For the past five years I’ve stuck up thousands of posters across Australia in an effort to challenge and expand our national identity. It started with a focus on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, but with each new poster design the project’s scope has grown to encompass our broader national mythology. I’ve been rewarded with attention, accolades and praise.
Given my choice of occupation, you might expect that I have unshakable convictions about social justice and human rights, but I don’t. I’m sometimes called an activist, but it’s not a label I enjoy. I don’t have a personal attachment to any particular cause or marginalised group. I don’t even like political art. Given all this, why do what I do? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately, with nagging persistence.
Sometimes journalists ask me the same question, and my answer is usually evasive and always inadequate. It gives me the strange feeling that I don’t understand myself well enough for a man in his mid-thirties. The feeling grows when I consider the irony that my posters aim to confront the Australian people’s collective lack of self awareness. Maybe it’s time that I cast out the beam in my own eye and made sense of my motivations.
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Since I started sticking up my posters I’ve had countless confrontations with people on the street. They’re almost always men, usually my dad’s age and often angry. I wish I could say I’ve always behaved fairly towards them, but I haven’t. I wish I could say I’ve never taunted these men and inflamed their insecurities, but I often have. Because men like that always have personal inadequacies hidden beneath the veil of their political convictions. I know this because I’m really no better than they are. I feel that I owe them an apology, or at least some acknowledgement that we’re not so different.
The other group of people with whom my interactions follow a troubling pattern are the young political activists. These types have usually dedicated a whole semester to swallowing whatever world view best weaponises their angst, before setting out to fix the world. Like budding Raskolnikovs, they’re irritatingly intelligent. They hate my posters for their appeal to the political centre. They hate the ironies that seep between the cracks in their convictions. Like the puritans of old, they ultimately hate their own imperfectibility. I honestly admire their enthusiasm but it’s a terrible thing to have a chip on a young shoulder. I should know.
Australia also has a chip on its shoulder. I’ve seen it everywhere I go with my posters. We hide it beneath our “she’ll be right” larrikinism and Anzac Day pageantry, while our true identity is deep and dark and personal. For the last 200 years Australia has been playing the role of Western civilisation’s funloving sidekick. We like to see ourselves as the friendly underdog with heart. We lack the courage to take full responsibility for our history because our national psyche is adolescent. We won’t admit that we traded innocence for power a long time ago. But our immaturity isn’t entirely our fault; it’s also due to a spiritual poverty that’s afflicting the Western world at large.
I chose to be an artist rather than follow my training in psychology because art is really a spiritual project. Since the Enlightenment, art has become the Western world’s attempt to remedy its spiritual disenchantment, especially during the twentieth century. The cubists initiated a cult of abstraction while the surrealists sought to replace God with the subconscious. The dadaists, ahead of the game, answered the death of God by exulting in the absurd. One by one, every modern art movement collapsed under the weight of its own pomposity and the squeeze of free market nihilism.
Today we view art history through the lens of the market. As a result, we see only a succession of novelties rather than a battle of ideas. Many of today’s artists have embraced the market’s hunger for sheer novelty. Others have learnt to mimic the academic jargon of the curatorial clergy who run the state-sponsored art institutions and offer refuge to artists who mutter the correct incantations. Increasingly those mutterings favour ideology over aesthetic or spiritual aspirations. My posters are also a symptom of this trend. Without spiritual aspiration, political art is little more than a visual commentary on power. Artists like me have forgotten how to adapt and renew our most powerful unifying myths. It’s no surprise that tribalism and stale ideology keep moving in to fill the vacuum.
This might all seem a little grim and abstract, so I’ll try to bring it back home. I can describe my own spiritual poverty with a simple phrase: my struggle to “become a man”. Of course the phrase is uncomfortably anachronistic, just like the phrase “real Australian”. It’s a phrase that attracts suspicion, like a dog whistle to toxic tradition or a roadblock to the genderless utopia that forever waits beyond the horizon. But the type of manhood that interests me is about responsibility, not entitlement. In this sense, my art is a personal attempt to reform my own sense of manhood, by attempting to reform our collective sense of nationhood.
This is an edited extract from Poster Boy by Peter Drew, published by Black Inc., out now.