The Assault on Culture

On re-reading Stewart Homes The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, 1988, London).

Maybe I should have been reading Grail Marcus Lipstick Traces instead as it is better written and covers the same trajectory as Homes does in The Assault on Culture. Homes follows the history of the various post-war utopian art movements: Cobra, Lettriste, College du Pataphysics, Nuclear Art, the International Movement for the Imaginist Bauhaus, Situationists, Fluxus, Auto-Destructiove Art, Dutch Provos, Kommune 1, Motherfuckers, Yippies, White Panthers, Mail Art, Punk, Neoism, up to Class War in 1985.

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

Homes published his shorter book a year before Marcus – it is shorter and physically lighter than Marcus’s tome. There are other physical differences between the two books – there are no illustrations in Homes, no soundtrack CD – just a densely written history.

Homes declares in the preface that he is writing for the insiders first and others second – Marcus is clearly writing for the others. Also in the preface Homes scorns Andre Breton’s interest in mysticism and magic whereas Marcus brings magic, heretics and, even, God into his preface. Although Homes can’t ignore the historical connections with Lollards and Anabaptists, he didn’t have to worry, the tradition can be traced further back to the completely non-mystical Cynics of Ancient Greece – Diogenes pissing and throwing plucked chickens like the punks – so we don’t have bring religion or magic into it.

Homes might be able to ignore the mysticism but he couldn’t ignore the music and it is the music that provided a focus for Marcus. The music of the Sex Pistols is the beginning and the end for Marcus. So Marcus leaves out Neoism, Mail Art, Fluxus and other groups.

This history could be continued with groups like Negativeland, Survival Research Labs and the Church of the SubGenius and the street art movement. Home’s careful distinction between groups and movements becomes clearer with these examples; Negativeland is clearly a group with a few members whereas street art is a movement with thousands of participating artists.

Paris, Melbourne

Why include street art with these utopian political art practices? It is a hard case to prove, as there are thousands of disparate artists involved with no leaders writing street art manifesto to quote but the trace elements (to use Marcus’s metaphor) are there. From the Letterist International street art has the love of letters and the continuation of an urban exploration and reinvention. The linage between political stencils and street art stencils is clear from Crass and other punk bands. And some street art is an opposition to the contemporary gallery art.

“Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral” – a Situationalist slogan from 1968 that could be the slogan of street art.

Phoenix, Less Ephemeral More Ephemeral, Melbourne

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About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “The Assault on Culture

  • The Bearded One

    Struggling to keep up with the groups you mention, but one point I would like your opinion on.
    What do you think of street art when it hits the gallery? Inevitably good art should;but does it, or can it say the same thing as it does on the street?

    • Mark Holsworth

      Some aspects of street art, the graphic elements, move easily into the gallery or onto walls in homes. These aspects are a viable alternative to the kind of art that has developed within the art gallery institution (a kind of art that would not survive on the streets or even in people’s homes). This work basically says the same kind of thing that it does on the street. It is important to note that not all art galleries are the same and that there are major differences between the type/meaning of art in the NGV and the type/meaning of art in different commercial art galleries (e.g. the differences between Until Never, Rist, or Artboy). So we have to distinguish between art that is collected or hosted by institutional galleries, art collected by serious art collectors and art purchased by people who aren’t building a collection and the intention of the artist to supply (or not) each of these markets. Given that there is a trend in street art to paint large buildings (2+ stories high) it is very difficult/impossible to fit this art inside most galleries. Also given the size and variety within the street art movement it is difficult to give a single answer, just as it would be to give a single answer about all the groups that Homes mentions in The Assault on Culture. There are plenty of art by groups like Cobra and Fluxus in institutional art galleries but you are much more likely to find works of Mail Art or Punk art belonging to private collectors. It depends on the way that the art is presented, how it can be preserved or displayed – some groups are more meaningfully presented/documented in art history books, like Auto-Destructive Art, the Dutch Provos or the Yippies. Not all good art can be collected be institutional art galleries. There are other influences on the meaning of art. Are we talking about the intended meaning or the public perception of the meaning of the art?(Did the meaning of Bill Henson’s art change after Kevin Rudd’s stupid comments? Does the meaning of art change when there is a price tag or auction price?)

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