I have been heartily enjoying an Australian literary classic penned in 1960: Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness*. Though I have no architectural ambitions, buildings hold some lingering fascination for me, and Boyd’s speculations on and criticisms of Australian architecture half a century ago are razor-sharp when applied to the Australian aesthetic (or lack thereof) in whichever field it raises its beastly head. Our ‘youth’ as a nation is not responsible for our dire aesthetic sensibilities—rather, we have willfully cultivated a population proud of its poor taste, and seized on this revulsion to beauty as a defining national characteristic. Boyd calls it, rather cleverly, Featurism.
Featurism, according to Boyd, is a sort of decorative approach to design, and in turn a sort of enshrining approach to decoration. It is about appearances rather than function or utility, and as such it allows no room for subtlety, or the beauty to be found in elegant simplicity. It is one hundred percent veneer: false surfaces applied to questionable (and most likely poorly imitated) structures. The Australian rarely designs, argues Boyd. He defines design as fundamentally a problem-solving exercise involving ‘find[ing] order in a confusion of functional requirements and conflicting economic demands,’ requiring the designer ‘to blend separate parts into a whole, single, unified concept’ (p. 22). The Featurist fails to step up to such a challenge: ‘The Featurist, on the contrary, deliberately and proudly destroys any unified entity which comes into his hands by isolating parts, breaking up simple planes, interrupting straight lines, and applying gratuitous extra items wherever he fears the eye may be tempted to rest’ (p. 23). The architect, artist or designer faces an uphill battle trying to get through to a public that can only appreciate the surface. Glazed eyes slide over the visual landscape until they lock momentarily onto a flashy surface trick, and this is the extent of the audience’s engagement.
Featurism is exactly what it sounds like: One builds a house that stands out on one’s street, with a nice peaked gable with little wooden scrolls on it, and a lattice gate with a bell next to it. The veranda is covered in all manner of wind chimes, exotic plants and antique chairs. The living room has a feature wall, perhaps plum purple, painted in the granulated paint that must be swished on in multiple directions so that its rough surface picks up the light in different ways, mimicking some ancient Italian stucco. The feature wall has an antique telephone table in front of it, accompanied by a statue and a large, colourful painting in a flashy gilt frame. Fake flowers (these are Boyd’s pet hate) are a downright necessity. The car is of American make, but painted in suitably Australian primary colours, with leather seats, or sheepskin seat covers, with a smaller wooden steering wheel, billiard ball gear stick knob, checkerplate floor mats, custom pedals, neon-lit dash, chrome trimmings and stickers of your family on the rear window.
‘This is the nature of the prosperity,’ argues Boyd. ‘There is no attraction to the idea of upsetting the comfortable status quo by fundamental re-thinking on appearances, while loose coins in every pocket jingle eagerly to be spent on novel, exciting surface effects’ (p. 116). Australia has reached a level of prosperity on par with Scandinavia—our standard of living is incredibly high, we work hard, we’re well-educated. None of this is enough. The respect that Sweden or Denmark affords its creatives is entrenched in a culture that values design as ingenious solutions. Australia offers its creatives no such respect; Autralians only want to be wowed. ‘In this busy age ordinary taste has become so dulled and calloused that anything which can startle a response on jaded retinas is deemed successful: it draws attention to the fact that paint has been used and progress is afoot’ (p. 109).
As an artist, then, I face a choice. Australia may be receptive to my art, but at what cost? If perhaps the most shallow of my paintings are the most appealing to people, will I give up on trying to give meaning to my work? If producing decorative pieces is enough, I won’t be able to explore and grow as an artist. If my intellect is removed from my work, forcefully or out of sheer apathy, my growth as a human being is stunted. This is no way to live one’s life when the world is rich with experiences and knowledge and ideas to work through. Such a choice has dogged Australians with a spark of life in them for generations: ‘Most Australians … do not wish to be reminded of the facts that their country is still known abroad as an artistic and intellectual desert, and that they themselves would never be taken seriously without their denying to some extent their Australian upbringing and background, and that highly talented Australians in any of the non-useful fields of art or science have to face a dramatic decision early in their careers. They can stay here in easy-going comfort with their talent and their frustrations both working at half-pressure, or they may wrench themselves from their own country in order to develop themselves’ (p. 76).
I, of course, am a true blue Featurist. Raised on a gluttonous diet of ornament, colour and pattern, my house is a veritable goldmine of Persian rugs, tapestry-upholstered couches, tacky French prints, Dutch crockery, fake flowers, moustache cushions and ugly lamps. (Boyd considers lamps to have always ‘brought out the worst in designers’ (p. 117) ). ‘Voluntarily or involuntarily,’ he laments, ‘Featurism dogs Australia even when she sets out with good intentions of avoiding it’ (p. 22). My lavish poor taste infects everything I touch, because I can’t communicate through subtlety, and my eyes delight in being assaulted. I’m determined to grow out of this and to learn to appreciate quality beneath the surface. As for my country—our lack of respect for beauty and real engagement with design is most likely far too entrenched.
* Boyd, Robin. 2010 . The Australian Ugliness. Text: Melbourne.