A few Australian groups have acted or threatened to take action outside of the law to achieve artistic and cultural objectives. Most are right-wing conservatives — so much for the so-called ‘cancel culture’ of the left.
In 2003 the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places threatened to destroy a number of pieces of public art. That the “spokesman, Dave Jarvoo, told The Australian newspaper” about the threat speaks to the conservative taste of this so-called Revolutionary Council. The fact is that they were all talk and no action, and the spuriously named, Dave Jarvoo appears to be the only member of this organisation.
Their targets were modern sculptures Fairfield Industrial Dog Object and in Sydney; Ken Unsworth’s Stones Against the Sky ‘poo sticks’ in Kings Cross and Brett Whiteley’s Almost Once giant matches behind the Art Gallery of NSW. David Fickling for The Guardian came up with several more deserving targets in Sydney (see his article), and I could do the same for Melbourne (perhaps in another post). (Thanks to Vetti Live in Northcote for drawing my attention to the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places.)
The Australian Cultural Terrorists (aka A.C.T.) stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV, held it to ransom and then returned it undamaged. They seem to have twice as many members as Dave Jarvoo’s Revolutionary Council; at least one man and, maybe, one woman. They were more successful than the Revolutionary Council but, perhaps, no more radical given their demands for more art prizes for local artists. They had no follow up aside from stories that the following year they also wrote some libellous letters about people in Australia’s art world. The A.C.T. wrote lots of jeering, satirical letters, several of them attacking state Arts Minister, Race Mathews.
To this list, we could add the Catholic Church for their attack on Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in the NGV. Graffiti writers, like Pork, that cap and tag as a form of conquest and censorship. And BUGA-UP, graffiti to stop tobacco advertising, vigilantes with a specific type of art, selling a particular message in mind, not exactly the artistic kind but still ‘art’ in the advertising copy sense.
It is hard to believe that the Australian Communist Party and Catholic Church in Australia in the 1950s and 60s shared a position on anything. But, as I discovered when I was searching through old newspapers, they both hated modern art.
Newcastle Sun ran the article: “Vatican Slams Modern Art” on Thursday 11 March 1954. Quoting the Vatican magazine, Faith and Art, Cardinal Celso Constantini said that abstract art “is dying out. Why should the church accept such a repulsive near-corpse?” Cardinal Constantini also declared that Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Gaugin, Roualt and Corbusier produced “blasphemous religious works.” (Chagall was Jewish and many of the other artists now have work in the Vatican Museum.)
Eleven years later, in the Tribune (the official newspaper of the Australian communist party) on Wednesday 15 December 1965, the Australian social-realist artist, Noel Counihan declared that abstract art, Pop Art and Op Art were over. According to Counihan Australian artists were “reacting against the recent spate of mediocre imitations of overseas fashions.” Aside from trend following Counihan’s main warning about abstract art was that “the newly rich achieve social status with an abstract on their walls.”
“Op Art I feel will prove the most ephemeral of the latest fashions despite its immediate appeal to novelty mined youth.” wrote the communist Counihan advocating a reactionary nationalist position.
It is probably pointless to further unpacking these two short articles to point out errors and inconsistencies. It is clear from both articles that neither had a coherent argument and were simply appealing to the predefined reactionary prejudices of their groups.
I find the confluence of prejudices expressed by these ideologically opposed groups a proof of the lack of both group’s ability to reason. The intensity of both writers commitment to their ideology reduced their ability to critically think about their subject. If both writers had put aside their ideological based, rhetorical dog whistles and actually thought, and researched abstract art, they probably could have come up with better reasons to explain their dislikes. Unfortunately these reasons may not have appealed to their readers as much as their prejudices did. These reasons may have simply exposed them for only wanting art that expressed their ideology.
Would Australian Catholics and Communists today be interested in reading warnings about zombie formalism?