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Torn between art and activism

  • 27 April 2006

‘Art’ and ‘activism’ are now often paired together. The Two Fires Festival in the New South Wales country town of Braidwood in March celebrated their connections. Its focus was the late Judith Wright, one of Australia’s great artist-activists. But for all her pursuit of environmental and Aboriginal causes and belief in the importance of political engagement, Wright did not think of herself as an activist for most of her life. It was neither part of her vocabulary nor used as a term for her. The reasons are historical. When ‘activism’ emerged as a term in the early 1900s, it was used either to identify a brand of philosophy—a theory which assumed the objective reality and active existence of everything—or to describe any form of energetic action. It was only later, perhaps after World War II, perhaps only in the 1960s, that it became a term for a form of political activity, almost always on the left, dissenting, the stuff of a fervent minority, starting, it seems, with union activists and anti-war activists, and followed only later by environmental activists, Aboriginal activists and even judicial activists. The Coral Battleground, Wright’s book about the campaign to stop mining of the Great Barrier Reef which occupied her from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, fits this trajectory. She records how the advocates of protection of the reef began by being dismissed as ‘cranks’ who were ‘anti-progressive’. Before long they were known as ‘vocal’ and ‘obdurate protectionists’, a label they wore with pride. Soon they were known as ‘conservationists’. ‘Activist’ was not used at all. Wright’s one major use of it was in The Writer as Activist, a lecture delivered at the University of Western Australia in 1988. While she discussed many writers in that lecture, her prime subject was the early colonial poet Charles Harpur, whom she celebrated because of his political writing. She lauded Harpur for wanting to inspire colonial New South Wales ‘on its course towards democratic freedom’, his advocacy of universal suffrage, social justice and equal rights to education and opportunity. That lecture raises the question of whether the creation of art—whether poetry or prose, painting or photography—can be enough to make someone an activist. Is it sufficient to write with political intent, with persistence and passion, even with the intention of challenging attitudes and changing actions? I think that activism requires more direct social and political engagement—which made Wright an activist