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Home Culture Appreciation by Liam Pieper review – a tart satire of cancel culture and the art world

Appreciation by Liam Pieper review – a tart satire of cancel culture and the art world

by Tunae

Forget your 15 minutes of fame. “In the future,” writes Liam Pieper, “everyone will be cancelled for fifteen minutes.” In a country of tall poppy cutters, that’s not a seismic cultural shift. We’re a censorious bunch; hubris has long been weaponised here. But the locus of power is shifting. New cohorts have the means and hunger to scold. Our cultural hierarchies – and cruelties – are no longer predictable. That is the true terror of “cancel culture”: unfamiliar rules.

Pieper’s new novel, Appreciation – a quip-witted comedy – begins with a grand reputational detonation. Our doomed chap is Oliver Darling (Oli), a heavily marketed and highly collectible “queer artist from the bush”, who peddles a kind of “affable, self-effacing good-blokery” (think David Bromley meets Trent Dalton with a coke habit). “Oli’s entire schtick,” Pieper explains, “involves switching between stories of Aussie resilience and hardship, as celebrated in his art, and ribald, not-quite-obscene anecdotes that titillate suburban audiences without quite offending them”.

On the tail end of a bender, Oli “crash-tackles” his career with a televised rant about the “butch fakery” of Aussie myth-making. Wheeling from the frontier wars to Gallipoli to the war crimes of Uruzgan – via a detour through interest rates – Oli manages to offend the left and the right in equal and emphatic measure. In a world of malignant division, he is a rare (some might say mythical) figure of unity: a bipartisan pariah.

There are unmistakable echoes here of the real-world persecution of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the Sudanese-Australian writer and community advocate who was hounded out of the country for daring to post about Australia’s offshore detention horrors on Anzac Day. Pieper takes that moment of venomous bullying and replays it as vaudeville. It’s a glib transposition. We all know how differently Abdel-Magied would have been treated had she been a “good bloke” from the bush.

Oli, we are told, has said “the one thing that can get a rich white guy cancelled”. That’s quite the claim, as Donald Trump sails towards another presidential nomination, Louis CK sells out stadium tours, Elon Musk proudly re-platforms neo-Nazis and Andrew Tate continues to poison the minds of boys the world over. What would it really take?

Even with a liberal dusting of cocaine, it’s hard to imagine Oli’s tirade requiring much more damage control than a hungover apology and a weekend or two in rehab. Bloviating under the influence doesn’t get you cancelled in this country; it gets you a nice, comfy spot on the back bench. There’s the question of Oli’s queerness, but Pieper’s novel isn’t particularly interested in the cultural mechanics of opprobrium, or unpicking the nuances of Aussie homophobia. Oli’s public implosion is just a zeitgeisty way to kick-start an entirely different kind of plot.

With his career in tatters, the price of Oli’s work plummets, leaving investors fuming and some dangerous debts unpaid. And so unfurls a secondary tale of the shadow economy of art collection: a world of cultural gatekeepers, cashed-up gangsters and stage-four wealth-hoarders. Pieper gives his characters titles rather than names here. The Baron. The Scion. The Miner. The Paperman. The Money.

As a satirical art-world caper, Appreciation is cleverish, pacy and tart. “Anyone smart enough to make bank in Australia is too canny to let that money go back into the schools, hospitals and roads of nation building,” Pieper writes. “Not when it’s cheaper to put a Nolan in the entry hall.”

The problem – tellingly – is Oli. A narcissistic nuisance. With his big mouth and ratcheting drug habit, he’s in the way of his agent’s attempts to keep “the Oli Darling industry” afloat, and is sent off to write his memoirs with the help of a ghostwriter (an industry Pieper knows well). But Oli is also solidly in the way of the story; he’s by far the least interesting character in Pieper’s novel, and yet we are stuck with him – splashing about in the wading pool of his psyche – while the real action unfurls in the quiet back rooms of art galleries and at high-society luncheons (“like lunch, but later on and in a higher tax bracket”).

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What we get instead is Oli’s drawn-out backstory: a queer-trauma trope that’s so notoriously tired that Pieper turns it into a punchline (“the whole ‘bury your gays’ thing … it’s kind of problematic”). Pieper uses that tactic often: acknowledging a cliche just as he invokes it, from sour-hearted art critics to sour-hearted country towns. As Pieper introduces Oli’s ghostwriter – the only substantial woman in the novel – he writes: “We should not objectify her by fixating on [her] beauty.” But two lines later he delights in describing her face as: “The face that Gauguin imagined when he grew so horny he sailed for Tahiti.” It’s the have-your-cake-and-eat-it school of satire; the mistaken belief that a knowing wink transforms narrative laziness into some kind of sly metafictional irony.

Pieper has clearly had a great deal of fun conjuring Oli and his “angry masculine impasto” – this gormless fool of a man who makes his money critiquing toxic masculinity, but has absolutely no idea what the phrase means (“For me, being an artist is a lot like being a mechanic, only instead of cars, the machines I work with are beauty and catharsis”). The authorial pleasure is palpable, but never infectious. And to try to extract some tortured tale of redemption from Oli’s past misses Pieper’s own point about the art industrial complex. It doesn’t matter who Oli is. “Why is one painting worth more than another?” Pieper asks. “Because some prick with money decided it is.”

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