The Sydney Opera House: Beauty, dignity and class have a price

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Even our most famous and prized landmarks have a price (Image via Pixabay, edited by Dan Jensen)

Dr Binoy Kampmark illustrates how the almighty dollar holds more value than aesthetics when it comes to our Opera House.

GEORGE ORWELL described advertising as the rattling of a stick in the swill bucket of society. Advertising men and women are really a form of propagandistic lice, feeding off the scalps of the gullible. Their main purpose in life is to promote the need of something that is needless, to make people desire something they do not want and embrace something they can do without. Hence, seduction. Hence, the seedy aftermath of a purchase gone wrong.

The Sydney Opera House, famed for finding its way into heated debates during the course of its history, has made another splash, this time in the advertising world. Why were those famous sails that form part of the building’s structure finally put to another commercial use, namely promoting the lucrative Everest horse race

That particularly unique building has not been exempt from being the front of advertising before. The political classes have generally been indifferent to its use and see nothing wrong with associating such a cultural symbol with what is merely seen to be another, albeit lucrative, industry. “I just don’t understand why we tie ourselves up in knots about these things,” came the bemused words of Scott Morrison, Australia’s latest prime minister, to the consistently fuming Alan Jones of 2GB. “It’s not as though they’re painting it on there, there are lights flashing up there for a brief period of time.”

There is something fitting to this new chapter in what has been a tormenting history in the uses of the Opera House. For one, the sails that have made the news of late did little to impress Joseph Rykwert, whose essay in the competition jury report assessing the design speaks of ‘a spirit of fancy’ having ‘little to do with imagination let alone method. Beyond the one blowsy overdramatisation it has few pleasures to offer.’ 

A prevailing philistinism and the power of the wallet prevented various aspects of the vision of its architect Jørn Utzon, from being realised. Had the Danish visionary had his full due, the building would have stopped the moment the roof was finished, with citizens able to walk to the terraced amphitheatre, sitting down in paused meditation over the plateau design to gaze over life and country. The building, in short, would have been statement and national symbol.

The duration of the project – some 16 years – was ruinous. New South Wales Premier Robert Askin lost patience, as did the NSW Minister for Public Works, William Davis Hughes. Bottom lines, not aesthetic genius, mattered most. The result was a sort of “overcooking”, as professor of architecture, Xing Ruan, suggested, with the result that acoustics are poor and calls for renovation frequent.

Indeed, a general sentiment took hold against both the building and the man behind the project. “From the turning of the first sod of soil,” opined a disgruntled W.W. Warden from Boorowa, “the whole scheme has been a colossal and disgraceful waste of public money.” The building was a “monument to irresponsible government spending” and a deprivation of money to “essential public services”.

Ironically enough, the building is now being used to promote more expenditure and attract revenue — of a different sort.

Cultural diets can trigger snobbery. It also breeds odd bedfellows. Andrew Bolt, for one, usually assails those he sees as champagne-swilling elites, socialist chardonnay operatives and commentators who hug the left of the political spectrum and speak down to the egalitarian yobbos. On this occasion, he found time to come to the defence of those refusing to allow the Opera House to become a platform for advertising horse racing.

“I mean, my father-in-law’s a bookie… I just don’t like gambling because horse racing really just is gambling on four hooves.”

In the Herald Sun, he acidly congratulated the NSW premier for having finally found a chance to force ‘the reactionaries who run Australia’s most beautiful building to use it for the purpose for which it was clearly intended.’

On The Bolt Report, he reiterated a scathing line:

‘Ads on the Opera House? Just shows what really counts is money. Not beauty. Not dignity. Not class.’

This chapter in the history of the Opera House does, however, reveal the sheer influence the shock jock industry has over hearts and minds in Australia’s parliaments, notably when it comes to certain politicians.

In NSW, Jones remains bully-in-chief, fulminator of the radio airwaves. The hectoring, huffing and self-righteous on-air harangue of the Opera House chief executive, Louise Herron, should have left a poor taste in the mouth of the New South Wales premier. Premier Gladys Berejiklian responded by showing an invertebrate’s coverage, her spine having gone on a lingering sojourn. Herron’s position against using the sails as a billboard as an affront to the Opera House’s policy was overruled.

Retaliating with their own outrage, protestors signed a petition organised by Mike Woodcock (311,311 had added their names by the end) and gathered outside the Opera House with devices of disruption.

The Chaser satirised the relationship between Jones and the premier in appropriate fashion, projecting a sign onto the Opera House sails with the statement ‘advertise here’ accompanied by the demagogue’s phone number. “Alan Jones called your boss,” said one of the satirist group to security in its posted video. “Gave her a big talking to. Say Alan called and it’s all fine.”

Racing NSW, finding that sort of publicity a bit much, decided to cancel a live barrier show for the Everest horse race. Results for the race will be beamed onto the sails on Tuesday evening. 

Even Jones had to reflect on his indignant sally, though he insisted he had not intended to demean Herron.

“I used some words in these programs about the Everest and the Opera House, and Louise, which in hindsight I now most regret.”

No such regrets have been expressed by the Government of New South Wales, which continues to keep up a fine tradition of placing buck before aesthetics; the dollar sign before the operatic show.

The rattling of a stick in the swill bucket of society has been wholeheartedly embraced.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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