Projecting Nationhood: The Australian Provincialism Problem Revisited
Since Terry Smith’s influential article ‘The Provincialism Problem’ (1974), Australian art scholars have deliberated over his charge that Australia is subject to “an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values”, modelled on perceived ‘centres’ of the West such as New York and London. This ongoing polemic has suggested that those centres, to which Australia is strongly anchored, exert an ever-present force despite the postmodern turn to the global village and the deconstruction of Western hegemony through postcolonial discourse. However, a recent shift has occurred in attitudes about provincialism. In 2009, writer Ian McLean claimed Euro-American hegemony now appears as an “impediment to the emerging globalising discourse of modernity” present in Australian art; a sentiment echoed in art historian Rex Butler’s revision of Australian art history. Butler contends that nation-building in contemporary Australian art occupies an ambivalent position, outweighed by a “new global, but unrepresentable condition” that is neither for nor against Eurocentrism; a condition that has the possibility of negating Smith’s original conclusion of an inescapable condemnation to provinciality. While these authors examine Australian nationhood within fine art practices, the dialectic can extend to other disciplines such as film. Although film possesses different systems of production, distribution and consumption, it is perhaps one of the most salient forces in international projections of Australian national identity. Therefore, this paper will reflect on developments of the provincialism problem through the analysis of Australia’s top two grossing international films, Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Australia (2008). Specifically, I will speculate on the projection of nationhood in both films, demonstrating the cinematic shift from the vernacular ‘Ozploitation’ style employed in Australian New Wave cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, to the homogenous Hollywood style of more recent examples. I will argue that, paradoxically, this shift counters the progression in attitudes about the provincialism problem in Australia today.
CONTACT: Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Annual Conference 2011