The late, great Australian art critic Robert Hughes once complained that “Crocodile Dundee” is still regarded by many Americans as a work of social realism. A rhetorical exaggeration, of course, but he had a point. As an Australian living in New York, I’ve long been puzzled at the dominance of charming clichés about the country as a sun-dappled frontier. Advertising campaigns still promote the “ocker” image — Australian for redneck — depicting beer-swilling, happy-go-lucky folk barbecuing steak at the beach.
I protest to friends in vain that Australia has a lot more to offer than rampant hedonism and cuddly koalas. Its cities are wildly cosmopolitan, I argue, and even, dare I say, sophisticated. Its museums are packed, its cultural life raucous, and endless arts festivals clutter the social calendar.
The gulf between image and reality is most extreme in Sydney, my hometown, which is renowned for its Rio-like natural beauty. It’s also known for the Sydney Opera House, an instantly recognizable piece of architecture — though few Americans seem to consider that opera is actually performed there.