Barry Humphries and the Importance of Being an Artist

More Please, the autobiography of Barry Humphries

In the early 1990s I was a student on the MA Fine Art Alternative Media course at Chelsea College of Art and Design, and unfortunately I liked jokes. Unfortunately because jokes in art were Not A Thing, and certainly not a thing in the pressure-cooker environment of a London MA Fine Art course at the time where in the shadow of the recent YBA explosion being Serious And Professional About Your Art and Producing Large Collectable Product was the only acceptable modus operandi.

But I liked making disposable photocopied posters of Ludwig Wittgenstein appearing in Spot The Ball competitions, trying to re-enrol myself on the course as a pair of elderly artists, and making socks moan about how badly treated they were by everyone while espousing utterly dreadful views themselves. I liked making jokes and I liked making art and I could see a continuum between the two disciplines.

But back then at least this was Not The Way To Do It. I was never going to win the Turner Prize, never going to appear in Frieze, never going to be even glanced at by any of the hot critics or curators of the day.

And yet among its staff Chelsea did have a Patron Saint of Lost Causes, and his name was (and, as of this writing, still is) Kevin Atherton. And I was lucky enough to have him as my tutor.

Kevin patiently put up with my hare-brained attempts to put square pegs into round holes, and over the short months of the MA course imparted his wisdom in ways that were outside the art-conventional. One of which was suggesting I read John Lahr's book about Barry Humphries, Dame Edna Everage And The Fall Of Western Civilisation, and Humphries' autobiography More Please.

Naturally at that point in time Humphries and Dame Edna (and to a certain extent his other major creation Sir Les Patterson) were well known to me and anyone in the UK who turned on a TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But I didn't know anything about how Humphries started out or where his creations came from. And while the John Lahr book sketched out some details, the autobiography was a revelation for me at that time. Because essentially it described how to be an artist in a society when you find that society inherently absurd and therefore ripe for sending-up.

At university in Melbourne, while studying - crucially - law, philosophy and fine art, Humphries became enthralled by Dada, the proto-surrealist movement that emerged after World War One and was to a great degree a reflection of and reaction to the absurdity of a world that could blithely send millions of people to their deaths on the whims of a pathetically detached powerful few.

Though Dada's art exhibits and cabarets were headline-grabbers at the time and inspired a modest wave of satire across Switzerland, Austria and Germany  (Peter Cook would later quip however that the Berlin satirical cabarets of the 1930s "did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War"), these days Dada is appreciated solely as a collection of artefacts in museums, from Francis Picabia's machine diagrams to Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal. And this was certainly the case too when Humphries was starting out. But he realised that despite its cultural ossification, Dada still had something to offer, even in Melbourne in the 1950s. Especially in Melbourne in the 1950s.

Because what Humphries found around him was a staid society where going along to get along was the only way to get along. Where there were no 'rules' as such beyond the law... but there were rules. There were things you did do, and things you didn't. And if you didn't look like you were trying to do the things you were supposed to do, then that was as bad as not doing them at all.

Humphries found this attempting to conform absurd, and his instinct as an artist was to find it funny. And luckily he was able to create humour from this funniness. First as neo-Dadaist artworks - record players stuck playing the same few seconds of a song, a pair of wellies filled up with custard made to look like something revolting - then as performances. One particular favourite of his was to dress as a tramp and hide up his sleeve an amount of Russian Salad - diced vegetables in mayonnaise. Then he'd go out into a busy area of the city, and pretend to throw up. Cue shock and disgust from the passers-by... which would then be redoubled when he took out a fork and started eating the 'vomit' from the pavement.

These were great one-off japes, and stuck a fork - literally - into the everyday life of the inhabitants of Melbourne. But his satirical inclinations really came into their own and created something memorable, repeatable and extensible when he had the inspiration to create Edna Everage.

While touring Australia with the Melbourne Theatre Company he used to improvise characters in the back of the tour bus, and one of these was a reflection of the kind of very proper, upstanding conservative people from local theatre appreciation groups and councils tasked with greeting the visiting theatre troupe who had the lofty job of bringing Great Art in the form of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to their corner of the country. Such people were desperate to appear cultured, but at the same time not to appear arty or fanciful, and this caused them to speak and act in self-sabotagingly ludicrous ways. Humphries saw in these people a symptom of something larger than the people themselves, and over the weeks to come forged them into single character, Edna Everage (a play on the word Average).

Over the years of course he extended Edna's backstory and scope until the became first Dame Edna then Dame Edna Everage, Megastar. But throughout the character's life and her interactions with audience members and celebrities alike she remained a vehicle for him to channel his hilarity and underlying appreciation of the absurdity that he observed in society and culture around him.

Reading about all this in Humphries' autobiography back then, sitting in my 'studio space' in Chelsea (actually a section of a corridor, the better to observe the passing attitudes of students, staff and visiting artists alike), I realised there were great similarities between his thought processes and my own because they were coming out of the same area, the same ability to perceive absurdity and find it noteworthy and amusing, and rather than let that fizzle away to want to create something new out of it. 15 years previously, people in the same situation would have had the Sex Pistols to inspire them. I had Dame Edna and her gladioli. And I was, and continue to be, more than happy with that.

If you're an artist, I urge you to read his book.


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