them, in opinion articles and his submission to the Australian Parliamentary Committee.

Likewise ‘father’ of the Internet Vint Cerf told the Committee (admittedly on behalf of his current employer Google): ‘Links are the cornerstones of open access to information online; requiring a search engine (or anyone else) to pay for them undermines one of the fundamental principles of the Internet as we know it today.’

They were affirming the basis upon which I developed the CathNews website in 1999, which still publishes links and synopses of news stories concerning the Catholic Church.

We would publish snippets of the article, with the idea that we were sending the reader to the original source and not ‘stealing’ the media organisation’s content. Of course the length of the snippets was the key factor in determining whether the content was being stolen.

I never imagined that the Australian Government might one day require us to pay to publish links to other websites.

Sometimes other Internet users would write to me to ask permission to link to our content and I would reply quite definitively that there was no need to seek permission to publish links, because that was what the internet was all about.

I remember Rupert Murdoch asserting at some point many years ago, that websites - like ours perhaps - were stealing his content. He did not acknowledge that they were also delivering him a broader audience. That remains the sticking point of his battle with Google and Facebook today.

Banks that listen to their customers

When I was a child, my father took his business from the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) and switched to CBC Bank (now NAB).

The Bank of New South Wales had obviously done something to incur his displeasure. But the reason - which I have never known - was less important than the reality that he had a choice and exercised it.

Loyalty to banks was a big thing. My grandfather - and probably his father - had banked with the Bank of New South Wales. I understand that in those days, banks were generally loyal to their customers.

My father’s exercise of choice could have something to do with the fact that I have accounts with 15 different banks and use many of them for different purposes. In Australia we are lucky that fees are easy to avoid if you have the time to be vigilant.

Until now my favourite bank has been the neobank 86 400. This is mainly because it is not one of the ‘Big 4’ banks, all of which had their predatory behaviour exposed by the banking Royal Commission.

Neobanks are startups with the potential to spoil the party of the Big 4. They have proper banking licences but no branches, and therefore can afford to charge almost no fees and be innovative.

They are more in touch with their customers, and 86 400 has even adopted some features I have suggested.

I told them I’d like to avoid the 3% fee most banks charge for foreign transactions (it adds 3% to the cost of items such as a subscription to the New York Times). They said they’d have to absorb what it cost them, but they did remove the charge a few months later.

The bad news is that NAB announced last month that it has acquired 86 400. NAB has tried to head off competition from neobanks with its comparatively nimble UBank division. Now the scene is set for it to close 86 400, rejuvenate Ubank and further reduce competition in the banking sector.

86 400 is currently my ‘main’ bank, so I am likely to move my activity elsewhere. The most interesting candidate in my suite of bank accounts is Bank Australia, which positions itself as an ethical bank that is owned by its customers rather than profit hungry shareholders. It commenced in 1957 as the CSIRO’s staff credit union.

So far my research suggests the ethics claim is justified. Moreover it seems they listen to their customers.

A few months ago I urged them to adopt Fitbit Pay, so that their Fitbit wearing customers can make tap and go payments with their watches. A few days ago they sent an email announcing their cards are now compatible with Fitbit Pay.

Now I will see if they will come at moving even closer to the nimble and innovative neobanks by absorbing the 3% foreign transaction charge.

A trip to outback NSW

I'm spending a few nights with a friend in the historic river town of Wentworth, at the junction of the Darling and Murray rivers in the far south western corner of NSW.

As part of our 11 day rail and road journey, we were to stay in Mildura rather than Wentworth. But that was across the Victorian border, which closed after we booked and reopened following our arrival in Wentworth. As a result, we've had the experience of a small community instead of a large provincial city.

I enjoy a mix of spontaneous and planned activities. We've had a half day tour of the Lake Mungo indigenous archaeological site planned for several months, and we're doing that later today after heavy rains caused caused it to be postponed for 48 hours.

Perry Sandhills

On our first day here we visited Orange World, where a citrus farmer named Mario takes tourists on a tractor train tour through his orchard. Although he is good humoured and obviously enjoys performing as a tour guide, life is hard. He makes only 40 cents per kilo from his oranges, so he's gradually switching to mandarins, which earn $1 per kilo.

We were the only tourists on his train, which looked to have capacity for 60 or more. That is the story of our holiday. Due to COVID-19, the motels, restaurants and other attractions have been near empty. Yesterday we were alone in our exploration of the ancient Perry Sand Hills formation near the Murray River (pictured).

It has been a pleasure to give patronage to local business owners. Yesterday I bought a scarf from a Wentworth weaver. I didn't need it but will enjoy it for its comfort, style and memory of our time here.

Surprisingly there is some optimism. We met a restaurateur who is about to open an upmarket eatery in Wentworth and did not seem too worried about the uncertain times. I hope his instinct is correct.

2BH Radio Station Broken Hill

Our previous stop was Broken Hill, to which we'd travelled from Sydney on the weekly Outback Explorer train. The highlights for us included the Silly Goat cafe, which has coffee as good as any we've tasted in Sydney. They are so proud of it that they give their patrons a 'tasting notes' card.

But sadly the business is for sale. Times are tough also for the local commercial radio station 2BH, where we struck up a conversation with the advertising manager when we went to admire the unique studio building that was built to resemble a vintage radio set (pictured).

For most of the day 2BH networks shock jocks from Sydney but they have an engaging local breakfast program where you get to hear about power blackouts, extreme weather events and listener birthdays.

After Wentworth, we're driving through a few remote semi-desert towns including Balranald and Hay, before spending two nights in Griffith before our train journey back to Sydney on Thursday.

More images at http://photos.mullins.id.au

Deplatforming ourselves

The deplatforming of Donald Trump has brought this new word into prominence. Twitter, Facebook and several other social media platforms have effectively silenced the outgoing US president by suspending him from using their services.

While that is of course very significant, I’m more interested in the idea of deplatforming ourselves, which is sometimes referred to as social media ‘detox’.

I have a history of this. I was an early adopter of various forms of social media, but then just as quickly abandoned them as I became aware that they were taking over my life and exploiting my usage data.

I remember my Twitter consumption being at its peak when Julia Gillard successfully challenged Kevin Rudd for the Labor Party leadership in 2010.

Shortly afterwards, I realised that I was checking my Twitter feed whenever I had a spare moment. I marvelled at how well informed I’d become.

But I was also aware that my total wellbeing had taken a hit. I had to either moderate or effectively abandon my use of Twitter. I chose the latter, though I agree that moderation is always the best way to curb addictive behaviour.

About two years ago, I decided to work on improving my skills as a photographer by posting a photo a day on Instagram. I kept it up for a year but stopped because I didn’t like it that Instagram was part of the ecosystem of Facebook, which I’d strenuously avoided because I genuinely believed it was more evil than good.

In November 2019 I decided to remove Google from my life as far as possible. You can’t do that completely if you own an Android phone as I do. But you can try.

I googled ‘no more Google’ and found a website listing alternatives to Google. Now my googling days are over and I use the DuckDuckGo search engine and many other services that do not send my usage data to Google or Facebook.

I’ve been a constant user of Fitbit health and fitness monitoring devices for nearly six years. So I was dismayed when Google purchased Fitbit a year or so ago. I could see Google monitoring my weight and trying to sell weight loss products to me whenever it sees I’ve gained a kilo or two.

An email from the Fitbit CEO last week promised that wouldn’t happen. But the Australian regulatory body the ACCC looks like it will only be able to achieve a moratorium on such predatory practice for a limited period of time. It is about to rule after receiving submissions from members of the public including myself.

If I count podcasts, I’m still as addicted to social media as anybody I know. This morning I decided to switch off my podcast feed while I was at the gym and give my full and satisfied attention to my body’s reaction to the weights I was lifting.

The era of colonial exploitation has never ended

Yesterday I watched a 1970s fantasy documentary that sets ‘backward’ Filipinos against the more technologically advanced and superior Western nations.

Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare was Sunday’s film of the day on my favourite streaming platform Mubi.

In a whimsical semi-autobiographical style, the jeepney (mini-bus) driver in a small village is mesmerised by the American dream of space travel and hi-tech industrialisation. He attends a Scouts convention where he meets a rich American who promises to take him to the US, but they first spend a year in Paris working for his bubble gum machine business.

Jeepney Driver

It’s there that he gets to identify with the traditional street market vendors, who are losing out to the spread of supermarkets. He becomes an advocate for pushback against the consumer capitalism that has so thoroughly exploited his own country. The Philippines was formally an American colony between 1898 and 1946, and informally for much longer.

The film took me back to my three month visit to the Philippines in the summer of 1983-84, where I stayed in villages with people who aspired to be part of the modern world even though they had been impoverished by the self-serving actions of the wealthy nations and their investors.

I remember being disturbed and perplexed by people rotting their teeth drinking Coke and Pepsi and feeling good about it.

I spent time with the Mindanao Development Centre, which was involved in social analysis to lobby on behalf of the poor people who were losing their livelihoods to the multinational corporations. I also visited an Australian priest - Father Brian Gore - who was jailed for emboldening sugar industry workers to assemble and fight for their rights.

I remained interested in the effect of colonialism and neocolonialism on the wellbeing of people in poorer countries. I remember travelling through Java in 2014 and visiting the museum of the 1955 Bandung Conference that sought to unite developing nations against the stranglehold of the developed world.

Then on Saturday, I bought East Timor coffee at my local Carriageworks market in Sydney. I talked with the stall holder about my work with Caritas in East Timor in 1999. She told me about establishing the development aid projects which my coffee purchase was helping to sustain.

But while individuals and small organisations from the developed world continue to do what they can for those in developing countries, the behaviour of governments is as shameful as ever.

We have the continued slashing of aid budgets. There is also the aggressive action by our Federal Government in prosecuting the whistleblower Bernard Collaery, who exposed our government’s 2004 bugging of the East Timor cabinet offices in an effort to gain an unfair advantage during negotiations for a petroleum and gas treaty.