Igniting the social imagination: what regional Australia can learn from Ancient Athens

In her terrific book Rusted Off! Why Country Australia is Fed Up, Gabrielle Chan describes the annual race day in her community, the NSW town of Harden Murrumburrah: ‘The races are a microcosm…. In a funny way, we cover most of the ministerial portfolios, traversing health, education, immigration, trade, Treasury, but we do it via the lives of our children, our parents, our businesses, our neighbours and our own lives.’ Anyone who lives in a small community will easily recognise this civic dynamic. As Chan observes, living in a country town is like life in an ant-farm or goldfish bowl – everyone and everything is on display – for good and bad. Personally, the capacity to see, and be seen by, my neighbour is one of the reasons I love living in a regional community. 

It seems to me that an effect of this higher visibility and knowing one’s neighbour personally is a heightened sense of mutuality. This mutuality affects our social interactions and can shift the artist’s perspective in fundamental ways too. Musician Heath Cullen (Acoustic Life of Sheds 2019) experiences a significant difference performing ‘somewhere where you know 70% of the room personally, compared to where you know 5% of the room personally’. Heath comes from Candelo, a small NSW town of just over 700 residents, so this ratio is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to propose that when the artist is personally known to the audience and vice versa, the social transaction between artist and audience is deeper and more complex. 

 

This idea of mutuality aligns with ‘horizontal’ concepts of citizenship, in which the mutual responsibility between citizens is accorded equal significance to the ‘vertical’ relationship between the state and the individual. When discussing contemporary citizenship in regional Australia, consider the rich culture in Athens, a city the size of Hobart, during the 5th Century BC under the statesman Pericles. The streets were cramped, squalid, noisy and randomly designed. Many of Athens’ most brilliant cultural figures were decidedly eccentric, opinionated people. And like the deep connection many Australians feel to their home town, according to the writer Eric Weiner ‘the ancient Athenians enjoyed a deeply intimate relationship with their city. Civic life was not optional, and the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public affairs: idiotes. There was no such thing as an aloof, apathetic Athenian.’ 

Another parallel is that Athenian cultural life was largely experienced outdoors and involved drinking a lot of wine. For Athenian citizens, physical and intellectual activity were symbiotic pursuits. Conducted amid the surrounding hillside landscape, Plato’s famous Academy – the forebear of the modern university – was a garden grove and fields where the body was exercised as much as the mind, both indivisible and balanced parts of the whole being. To the Greeks, the model human celebrated his brilliant mind within a strong, agile body. (And yes, it was always his – ancient Athens’s so-called ‘egalitarian’ citizenship did not include women or slaves.) The Athenians also loved to party. The city’s Dionysian festivals (named for the god of wine) exemplified Athens’ democratic principles, involving the whole city in public processions of local produce and competitive performances of tragedies and comedies judged by fellow citizens selected from every corner of the city. Among Pericles’ popular and enduring initiatives were public subsidies enabling poorer citizens to attend the theatre, and a super-tax on wealthy patrons to fund theatre productions. So popular were these public entertainments that Plato rather snobbishly ‘lamented that Athenians lived under a “theatrocracy” – rule by citizens who go to the theatre’. 

When examined in the context of their contribution to contemporary citizenship, these monumental cultural foundations radically transcend their historical interest. Put simply, citizen-residents and their big ideas made this relatively small city the cultural epicentre of the world. As BBC culture journalist Benjamin Ramm expressed in his article The X Factor of Ancient Athens: ‘The Athenian experiment is notable (for) the social imagination of the city itself, which empowered individuals to be both critical and creative. Everyday citizens became discerning judges, whose deliberations and verdicts challenge our preconceptions about popular culture’. 

it seems to me that this particular dynamic of ‘empowering the social imagination’ is a vivid connection between the ancient world and Ten Days on the Island.  Whether we’re gathering together for a welcome ceremony on a beach or for opera in a vineyard, for music in a tulip shed or a video work in a disused pulp mill, or even in the more conventional environment of a theatre or a concert hall, the driving force behind everything our Festival does is a quest to empower the social imagination in our communities. Why oughtn’t we imagine Tasmania as the cultural epicentre of the modern world?

Lindy Hume, July 2019

Image: Heath Cullen, Acoustic Life of Sheds 2019, courtesy of photographer Heath Holden and Big hART.