Donald Brook: Secret Agent

Ian North   Our brief is to outline how you set out to change the world ... and then to evaluate the degree of your success. The latter is no doubt an especially embarrassing thing for you to do yourself. So let me provoke you by saying at the outset that I believe that you did indeed set out to change the world quite consciously, or at least that part of it prefixed by the word “art” by the early 1970s, perhaps earlier?

Donald Brook  By the late sixties when I went to Sydney, I wanted to see the practices of the visual arts taught within a university system in which the philosophy, psychology and sociology of the visual arts (roughly, what later came to be called “theory’) would all be studied alongside artistic practice. I expected this change from the Australian “trade school” tradition to have some influence not only on what artists do but also on the art world and the attitudes of its inhabitants. My inclination now days would be to say that I am not very keen to see the practices of the visual arts taught at all. Academia has turned out to be a disaster, and most of the world for most of human time has managed very well without art schools. 

IN   We had better fill in the background. We could begin near enough to the beginning with your essay “Art and Literature”, which is to be published in this issue, you might talk about how you came to be in that outsiderish situation. 

DB  I inherited the notion that artists are outsiders from the cultural tradition of the West Riding of Yorkshire in the years of my childhood, during the great depression. Most of my family would have been unable to name a living artist. 

IN  So how did you come to be an artist, and then cease to be one?

DB  I studied engineering, Then, after the war, I got a chance to go back to university. There were two universities with art schools in England at the time. On the account of art that I would offer today, I never ceased to be an artist. Nobody does.

IN  Moving on to Australia ... during the time when you were studying philosophy at the ANU in the sixties you became a newspaper art critic for the Canberra Times before graduating to the Sydney Morning Herald and then Nation Review. You refused to play the dealers’ game ... could you talk to that?

Donald  As a senior academic at one of Australia’s major universities and a public arbiter of taste for the metropolitan journal of record, I took the novel role of insider rather seriously. My duty, I thought, was to reform those contemporary attitudes and practices in the visual arts that seemed abominable, I wanted to expose the Expression Theory as fraudulent; to break the nexus between value and price; to get attention paid to the arts of this region and to put an end to the idea that the history of European painting is the only intellectual discipline suitable for artists. 

Ian  I wonder if friendships of acquaintances with others, for example artists, encouraged you to think that reforming the art world might be possible during the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s? I’m thinking here of the likes of peers like Bert Flugelman and Guy Warren, or of younger artists, like Mike Parr, Imants Tiller, Ian Milliss and David Morrissey. 

DB  No. I would do anything for the people I love and almost as much for those I just admire except change my mind about what is and what isn’t possible. Of course, during the late 1960s and early 1970s everything seemed to be possible. Even peace, if the Americans could be seduced away from their moral commitment to world domination.

Ian  I wonder if you ever came, in the earlier years, to a point of intellectual maturity – a point you could still recognise or own today … if so, presumably before that fateful day at Henley Beach, in the summer of 1973–74, when you ventured the idea of an Experimental Art Foundation?’

Donald  Intellectual maturity sound like a burden. Whether or not this is it, I am as convinced today as I have been for the greater part of my adult life that art is an enterprise of understanding, akin to science and philosophy. Above all, art delivers aesthetic satisfaction only incidentally to a revelatory role in which it is just distinguishable from other major forms of entertainment, such as horse racing and rugby football. 

IN  Many a young artist was puzzled by your philosophically defensible refusal to offer examples of true works of art, in your schema. The EAF found it difficult to maintain a pitch of true experimentation, tending instead, for example, to institutionalise performance art – damnably exciting and internationally significant a place though it was in its heyday. What is your take on the dear old EAF?

Donald  The Contemporary Art Society had been a shopfront for the artists’ business association. By contrast, the EAF was conceived as a church with a doctrine (mainly mine). Fortunately, Noel Sheridan managed to conceal this from people for long enough to give it legs, Unfortunately, however, the democratic opinion that deep philosophical questions are up for determination by majority vote on the first Thursday of every month soon prevailed. After a brief efflorescence as an instrument of the revolution (mainly sex and gender), the EAF reverted to being just another shopfront of the artists’ business association. In retrospect it’s hard to see how it might have been otherwise, even if Noel had stayed. The news that art was an industry had inspired an upcoming generation of professional administrators, all of them eager to create a market for the product, whatever it might be. 

IN  Of course there was Flinders University as well … you went there in 1974 as a professor with a reform agenda in mind. How did you see the academy, in terms of relevant intellectual cogency, and how do you see it now? 

DB   Yes. Fine Arts at Flinders had been driven by the conviction that the internalisation of the Altamira-to-Picasso narrative that they called “History of European Art” was the only relevant intellectual discipline. I introduced more philosophical modes of speculation. As the course became more popular we appointed David Sless to ruminate aloud on perceptual psychology and communication theory. After that Vincent Megaw came to persuade our students to think about art in general – and particularly the art of this region – from a broadly archaeological standpoint. 

By the time I retired in 1989 the department (or “discipline” as it was still comically known) was reeling first from the onslaught of Dawkins, and then full-blown economic rationalism. Its only hope of being adequately funded today would be to open a picture shop with testimonials to the investment value of the product written by the academic staff. They seem not quite ready to do that yet, but I fear that it will come. 

IN  At some point your theory of art as “non-specific experimental modelling” morphed into art being described as “a category of memetic innovation”, a big question, but can you say when that happened, and why? 

DB  The idea was not originally explicit enough. The right way to do it has only come to me recently, with the insight that full evolutionary account can be given of all cultural kinds (the heavier-than-air machine, the lamington fund raiser and the video-clip). A complete evolutionary story about a cultural kind will retrospectively explain both its persistence and its changes, very much as the evolution of a biological kind such as the flu virus or the lyre bird can be explained. In the cultural domain, the exertion of familiar memes generates individuals or an established kind, such as a recognisable birthday party, or a still life with flowers. But in the course of exerting theses familiar memes, variation occur and the individual differ slightly. They then encounter testing cultural environments that determine what will and what will not be successfully propagated. 

Skill is an adroit deployment of those memes that are already familiar. Art invokes a serendipitous recognition of unexpected possibilities introduced by variant or novel memes, Art floats on skill. We can only do what can presently be done, but if we are alert (and lucky) we occasionally see ways of doing something that had not previously been possible – at least for us if not for others. The best chance of gaining new insights about what is possible is in the world of entertainment, where audiences don’t precisely share the intentions and purposes that drive the performers. 

IN  Your theory of art seems logically sewn up, beautifully so, if I can use that word – a membrane high above covering all. But your theory tells only part of the story about the art which particularly grabs my attention (which presumably would constitute, at best, a subcategory of art in your schema). This is a broad church, but typically includes factors of scale, drama, representation and – in a very elastic, dynamic sense – beauty, eg of colour, formal relations, conceptual concision … above all, a sense of completeness arising from a unity of idea and form. All of which, it increasingly seems, might find ultimate sanction in evolutionary theory, just like your account of your art.

DB  Yes. If all you are looking for is beauty (and ugliness, of course), then take a walk in the garden or watch a thunderstorm or study the faces of the victims pulled out of bomb craters. Look at paintings, if you like; but it is not being beautiful (if indeed they are beautiful) that qualifies such things as works of art. 

Right now, my deepest regret is the recognition that beauty, as it appeals to the powerful curatorial eye, still rules. OK? If you doubt it, consider the price of that tedious Pollock in the NGA.

IN  So, boiled down to everyday language, aren’t you redefining art as anything innovative which catches on? A useful broom, no doubt, for sweeping the Augean Stables clean of troublesome, hierarchical distinctions between, for instance, art and craft, primitive and non-primitive art, or different sorts of art media. What more, beyond testing social environments, would you have to say about distinguishing the relative merits of, for example, the Mona Lisa and a hula-hoop?

DB  What more do you want? Remember, I’m relating my account of what you call “anything innovative which catches on” to the account that Darwin gives of why honey-eaters’ bills are not like those of parrots. The nature and effect of cultural environments is not a trivial matter. The complex question of why people choose to celebrate one thing more than another is quite general. When comparing two things, countless reasons and countless sorts of reason can be given for preferring one of them. Some of these reasons will be more persuasive than others, and there will be reasons for that too. Contests over values don’t relate in any peculiar or distinctive way to the question of what art is.

IN  So to sum it all up: where do you think you have contributed most so far, and how?

DB  Probably nobody now believes – as once they did – that art has a story that started in a cave in Altamira. But I probably wasn’t the first and am certainly not the only person to notice this. I just made more fuss about it that most other local commentators

IN   Thank you, Donald. I wonder, withal, if you might not be something of a sleeper … a secret agent (of change) whose time is still to come.

DB  It had better be quick. 

Birdman, clay model for bronze commission, cast but never installed due to dispute with donor over the size of the penis. Hertfordshire 1960. Photo: Phyllis Brook


Ian North is an artist, writer and Adjunct Professor at South Australian School of Art, University of South Australia, and Visiting Fellow, Art History, at the University of Adelaide.