Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Pier 9, 2012, 378 pages, $29.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Their pockets may have been empty but Australia’s bohemians have been rich with desire to shake up bourgeois dignity and social conformity through cultural revolution.  As Tony Moore recounts in his splendid Dancing with Empty Pockets, Australia has had a vibrant, dissenting subculture of bohemians from its earliest days.

Marcus Clarke, the author of the first great Australian novel, For The Term Of His Natural Life, “ate, drank and scandalised his way about Melbourne in the 1860s and 1870s, setting up a string of underground literary clubs, mocking respectable society and keeping one step ahead of his creditors”. 

Following Clarke were the writer, Henry Lawson, who embraced a radical nationalism built on “disrespect for authority, irreverence, and unease with respectability”, and the painter, Norman Lindsay, whose “art of pagan pleasure” was “libertine, earthy, humorous, immature, cheeky, sexual, anti-clerical”.

In the 1920s and 1930s, ‘The Noble Order of the Happy, Literary, Wise and Mad’ in Sydney set the tone of the bohemian clubs, to which women at last gained entry to the all-male bohemian world although often “on men’s terms” as promiscuous, sexual playthings.  Mass unemployment, war and fascism prompted a new wave of politically-engaged bohemians from the late 1930s such as the Adelaide University’s cape-wearing communist and artistic modernist, Max Harris.

In the 1950s, the bohemia of the ‘Sydney Push’ intelligentsia flourished with paperbacks of Kafka and Camus, black sweaters and advocacy of free love marking out the artists and inner city non-conformists who made up the Push’s small galaxy whose stars included Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Wendy Bacon, Bob Ellis and Barry Humphries.

In the 1960s and 70s, the counter-cultural hippies, the New Left and other protest movements flew the subversive bohemian flag whilst punk and ‘Indie’ musicians and cyberpunk hackers have waved the contemporary bohemian banner, with The Chaser ensemble excelling with an “anarchic anti-authoritarianism, Dadaesque stunts … and flirtation with obscenity and offences against good taste”.

Australian bohemianism, whatever its historical manifestations, has some features in common - aesthetic flamboyance, eccentric lifestyle, avant-garde art, and experimentation with cultural, sexual and other freedoms beyond the pale of bourgeois morality.

Politically, too, bohemians have had a shared liking for anarchism, delivering an apolitical cynical detachment from the non-committal comfort of the bar-stool.  Bohemians who embraced the left were prone to divorce - Lawson became a patriotic militarist, a middle-aged Max  Harris “dispensed conservative contrarian opinion in the [once-loathed] Murdoch press” and an anti-socialist Barry Humphries joined the board of the CIA-funded magazine, Quadrant.

Political elitism was also a shared bohemian trait with many bohemians regarding themselves as a “natural aristocracy” above the wasteland of the suburbs whose working class residents they saw as artistic philistines good only for a sneering condescension as conformist ‘Alf and Daphnes’.

Many bohemians would also shoulder their subversive cultural arms to seek “personal elevation within the bourgeois society they denounced”.  As Honore Balzac observed of the ancestral 1840s Parisian bohemians, their enclaves were ‘a vast nursery for bourgeois ambition’ and Australia’s bohemians have displayed a similar “talent for self-promotion”, exploiting the bohemia brand to carve out a space for the bohemian avant-garde in the capitalist cultural market which is perpetually in search for next big thing no matter how rhetorically hostile to capitalism.

The political limitations of bohemianism stem largely from the class position of its practitioners – as Moore explains, bohemianism is a “rebellion undertaken mainly by the young bourgeois in a period of their career when they feel free from the restrictions of the social class they were born into or in which they might end up”.  Cultural playtime under capitalism has definite time limits before the logic of the market kicks in.

Some bohemians have tried to retain their oppositional principles as they began their long march through the institutions of media, politics and academia.  Wendy Bacon practices progressive journalism, Bob Ellis became the “eccentric artist-in-residence to the Labor tribe” and the “free-floating cultural socialism” of Phillip Adams coexisted with his membership of the Commonwealth film and arts bureaucracy.

Red-blooded socialism was rarely a long-term option for most bohemians, however.  Most believe only in ‘epater les bourgeois’ (‘shocking the bourgeois’) rather than its overthrow.  Not only did socialist activism ‘take up too many evenings’ (as the bohemian aesthete, Oscar Wilde, put it) but its collectivism, discipline and structure was too antagonistic to the hedonistic and individualistic bohemians with their penchant for “partying over party”.

Although Moore acknowledges that bohemianism is “a safety valve for discontent rather than promoting focused political change”, he celebrates bohemianism’s subversive potential to push against “capitalism’s demands for work discipline, social order and the sovereignty of market forces”, whose cultural settings under the “conservatism of John Howard, and the narrow managerial materialism of Labor’s new generation of leaders” has ensured a strong future for bohemian dissent in Australia.

Although Moore struggles to pin the “dynamic, ever-changing tradition” of bohemianism down definitionally, his analytically sharp and narratively bright book shows that Australia’s bohemians, although they may not have had too many answers, have asked some very good questions.

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