Peter Kennedy

Interview by Geoffrey De Groen, 1976

Metaphors for the way we live

GDG: Is it true to say that in the early seventies you became tired of the art object? Were you just sick and tired of things made out of steel, clay, plastic, whatever?

PK: Yes. I found most art boring and I still do. Art generally is pretty disappointing and I really don’t expect to get any new experiences from it, because I don’t think they’re there. I should point out that the kind of art that I’m critical of is ’high’ art, the ’art’ which we see in the galleries most of the time, and the ‘art’ which, through our cultural institutions, ultimately represents our culture. I think it’s all very predictable and all very formularised, because it is designed to represent our ’official’ culture. I now feel that art should be progressive, that it should be striving to reveal forms which are a synthesis of progressive social/ political concepts and aesthetic concepts. Actually, I don’t believe you can have one without the other.

My subsequent disenchantment with art in the early seventies arose because it was highly repetitive, and functioning within fairly rigid conventions. Even the avant-garde is now a convention. I saw the role of the artist at that stage as being concerned with attacking certain values within society. These values ‘found their form in certain kinds of art which were prevalent then, and so the work which I made at that time was iconoclastically motivated.

GDG: But why did you quit painting?

PK: Well I thought that somehow or other art had reached some kind of impasse and I couldn’t see that the way through it was through painting. It seemed to me also that the boundaries of art just didn’t stop with painting. Art is not necessarily defined by a technique or a medium. In Australia there were very few people doing anything like what was happening overseas-outside of the conventional areas of painting/sculpture-and because of my interest in avant-garde work it just seemed natural to begin to explore other areas. I became interested in environments.

GDG: Are you against art being a permanent, static thing on the wall, or on the floor or outdoors?

PK: Not necessarily. People often confuse artists who are involved in post-object art as having adopted some kind of antagonistic stance towards painting and sculpture, which in many instances is not true. I’m prepared to coexist with painters and sculptors. The fact that people are making paintings and sculpture doesn’t worry me at all. That’s fine; they’re catering for a particular kind of audience. But if you come to View art as functioning within those narrow concerns, then you begin to perceive the ideology which applies to it, or, alternatively, to the context in which the art functions. Art can achieve other things as well, it doesn’t necessarily have to function within the context of that particular audience or necessarily within the art world. It can reach other people and have other meanings.

Mind you, I feel most conceptual art is as bad, if not worse, than bad painting, or bad sculpture. The majority of the material I’ve struck is pretty thin, pretty insignificant.

When I was in New York the most interesting conceptual art or post-object art that was happening was work being done by women. It was interesting because the work didn’t have any formalist connotations,- it was coming from personal experience – it wasn’t working out of a history of modernism or avant-gardism, it was directly concerned with personal experiences. That seemed much more significant and more potentially political than most of the art that I saw in New York produced by men, which was still operating in a formalist tradition, which really has very little to do with the real world, but has an awful lot to do with art. I think art can also have something to do with the real world. That seemed to me to be much more impressive really, in terms of art having some sort of effect on society.

GDG: You stress the need for art and society, for art and an audience, does this mean that someone doing private work is irrelevant?

PK: Well, from my point of View it is.

GDG: Why?

PK: Well, I think it’s not irrelevant if what that person is doing is for that person alone, but as soon as the work is shown in a gallery context its significance is altered. If you like you could say that the context acts to reify the artist’s intention. That seems to me to be fairly significant in social terms. It’s creating objects or tokens for an élite, primarily an upper-middle-class audience. Secondly, I think there’s a lot of important art, not ’high’ art, that is being done, has been done, or will be done in the future which in fact won’t have much attention paid to it, because

GDG: From the art world?

PK: From the art world. Because the art world, which is defined by the attitudes of that élite group of people, confers its own concept of what it considers to be art. It’s the attitudes or values of these people which specify whether this or that is art, or is not art, as the case may be. It’s very much to do with their own particular concerns, which are not radical concerns, because they’ve got nothing to be radical about,- life has been good to them and they can collect paintings. ’High’ art in general social terms is fairly insignificant because of that. Art should be socialised so more people have access to it, outside the art world. If one could create an art meaningful to a much wider audience, that audience could extract certain things which could apply to everyone’s life, if you like. It might change our lives, or other people’s lives, in a beneficial way,- that’s getting towards an art which is much more satisfactory, much more effective and relevant in social terms than the kind of art we have now. At present art addresses a particular audience, and in addressing that particular audience takes into consideration, before it even addresses them, what the expectations of that audience are. The work of art is almost predetermined by the audience. The kind of response that conventional art generally elicits from an audience is a sense of empathy and loss of identity in the face of the work,- one becomes assimilated within the work, reified along with the work.

GDG: Is conventional art unsatisfactory because it is simply restating what has already been said?

PK: Well, to a certain extent. Plus, it really has no relationship to the real world and doesn’t affect or change anything at all.

GDG: Should art relate to the real world?

PK: Oh, I believe so.

GDG: And art should change things?

PK: It should indeed.

GDG: Now what should it change things for? You’re implying behavioural patterns that would be an improvement. Right?

PK: I think so. One of the things art could possibly do is provide people with insights into their lives, how they live their lives, what kind of things are affecting them. Strengthen that sense of the individual, the person, so that person becomes aware of him- or herself, then begins to see him- or herself in relation to a whole lot of other things in the world. If those other things impinge upon that person in an adverse way, then that person can deal with those things. At that point you have the potential of a political consciousness. Art, if it’s going to be concerned with something more than just ’art’, should be concerned with presenting things that exist at the moment in a way that all of us can under- stand and have access to, can extract something from, and which relate to our own particular situation. My film, ’Introductions’, is an attempt in this direction. It deals with four different groups of people who represent different kinds of cultural contexts: one is a hotrod club, one is a marching girls’ club, and there’s an embroidery guild and a bushwalking club. To a very sizeable extent it covers just about every demographic area within Sydney, outside the art world. There’s a diversity of opinion as well as a consistency of opinion. The title of the film, ’Introductions’, derives from the fact that having worked together in structuring group perceptions this information is put together in the form of an exhibition. People come to the exhibition, not only to see Visual representations of their own perceptions, but also to see what the other groups have done. Within this information there are certain things dealing with the way society has affected each group’s activities in an adverse manner and the nature of the reaction to it. The film regards questions like: ’Why are you a member of your club or group; what would be the first most important reason you’d give?’. And people gave about four or five different reasons per group. We set about constructing visual representations of those reasons on videotape. Together we made videotapes, so there’s a kind of participatory aspect to it as well. From those videotapes we’ve idealised things like friendship and learning. We’ve idealised it to a certain extent,- we’ve developed beyond the videotapes into something which is not really real, which goes beyond that. To some extent it relates to traditional art practice, as art has always been concerned with idealising one thing or another, like a bowl of fruit or a human body. What we’re idealising are concepts as they relate to the Australian urban environment in 1974/75/76. There is another aspect to this notion of idealisation and that is that by recognising it you then become aware that certain shots are used in preference to others, and so it’s a recognition of the choice open to film-makers to make the best possible statement. From my point of view I still see it as an art work,- it’s grown out of my development as an artist, all that I’ve been involved in and looked at as an artist. I hope that ’Introductions’ is universally appropriate ; that we can all extract something from it which is meaningful to our lives. Hopefully it’s a metaphor for the way we all live.

GDG: When you said you don’t look at conventional art, do you really not look at exhibitions any more?

PK: No.

GDG: If you don’t look how do you know they’re bad?

PK: Well, last time I looked was about six months ago, and the time before about three or four months before the last time. That was enough to confirm my belief that things weren’t any better and that probably it wouldn’t be worth paying a visit for another six or nine months.

GDG: What did you do when you went to the exhibitions? How did you approach the work?

PK: I approached it fairly simply by just assuming that if I was going to consider it to be good art, then it was going to provide me with an experience I probably hadn’t had before and which was related to the criteria I have developed for myself. I got no new experiences in any of the galleries I went to. I had seen it all before.

GDG: Did you find that demoralising?

PK: Disappointing.

GDG: Why?

PK: Well, basically they were old, conventional or conservative ideas. Until fairly recently, Australian artists had a preoccupation with looking towards New York for ideas; prior to that it was London. These ideas were then translated into the local idiom. Modifications are made, but generally it’s derivative. Basically, people are tuning into ideas which have been articulated in New York, and discussed there. But all of this is fairly superficial,- so you get art which is distorted through a certain kind of superficial experience. Many people say art should be international. Well, having travelled around overseas, I know the best art actually does derive from an awareness of local origin,- it’s very much contextualised. New York art is very provincial really,- it’s very contextualised. So we’re looking at something which is provincial, which is peculiar only to New York, and trying to do something with it here. I don’t think it comes off. You end up with mediocrity. There’s the problem of the art audience too. The art audience has certain kinds of expectations. Artists respond to those expectations and if the artist sees himself or herself as being somewhat radical, or avant-garde, they take some licence, bend the rules a bit, they do something which just steps ever so neatly beyond those expectations, but not so far beyond that the ’high-art’ confer- ral is withdrawn. Basically, they are pandering to the expectations of the audience. Even art that considers itself to be avant-garde is operating very much within a conservative tradition.