Available Writings of John Flaus
The barefoot anarchist from working class Sydney who once went to the drive-in without a car, John Flaus is the recorded voice you now get when you ring the Working Nation hotline. Iconically Australian, Flaus is a radio, stage and screen actor, film critic, academic and journalist. An original filmnik, once criticised for 'wilful personal enthusiasm for films of unedifying taste and questionable allegorical significance', Flaus is passionate about films and was co-host of the long running "Film Buff's Forecast" on 3RRR.
from the Guest list of
John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked during the same year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.
An Impressionist Work: Mullet
My interest in the play, Art on Trial performed at Chapel Off Chapel February 2002, was first aroused by the cast list which included actor/film buff and self confessed anarchist John Flaus.
Art on Trial was an enthralling play by eminent art historian, Robert Smith (see Art:The Alternative Tradition), about the scandal and skulduggery of the famous 1944 trial that challenged William Dobell's Archibald Prize award for his controversial portrait of Joshua Smith. The play exhibits the interplay between conservative and more democratic forces in the art world and politics of the time. Characters in the production include William Dobell, Joshua Smith, Robert Gordon Menzies, JS McDonald (Director of the Art Gallery of NSW), Garfield Barwick (future Attorney General & Chief Justice of the High Court), and Justice Roper. I recommend the play to all interested in theatre and the history of art in Australia. Flaus acted as a narrator for the play - setting the scene, introducing characters, etc. The play was workshoped by the cast to increase its effect.
So who is John Flaus? and what is his connection to anarchism? The following two articles I hope will give you some idea.
John Flaus is an academic who loves movies. A sort of cross between Bill Collins and Marshall McLuhan, he wrote a column for the Age and hosted a long running radio show (with Paul Harris) on 3RRR in Melbourne which was required listening for film buffs. Adrian Martin chatted with Flaus over lunch about his experiences as a milk crater, academic, prison psychologist, actor, and film critic.
In the 1960s and early 1970s John was closely involved with the scene now dimly and mythically remembered as the Sydney Push - but whereas the Push were essentially libertarians, John formed alliances with the anarchists. In fact the process of his personal politicisation had begun much earlier.
I was an anarchist by instinct long before I was an anarchist by conviction. I believe all of us are, and that our anarchic impulses continually recur in our lives. When I was eighteen I went into court and objected to doing military service. It was just like in the movies. This bloke on the prosecution asks me, "What would you do if you saw an Asiatic attacking your mother?" - remember this is 1953. I said, "l'd try to stop him". He said, "What if the only way was to kill him?" I said, "I'd kill him." He said. "Well, that's what a soldier does, so why are you objecting to being a soldier?" I said, "Now wait a minute, you asked me what I'd do, what decision I'd take on my own initiative. lf I'm a soldier someone else takes the initiatives for me, and that's an entirely different thing." This went on for an hour; at one point they tried to ascertain whether there were any religious grounds on which I wouldn't be a soldier. I said, "No, it seems to me the best soldiers get religion" - and that didn't go down too well either. It was only years later that I met anarchists and found out how much I had in common with them."
'My kind of anarchism - philosophical anarchism - is to do with the liberation of the self rather than toppling governments. To me toppling governments is the long process of the liberation of the individual. An anarchist must respect the individual, and to that extent I'm never going to be a martyr to a cause. That's inconsistent with anarchism, because there isn't anything bigger than yourself. If you are to free yourself then you must help to free others around you at the same time -it's pointIess to be free if no one else is - but the idea of spending a lifetime on the barricades seems to me to be ridiculous.
'There was a lot of common ground between the libertarians and the anarchists, but also a central difference which is wonderfully dramatised in the film Dark Times - the conflict between the radical and the reformist. The libertarians were opposed to reform. To them, you had to live in a state of permanent protest - any reform movement was a way of consolidating the existing system. But the anarchist's response to that was: well, you've only got one life, there isn't another one, and there are some things happening to us now that are hurting like hell. If reform is the way to improve things, then we're going to be reformers. If it gives us personally more freedom now we'll do it.
'There was a loose communion of libertarian and anarchists. Nobody owed anything to anybody else - you gave something to help a person out if you felt like it, and if you had it yourself. You borrowed, you paid it back when you could - things were circulating. I know that's all been destroyed now, there's very little left, but it was still pretty active in the sixties……'
In discussion, I frequently find myself being forced into a defence of my "addiction" to certain art forms - an attitude which can sometimes seem opposed to my social values.
I should not have to justify my interest in art - though even this is occasionally called into question. We should all be agreed that art provides a peculiar quality of satisfaction; that it is a good thing in itself and its goodness is not diminished by being shared. It may not take priority over food, shelter or health, but it need not be a hothouse novelty. To me it is a robust, demanding activity.
Whilst I do distinguish between beauty (object and beholder), and art (creator and object), and recognise that many beautiful objects are non-artistic, it is sufficient for the points I am going to make to use the terms "art", "artistic", etc., throughout, and sometimes in place of "film", which is the art form that preoccupies me; "artistic activity" here will cover both creative and appreciative participation.
Art is prized for its individual qualities, but only in as much as these enrich a community. In this respect, art supplies a pattern for living. If the "art of living" means anything to me, it means the continuous cultivation of individuality - not in isolation which would make individuality meaningless, but within a social context of voluntary co-operation.
Art threatens to be disruptive of standardisation, and as such has been feared by supporters of order-with-law from Plato onwards.
It is easy but inadequate to claim that the artistic function must be anarchistic in some way, since whatever the artist is doing - expressing, communicating, asserting (is there a difference?) -he is exercising individuality of purpose, standard, and achievement; moreover, if the percipient is to respond fully, he must become aware of and admit a similar framework of values, with an accompanying alertness of perception and sympathy.
Sounds ideal, which it is, but it is not essential. One can be an artist without originality or dependence. How many artists are masters of themselves, or even seek to be, except in a self-delusive way warring against minor restrictions?
In the community of the wary, the servile, and the corrupt, a widespread atrophy of sensitivity sets in. There is a displacement from emotional engagement, to sensuous diversion. Claims for attention and acceptance resort increasingly to excess of shrillness, shock, massivity, pretension. We can see the signs around us.
Our established artist can live in a drugged circle of supply-demand, success-prestige, and never cross the ring. Imagination becomes a tool of social ambition, achievement is marketable, standards are set by the consumer.
The absence of servility is no guarantee of an opposition to authoritarian practice in general. Many anti-establishment protests embodied in artistic vehicles seem to me the sentiments of those who resent this form of authority, but would have another. Many members of our culture have received an upbringing which was not severely disciplined, but in which the principle of authority was never questioned. Where authority was invested in benign figures who were also repositories of affection, comfort, protection, etc., it could have developed into a perpetual need in association with personal attention. The impersonal exercise of authority by the State might then be vaguely experienced as a cheat and become a constant source of ill-defined resentment. I suspect a great number of social protests have this sort of motivation.
The answer is not to evaluate films by purity of motive or degrees of innovation. The former may be irrelevant, the latter may be inhibitory. I find myself embarrassed in discussion when friends are dismayed by my attitude in attacking or shrugging off a film which they praise because it shows anger at authoritarian society, or compassion for its repressed and deluded casualties.
Not enough, I say, I can give only qualified praise, even if the arguments strike home clearly. The reply comes: What's so bloody special about your film art then, that it can be held important enough to take the knock on Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, with all its demonstrable lessons?
Well, have I really retreated into a sort of Specialists' encystment from the world when I accept Paths of Glory but not Man in the Middle or The Condemned of Altona; Les Amants but not The Die is Cast; The Exiles but not I, the Aboriginal; Baby, the Rain Must Fall but not Long Day's Journey into Night; War Hunt but not Bitter Victory or The Hook; Station Six Sahara but not The Balcony?
So I find myself making the big defence. It is important to me to make it.
I have to get it fairly clear in my mind what art in any form is going to do for me. I can hardly plead that it is "natural", when there seem to be plenty of people of my acquaintance who can conduct their lives to their own satisfaction without deep or frequent traffic with the arts - people who could not be regarded as inferior or pathological by any standard I should want to hold.
In quite a few places I am groping for acceptable formulations. Knowing what I feel myself may not save me from going under when I lean too heavily upon other people's theories. But the best place to test my intellectual constructions is before the company whose basic values I share. If they are brought down - well, that will show they were not firm enough.
It is not that I value the practice of art more highly than say, support of principles like permissive training, or guiltless sexuality, or resistance to institutional standardization, but that art is distinguished by its primary concern, not with analysis and judgement of situations, but with their emotional content.
If the emotional content incorporates views of which I approve, then this is by way of a bonus.
Confusion arises particularly in the representational arts that are organized around narrative ( which film has no necessity to be - though most films show this sort of development).
If the explicit propositional arguments of the work are going to be its criteria of assessment, they might better be presented in the forum, unencumbered by representational forms. Any emotional quality these express, may greater enthuse the putter of the arguments, but cannot improve the validity of his reasoning.
If the arguments are not incorporated primarily to be attended to as arguments, they need to take their place in the ordering of emotional phases. The presentation of emotional content of situations may very well involve the organization of numerous personal reactions, and these, on reflection, may lead to value judgements. But the order of precedence must be observed if the peculiar quality of the aesthetic experience is to be had.
I would not have much hope that artistic presentation could reshape the opinions of a sophisticated person, but it could reinforce an overall view by an assembly of provocative elements.
So the art in which I am involved is not going to be a shaper of my values, but merely a reinforcer; a source of feelings only, not principles. I do not consider this to be the inferior thing it sounds. If the emotion were not already in existence in some generalised form, the impetus to form, hold and practice these values would not have been generated. Here it is being re-presented, crystallized, contemplated.
"Contemplation" takes on a special meaning. At the risk of getting out of my depth on aesthetic questions, I will use Baensch's assertion that artistic appreciation is a "knowing" process. Science "knows" the ordering of physical events; art "knows" the emotional content of experience. Art aims to be understood, but since what it makes the subject aware of is of an emotive nature. it elicits a reaction of pleasure or displeasure. The emotional reaction is incidental to the cognitive act of coming to "know" an emotion, or complex of emotions.
The emotion is presented free from a social context, free from the need to act. This is the special contemplation which art affords.
We should already have made our commitments to the social context. The artistic representation should not need to be the occasion of knowing better the context, but of knowing better the emotional qualities residual in the context.
This does not make beliefs irrelevant. Anyone not totally unselfconscious who is concerned with living some part of this life in art must have made a moral decision to begin. Also, representational art works frequently rely for effect upon morally loaded responses. But these are organized in the emotional complex which is the whole; the knowing of this requires a special sort of detachment, a divorce of feeling from its practical implications.
Only by an operation like this can I come to know the emotional content of attitudes which I theoretically fear or despise, like the intoxicating barbarism of Triumph of the Will, or that juggernaut of a personal myth which sums the career of John Wayne.
(An Andersonian view of the three traditional mental faculties - cognitive, conative, affective - which regards the emotion as that which does the knowing and the striving, might regard the artistic object as presenting the emotion without the relations of knowing and striving, though with the relations of being known, and being striven for.)
"Detachment" may be conceived in two dimensions - physical or psychological. Consider a factual film of an atrocity, say, the Auschwitz ovens. The reactions it evokes of horror, rage, whatever, may be as strong as those from the same images viewed while physically present. Actually, the reaction there would be not "contemplated", but overlaid and intricated with such practical considerations as "whatever can I do to stop it", "am I going to be a victim, too?", etc.
A continuous factual newsreel, like an instructional demonstration film, or a filmed debate, or the record of the baby's first steps on the lawn, is not art. There is a degree of detachment here, but it applies of necessity because of displacement in time and space. This physically necessary detachment could be reduced, for instance, by the use of closed circuit television. It might still function, for instance, for something as tense as a surgical operation, yet some mishap in front of the camera could conceivably send the viewer off to help in instances of proximity.
In the artistic situation, the aesthetic response needs a sense of detachment from the context of the action independent of practical spatio-temporal factors.
Vivas, in The Problems of Aesthetics, puts it this way: "An aesthetic experience is an experience of rapt attention which involves the intransitive apprehension of an object's immanent meanings in their full presentational immediacy".
"Immanent" meanings are qualities directly in the object, and not referential signs "standing for" anything else.
"Intransitive" attention is controlled so that it does not extend to meanings not present immanently in the experienced object.
Vivas found certain generic traits of aesthetic objects - unity in variety, theme emphasis, rhythmic evolution - correspond fairly closely with what psychologists have specified as "factors of advantage" controlling attention - change, strength, striking quality, definite form. He regarded this correspondence as the explanation of the attention-binding ("rapt") nature of the aesthetic experience.
I cannot say this further supports my pre-occupation with art, but it does pass the onus on to those who live well enough without it.
Naturalism has been manifest (in practice or principle) in various art-forms and ages. With extension of the naturalistic criterion to drama's special combination of kinetic and pictorial representational forms, there arises a practical need for assertion of the "intransitive" nature of aesthetic experience.
Ibsen, and the "fourth wall" drama, provoked a theoretical controversy. The naturalistic drama was seen by some as indistinguishable from reality (i.e., as real as, and real-in-the-same-way-as, that which it depicted), and there ensued a great boil-up of theories about art and life and illusion and reality.
However, the reception of popular melodrama was not significantly affected by questions of whether "real" houses, and "real" train-wrecks were on stage, or whether it was "real" water that the Colleen Bawn was drowning in, and this, plus the fact that theatre carried on unparalysed (if not unchanged), suggests that these theories were remote from artistic practice. I see it more as evidence that the majority of theatrical patrons sought primarily "entertainment", and went on happily muddling intrinsic and extrinsic evaluations of drama.
Personally, I am unable to accept the most shrewdly documented dramatic surface of dialogue and decor as naturalistic - much less as interchangeable with reality (i.e., interchangeable with what it purports to be: since, of course, as a human situation striving to be accepted as other than itself, it is part of reality: it is a real human situation striving, etc.). The realism-reality division is irrelevant to the nature of the dramatic situation.
Yet it was actively disputed for a generation until 1913 when, in a single essay in British Journal of Psychology, Edward Bullough formulated the concept of "physical distance", and settled the controversy. It is now a dead issue for theatrical production.
Allowing Bullough's concept of "physical distance" as a general aesthetic principle ( of special importance in the representational arts) , I am excited by the emergence of some characteristic forms of cinema - the new art of the technological civilization - which can make, if not a breakthrough, at least a distinct modification.
Even in the Story film, where the action before the camera is contrived, the kinetic and pictorial representational forms are:
The factual film bears a crucially different relation to reality from other art forms. The literary dimension is absent from the sort of factual film whereby the film-maker, regardless of his orientation, cannot contrive or impose upon his material a pre-existing scheme, or direction, or developmental rhythm. Examples of this I give later.
My preoccupation is with the possibilities of this distinct, little understood art form which can place the artist (and, in turn, the viewer) in a special relationship to the world, and to the exploration of its emotional content.
When the art work is experienced through a range of sensitivity similar to that which we bring to our everyday lives, the resultant emotional content is likely to develop along lines of inference and replication similar to those which operate in the flux of living. Our judgements and attitudes are "lived out" without the mediation of aesthetic conventions.