Interview with Robert WHYTE
the ephemera interviews
In this series of interviews artists directly involved in ARIs and artist-run culture 1980- 2000 speak about the social context for their art making and provide insights into the ephemera they produced or collaborated on during this period. Artist ephemera includes artworks, photocopies, photographs, videos, films, audio, mail art, posters, exhibition invites, flyers, buttons and badges, exhibition catalogues, didactics, room sheets, artist publications, analogue to digital resources and artist files.
Robert, thanks for your time today, tell me in some detail about the Poets Union (Qld) how and when and why it came about?
In retrospect I can see the Poets Union was 1978’s outbreak of a continuous Brisbane underground 1968-1989, in a time of increasingly conservative and reactionary Queensland Governments. What was special in 1968 was the coming of age of the baby boom. Huge numbers of young people were radicalised by the anti-war movement opposed to our involvement in Vietnam. Nationalism and patriotism in both Australia and America was fading, as television broadcast uncensored war news in graphic detail. It was not only a moral objection to an ugly, seemingly senseless war we didn’t understand, it was also self interest. We didn’t want to get drafted, have our long hair cut off, go to a scary jungle and die.
Through this period we saw a rapidly widening gulf between young and old, especially in Brisbane. The strange political circumstance of Queensland, where a solid Labor majority was blown apart by the ALP’s internal split in 1957, left the Country Party and Liberal Party unassailable for the next 33 years. It was an unprepared, fearful, but self righteous and authoritarian conservative government, increasingly conflating young people with reds under the beds, the yellow peril and (probably the greatest sin of all) sex before marriage. Not to mention trippy, pot-infused psychedelia which they thought must be an outbreak of contagious mental illness which had to be eradicated. The Country Party and Liberal Party reign was not that of a connected, natural government. It was an accident of Labor’s political suicide. It had no sense of society — in fact it ruled in fear of it.
Essentially, the conservative Queensland government was a rural political gerontocracy, supported by white-shoe real-estate salesmen, tree-clearing graziers, holier-than-anyone churchgoers, and brown-paper-bag business leaders. They were isolated in a simplistic world of exploitation and profit. They were graduates of the school of hard knocks and had no idea their suppression of youthful protest would create a generation of activists.
Bit it did. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. Thus a strong counterculture emerged, not to threaten the ruling elite, but to live life to the full in spite of them. For me, the timeline of the underground culture runs something like this: FOCO 1968, HARPO 1971, Myopia 1972, 4ZZ 1975, Semper 1978, Time Off 1979.
The slash-and-burn “progress or perish”, reef mining, sand-mining, anything-mining government was peculiarly Queensland. Deeply racist and homophobic, this woman’s-place-is-in-the-home government was tentative at first, but suppressing anti-war and anti-apartheid protestors emboldened them behind the bullying bluster of their new Lutheran leader, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The key moment was the Springbok tour in 1971, The State of Emergency giving the police special powers to deal with ratbag long-haired protesters was welcomed by conservative Queenslanders. They liked the strong man leader getting those hippy pot-smoking students off the streets and into the back of a paddywagon.
The tenor of the times was so strange, crossing the border into Queensland was not just a journey back in time, but also to a shift sideways to bizarro-world. The banning of schoolbooks like “Catcher in the Rye” made people everywhere else think Queensland was just plain weird.
Meanwhile the babies who had boomed were now at University. Unbelievably, southern newspapers like Nation Review were allowed across the borders. The long, somnambulist regime of the Liberals in Canberra was falling apart and 1969 brought Whitlam’s collective of irrepressible talent to within a few seats of victory.
In South East Queensland the no-fun conservatives hated young radicals and anything they were involved in. 1967, the summer of love, was something to be feared and kept out. But somehow it was creeping in. Television! Newspapers! Radio! Books! All elements of sedition.
Backed by a compliant police force ready to do the government’s bidding to suppress radicals, feminists, nature conservationists and communist ratbags, the conservative government’s pressure cooker affect on a growing youth demography caused the usually disparate streams of anti-establishment writing, visual art, theatre, film and music to coalesce into a cohesive counter culture. The fight to save Fraser Island and the Great Barrier Reef, anti-vietnam marches and anti-apartheid protests brought together dissidents of all ages. This was serious.
But kids also want to have fun.
There was no fun to be had in Brisbane, especially on a Sunday night, so the kids created their own.
FOCO, named after the Foco revolutionary cells of Che Guevara and Régis Debray, was a collective of signed-up members. It was created, ironically, by the laws against charging admission to venues on Sunday nights (the Christians’ holy-day). The organisers (the Trade Unions’ Eureka Youth League and student radicals) got around the restrictions by signing up each patron at the door with a 30c membership of FOCO. The venue was Trades Hall, at the junction of Turbot and Upper Edward Streets Brisbane, transformed into a fusion of red-and-black politics, speeches, theatre, rants, poetry readings, folk music, visual art, film screenings and other seditious activities going on in several rooms, the biggest room becoming a rock music venue featuring the likes of Mick Hadley and the Colored Balls, Lobby Lloyd and The Wild Cherries, and The Living End.
I was at high school. In 1968 I was in Grade 8. In the following years, mostly 1971 and 1972, I marched in anti-war moratoriums and was one of those charged by police down the hill outside the Tower Mill during anti-apartheid protests opposing the South African Springboks tour, a schoolboy being chased through Albert Park by uniformed thugs.
I knew of three main sites of radicalism. FOCO at the Trades Hall, the Red and Black Bookshop in Elizabeth Arcade, and the Student Union building at the University of Queensland in St Lucia.
These places are where seeds of the Queensland efflorescence of the Poets Union were planted, coming to flower and fruit in 1978.
But first, back to high school. The student magazine “Myopia” was created by the 1971 year 12 cohort at Brisbane Boys Grammar. In 1972, when they had moved on and I was in year 12 I edited several issues, expanding the distribution and contributor base to public and private schools across Brisbane, making it a “collective” and turning it into a mixture of radical protest and a forum for our own writing and art.
At the same time there was a similar magazine called H.A.R.P.O. — coincidentally an acronym for “How About Resisting Powerful Organisations” but actually called Harpo just because it was a funny name. It was a FOCO spin-off. Harpo also put on “Harpo’s Nite Out” featuring a combination of political theatre and live music, notably Mackenzie Theory.
Throughout this time I was torn between two mutually-exclusive dreams – or conflicting personalities. One was the romance of the individual artist-genius (my model here was James Joyce, author of “Portrait of the artist as a young man”, “Ulysses”, and “Finnegans Wake”). The other was the being “leader-member” of a creative collective, like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Black Panthers or the Chicago Seven.
An example of this tension and vacillation was my post “Myopia” efforts including a full size “Myopia” parody in which I wrote all the articles, poems, essays and reviews (of ficticious books by ficticious authors).
I have been struggling with these opposing forces all my life and neither of them fit. On one hand the isolated artist engaged on enormous, obscure, multilayered experimental writing projects is … well … isolated.
On the other hand, no matter what the organisation, even an artist-run collective, sooner or later you find out it has rules. And to be frank, I’d rather be a Dadaist than a Trotskyist.
In 1976 I was living on a Young Writer’s Fellowship from the Australia Council. It was enough money to live comfortably and write full time for a year. This was the Joycean episode. It was isolating.
This continued in the following years, during which I amassed a number of manuscripts of incomprehensible “word salads” which were starting to be published around the world in small-press poetry magazines, and even in mainstream media including “The Bulletin”.
Peter Anderson knew about the Poets’ Union, a supposedly national body without a Queensland branch. He suggested we start a branch in Brisbane. Typically for Brisbane, the Queensland Poets’ Union was not restricted to poets. The creative culture of Queensland, especially Brisbane, was still an underground conglomerate. Everyone knew everyone else. 4ZZ (later adding the third Z) was a genuine local media, cementing this social cohesion.
By now FOCO was long gone, crushed by an ex-Special Branch Officer Liberal MP, and Harpo had morphed into several theatre companies and individuals off on their own pursuits.
FOCO, Harpo and now Triple Z shared personnel devoted to creating an alternate mainstream, the lifeblood of which was Rock’n’Roll. This was the mise-en-scene into which the Poets’ Union could enter, stage left.
Peter Anderson was doing shifts at Triple Z. I am not sure whether he read out poems as part of his programs, but he probably did. It is noteworthy to mention Triple Z’s studios were on the UQ campus adjacent to the activities centre where pottery classes were held alongside screenprinting workshops. Pottery was not overtly political, but screenprinting was the medium of the political poster, and the canvas of the rock gig.
We sensed poets in other places were primarily interested in poetry. Hmmmm. Not the case in Queensland. There were a few established “poets”, but the young (ourselves included) had reverted to the troubadour tradition, writing songs for local bands, performing anti-poetry, sonic poetry, concrete poetry and un-poetry. It was FOCO and Harpo reborn with different people.
It was self promotion. The pressure cooker of conservatism and official corruption aided by the gerrymander, an unfair electoral system to prevent populous places getting their fair share of political representatives, skewed in favour of Queensland’s fervently Christian rural rump, had the effect of turning radical and creative young people into rock stars, at least within their own subculture which, as we have pointed out, was a critically massive conglomerate, not to mention a storkful of baby boomers.
It gave a “collective” stamp to individualistic self-aggrandisement, innocent enough, but hardly socialist. It created a stage anyone could strut and fret their hour upon. It was a tale told by an idiot. It was fun.
We got quite a lot of media for “poetry” and “performance”. We were in fact introducing “performance poetry”. You could put on a poetry reading, like the later open-mic stand-up comedy gigs, and because of 4ZZZ you could get an audience.
You could get a liquor license and sell beer.
Poetry elsewhere, despite the bleeding edge of political performance poetry in Balmain and Brunswick pubs, was essentially the domain of linguistic artisans, knowledgeable and respectful of the traditions, whether they be Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley … or Ginsberg, Ferlingetti and Corso. In Brisbane (another planet) it was a Czechoslovakian stew of mostly non-poets producing fanzines about themselves.
It was, despite this, inclusive and insanely ambitious. Its publications were not the small Gestetner runs lucky to get to 300 units, they were mass circulation newspaper liftouts.
The first Poets’ Press, a publishing phoenix arising from the Poets’ Union’s still warm ashes, was a 4-page tabloid centre-spread in the Orientation edition of “Time Off”, a mainstream magazine venture modelled on London’s “Time Out”. This was to morph into the successful but doomed quarterfold magazine serving as a “what’s on” and review vehicle. Doomed because it was (under the hood) the university newspaper Semper Floreat, (Latin: “May it always flourish”) and surely its business was students at UQ, not a what’s-on guide for Brisbane youth culture. It flourished, but not forever at UQ. It soon went commercial and Semper returned to its cloister of safe St Lucia radicalism.
The “editorial” of the first Poets’ Press was quick to point out that while most poetry was restricted to slim, short-run, vellum-bound volumes of polished and pithy phonemes –– Poets’ Press was an edition of 15,000.
And so it went on. More echoes of FOCO and Harpo.
But what became of the Queensland Branch of the Poets’ Union? We were like any other volunteer collective, organising gigs and publications. The membership was made up, at least in part, of the movers and shakers of the day. Connections were made, sparking the origins of the Artworkers Union (later Alliance) and Eyeline Arts Magazine.
Above all, the Poets’ Union’s agenda was to be in the counter-culture mainstream, getting mass circulation exposure for “writing as art”, a notion which fell on deaf ears and (perhaps for the better) disappeared without a trace.
This goes back to the problem with poetry. A mainstream artform once, where clever phrasing was combined with traditional rhyming and methodical metre, it was now a backwater of (no-doubt mostly) talented writers who chose to set out their perceptive and quirky prose with bad line breaks. Taking up a whole page when a mere paragraph would do. There were no standards and no rules and the right of the “auteur” to “self expression” in print was sacred and noble. It was in lockstep with much of modern art which was expressed in a cloud of buzzwords only the cogniscenti could decipher. It was a tribal collusion of merging self interests. Yet it was part of the buzz that gave the Go Betweens and the Saints confidence to feel like global rather than parochial players.
Thanks Robert, tell me a little more about your own writing and art practice at this time, during the mid to late 1970’s you had a focused engagement with the avante garde, with mail art and so on? Did Queensland’s socio political setting influence this artistic tendency?
Queensland back then was difficult to talk about as a State. It had an identity (or at least State boundaries so we know where it was) but its bizarre geography made coherence impossible. Queenslanders can’t agree on daylight saving (because days in Mt Isa don’t even remotely resemble days in Brisbane) and it seems they can’t agree on anything else either. I lived in Townsville in 1974-75 and 1988 and found it not vastly different from Brisbane. But I am sure the same can’t be said for Roma or Winton.
The concept of “State of Origin” is illuminating. “Let us be represented by players you poached for your southern teams. No, they don’t live or work here, because we haven’t grown up yet, but they are ours.” This has a strange feeling of “feed lots” growing stock for the “proper” States. Queensland, where you can get “organically grown young men, picked fresh from the fields”.
A most peculiar history
Queensland began, while still part of the colony of New South Wales, as the only white Australian settlement to exclude free settlers. The Moreton Bay penal colony was made up exclusively of convicts and soldiers. It was a prison for the “worst of the worst”, double offenders — not only having the gall to steal a rich man’s spoon in England, but doing it again in Australia.
Brisbane itself, named after a Governor-Astronomer, was a peculiarly inappropriate place for a town, on a barely navigable river, so lacking in key resources (necessary to build prisons and windmills) they burned hundreds of tonnes of live oysters to obtain lime.
It has to be said that compared to the rest of Australia, Queensland is conservative. Two percent more than in the southern states vote for the conservative side of politics in federal elections. It has enclaves of fundamentalist Christians and born-agains. Queenslanders probably still go to church.
Yet Queensland’s history is full of paradoxes.
It saw the first Labor government in the world in 1899 (when Queensland towns were seething with chartist lefties and even arch-conservatives were reading Marx).
It saw one of the biggest worker protests in the country ever when members of the Australian Tramway Employees Association were dismissed when they wore union badges to work on 18 January 1912. They then marched to Brisbane Trades Hall where a meeting was held, with a mass protest meeting of 10,000 people held that night in King George Square. On the second day of the strike over 25,000 workers marched from the Brisbane Trades Hall to Fortitude Valley and back with over 50,000 supporters watching from the sidelines.
Brisbane was the first place in the world to foment the second wave of feminism, when in 1965, Merle Thornton and her friend Rosalie Bognor chaining themselves to the public bar of the Regatta Hotel (where women were prohibited from drinking).
In 1972 the “Bjelkemander” was used as the basis for the May election. Bjelke-Petersen emerged victorious as Premier despite his party only receiving 20% of the vote, a smaller percentage than the Liberals (22.2%) and Labor (46.7%). Due to the Bjelkemander the Country Party won 26 seats. Combined with the Liberals’ 21 seats, this gave the Coalition 47 seats to Labor’s 33, consigning Labor to opposition even though it won far more actual votes.
Farce forward (pun intended) to…
Brisbane in 1978
In Queensland, three years after Malcolm Fraser and John Kerr had steamrolled the brief hope of Whitlam’s progressive government, there was general mood of anger and despair. It had been a brief shining moment, never mind the economy. Whitlam had introduced grants to artists, even Queensland artists (shock horror) and infiltrated Queensland with progressive ideas by funding community arts, resulting in agit-prop street theatre satirising the fat cats in George Street.
For artists and writers in 1978, having had a glimpse of what life could be like under a progressive government, it was particularly galling. Being in touch with the world and responding to the world’s ideas was not admired here. Queensland was like the Vichy Government, a vacuous convenience sheltering an illegitimate usurper. Joh famously said: “We are not Australians, we are Queenslanders!”
As young artists we had been emerging from the underground, encouraged by the federal sea change, but now abandoned before we had been passed the baton. In this climate, we folded back in on ourselves mumbling the mantra of “make do.” The question for young artists, writers, and musicians was not how to succeed, it was how to survive.
Our generation still had access to books (a big mistake?) and feeling quite anti-establishment, tried to find resonance in anti-establishment activity elsewere, groups and movements which could be called ‘avante garde’. We had been to the State Library, then in William Street, and read through the 800s in the Dewey Decimal system. We had seen new wave cinema at the National Film Theatre in Creek Street. We watched Bunuel films at Schonell Theatre. We read Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. We wanted to be part of the modern world, even though we didn’t understand the appeal of Rothko (and maybe we still don’t).
What about America? Were they avant-garde? For some reason we didn’t think of American art as particularly anti-establishment, it looked more like a “new mainstream” of the privileged, simply intent on cutting ties with Europe. We preferred their sources and influences, Dadaism and Surrealism, Fauvism, Futurism and The Bauhaus, Klee, Kandinsky, Schwitters and Chagall.
Perhaps we were in a state of “ideal innocence” – being able to make judgements across the whole timeline of global art and literature, removed somewhat from the enticing allure of the New York art market and Sorbonne’s intellectuals (influencing Sydney and Melbourne). As The Go-Betweens put it:
Karen yeah-yeah, Karen yeah-yeah
Helps me find Hemingway
Helps me find Genet
Helps me find Brecht
Helps me find Chandler
Helps me find James Joyce
She always makes the right choice
We managed a few sparkles in the shadows, but it was all rather furtive. What we managed to do did not threaten the mainstream, nor did it threaten the alternative-aspirational who were seeking ways to be accepted by the Queensland Art Gallery and other venues with an openly modernist stream intertwined with their mostly conservative outlook. At the height of the Poets Union fifteen minutes of fame, I was interviewed on ABC radio, trying to explain performance and concrete poetry, I delivered as an example an outrageously inflected alphabet: “A, B, C, D…” The journalist called me that afternoon in tears saying the tape was damaged and the interview was lost. (Code for “we couldn’t run this in a million years”.) I didn’t mind, it was off the top of my head and scrappy. It would have much better if I had rehearsed it.
Anyway, we did stuff. Other people did stuff. We connected. It was entertaining, but it was not what Queensland needed for redemption. By redemption I mean “becoming a part of the real world” AKA “not Queensland”. Is there really such a thing as “the real world”? Sydney? Melbourne? London? New York? Possibly not.
Collaboration – it’s in our DNA
Due to some personality disorder or political whim, I was never very comfortable with the “auteur” mode of operation, the sole artist with a “voice” or a “vision”. I considered both these terms more about style than ideas.
It probably is unfair to say, but it seemed Australian writing and visual art (by Mexicans over the border) were busy slavishly copying what was happening in England, Europe and America*. It was the era of the art magazine filled with Motherwells and de Koonings. The abstract expressionists were rock stars and immensely influential (even if most Australian artists weren’t prepared to go that far). One artist was so influenced by de Stael he produced an attractive series of grey paintings, only to find out later de Stael’s work was vividly colourful. Our Australian de Staelist had only seen black and white pictures in magazines.
* Ironically, Motherwell, having met the expatriate surrealists in New York, had said the same thing: “What I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso.”
Being uncomfortable with the “auteur” mode but still wanting to do stuff, I was on the lookout for collaboration: in art politics, like the Poets Union we spoke about earlier; and even when producing art. I was a fan of “exquisite corpse” where various artists continued the lines of another artist’s drawing over the edge of a paper fold.
Around this time Peter Anderson, architect of the Poets Union Queensland branch, was moderately successful. He seemed to have a good handle on what was art in Australia and was developing a coherent “voice” or “vision” informing his writing style. He was well equipped to join the tattered mainstream. However he was also interested in disruption, performance, and a new form of Brisbane modernism close to what was happening in music, the emergence of “that striped sunlight sound” of the Riptides and the Go Betweens, something more genuinely local and yet connected to the whole of art history (eclectically linking Dadaism with The Doors) and nicely treacled with an overlay of suburban angst.
There were many contemporaries whose work we liked. Peter Anderson and I both admired Gerard Lee’s work published in small volumes: Manual for a Garden Mechanic (1976) and Pieces for a Glass Piano (1978) – slim collections of somewhat sparse and experimental short works.
I proposed Peter and I collaborate on a book: Negative Thinking (1978).
Peter contributed a series of subtly spaced narratives, all hinting at a dark theme: the cost of self analysis, the cost of looking into one’s own eyes to break through the mirror of this reality into a deeper, connected reality shared through and mediated by, sometimes disrupted by, words on a page.
The writing (and self) Peter Anderson exposed in Negative Thinking was, almost word for word, acted out on stage at the book launch on 5 October 1978 at the Baroona Hall in Paddington before a crowd of more than 200. Brian Watson’s review of the event, published in Time Off in January 1979, describes the action:
“He [Peter Anderson] tore off large pieces of newspaper that were pasted on a wardrobe on the stage, then climbed inside and closed the door after him. After speaking unintelligibly from inside wardrobe for a while, he stumbled out naked, slashed the air with a pair of scissors, which he used to cut off most of his hair. Then he started stabbing the mirror of the wardrobe in what appeared a violent attack on either the hiding place where he had closeted himself or the mirror reflecting his naked image. Eventually the mirror broke and simultaneously the lights were switched out by Robert Whyte who had been sitting in front the stage beside a conspicuous power switch… The shouted repetition of the word “Remember” [was] accompanied the breaking of three major personal taboos that most of us abide by – we don’t go naked in pubUc, or hack our own hair off, or break large mirrors.”
This description, powerful enough on its own, becomes positively scary when read in conjunction with Peter Anderson’s writing in Negative Thinking. The fourth of 35 short Anderson pieces in the book, “WITH IN THE WARDROBE” is a screenplay describing exactly what he did at the launch. Other “poems” dwell on images like glass in the hair, a literal truth on the night, and the multiple layering of mirrored images, between the fragments of which are moments of tenderness or introspection, desire or empathy, these evaporating with the realisation that words on a page are just mechanical keystrokes replacing life with narrative.
My contributions (as quirky as they were impenetrable) were line drawings of traced comic book characters (Herge’s Tin Tin mostly) and Scientific American advertisements (smashed together in a kind of dadaist visual collage) and what could be called prose poems, short pieces of lyrical sounding nonsense with fictional characters I had invented like “The Locksmith”, the “King of the theatre”, the “to be or not be babies” interspersed with concepts like “stationary winds” and “unmade matter”. The idea behind the writing was the attempt to populate an imaginary fictional realm with characters who were a combination of metaphors and rhetorical or linguistic devices. The effect of these naked singularities of fiction was mind numbing. They were perfect, unassailable, self-fulfilling and ultimately pointless.
In Negative Thinking (the title and its typesetting being lifted directly from a magazine advertisement and superimposed on what look like spider legs, but from a distance, stalks of wheat) the “quoting” of visual materials in hand-drawn, quasi-collage drawings, attracted attention outside Australia – intriguing reviewers in the flourishing international small-press scene.
The scene was flourishing because printing was not expensive and postage even cheaper. Small-press books and magazines catered for slighter and more experimental works than mainstream publishers, and of course for up-and-coming writers. In some senses it was a proving ground, in others it was its own medium with identifiable characteristics of style and content.
There were a number of catalogues of international “little magazines” floating around and it seemed easier to get published in these than in Australia. For magazine publishers in the UK and especially America, it may have been simply a novelty affect.
These international outlets were not particularly avant-garde, but once you started looking between and beyond them at smaller and quirkier things being published, you soon became aware of more experimental, anti-establishment tendencies like the successors of Fluxus, Anna Banana, neo-Dada, Vile magazine and mail art… but more of that later.
For me, the avant-garde activities I was involved in around 1980-1981 were rather a form of “applied” or “derived” writing, while the material I generated for Negative Thinking I considered “pure” writing, being simply the exercise of the imagination and a kind of wilful disassociation from conventional methods of creating fictional places and people as if they were drawn from life. I was exploring the possibility of cutting fiction adrift from any possible real-life scenario with two possible aims, firstly to explore the ability of the written word to articulate genuinely original thoughts and concepts; and secondly, using these new ideas to create some sorts of proto-fictions which illuminated how the imagination might work.
While there was acknowledgement of my political and promotional skills, there was essentially no market or understanding of this “pure” writing I was doing. There was polite appreciation – readers could see there was obviously an aesthetic involved, great attention to detail in honing the sentences and yet keeping the tone light and whimsical, but no one was getting it. Here again was the conflation of artforms at work. These pieces of writing were more like visual art than stories. They were somehow abstract in the sense of being in defiance of traditional representational meaning. They used words the way abstract expressionists used colours and forms, to make images that might hint at scenes from nature and technology, or might not, being abstract to the point of mathematical extrapolation.
In visual art the aesthetic was everything and probably still is. The works were images, objects or environments which demonstrated some organising (or disorganising) visual principles. You knew and recognized the aesthetic of Pollock, de Kooning, Giacometti or Hollie.
Now we come to something peculiar. There are basically two types of visual art: a) naive -representational and b) social-theoretical.
By “social theoretical” I mean art movements driven by some aesthetic or other theory. There have been many, from French Impressionism to American Neo Expressionism and its derivatives including Earth Art (shades of Christo) and if you believe Artshub, Zombie Formalism.
Artists in movements are essentially collectable. Their works gain in value.
Naive representational artists may gather some slight value as historically representative of a time, like Duncan McGregor Whyte (1866-1953), an undistinguished but trained visual artist with enough skill to be sought after as a portraitist, but not part of any movement in particular, although involved with the West Australian Society of Arts and its President from 1920 to 1921.
Compare him with artists from the Heidelberg school, McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton and you can see the power of an “art movement” to lend a certain cachet and enduring collectability. Even more so with the Heidi artists, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Danila Vassilieff and Joy Hester, amongst others.
An international example might be Giacometti whose “Walking Man” just sold for $141 million. He was a surrealist (later excommunicated from the Surrealist group, improving his surrealist pedigree) who has come to be known as an existentialist artist, thus associated with existentialism as a movement, deriving from Sartre, Camus, Kafka and others.
There’s no doubting Giacometti developed an aesthetic and in some ways clambered above the art movements through which he rose to fame. But is this not more the power of celebrity?
We all like Giacometti, but why? Surely not his stretched gnarled humanoid figures of despair? No, we all like Giacometti because we all like Giacometti. It’s as simple as that.
Just as we DON’T LIKE Wolfgang Paalen, the Austrian-Mexican surrealist expatriate (and sometime counter surrealist) who (by influencing Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell) was the major theoretician leading to abstract impressionism. Motherwell puts its nicely “all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that’s what Europe had that we hadn’t had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought … free association … might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do.” (It was Paalen’s creative principle.)
So what could young Brisbane artists make of all this? We felt part of a disappearing and fragmenting, once-vibrant counter culture. I imagine we wanted to revive it, not for politics, but for art, for creative explorations and social identity, a place to belong. The word “Union” appears again and again. The Poets Union in late 1978, then in 1979 an attempt to set up an art-workers union in Queensland, documented in notes of a meeting at the IMA.
The importance of 4ZZZ as the hub with connecting spokes to everything alternative in Brisbane’s youth subculture can’t be overestimated. It was tribal and inclusive. People might say it was judgemental, favouring certain styles and groups, but it really wasn’t. They played Gino Vanelli alongside the Buzzcocks. It was, if anything, eclectic, and it was once again both a) kids rejecting mainstream culture as fake, oppressive and corrupt, and b) kids making their own fun. In retrospect, because the establishment culture was a hotchpotch of fakery, empty platitudes and self serving delusion, our activities, even though underground, represent the real culture of Brisbane in the 70s, not because they were great, but because they were genuine.
Check out this Aladdin’s Cave of resources, including an updated edition of Negative Thinking by Peter Anderson and Robert Whyte, and The Supplement, a report on 1986’s Arts Now Symposium organised at Griffith University by the late Nick Zurbrugg.