t’s never been entirely clear to me what is meant by labels such as ‘hipster’, ‘indie’, ‘goth’, ‘punk’ and so on. Are these groups genuine renegades of Australian sub-culture? Or do they merely confirm society’s lazy caricatures and generalisations, built on shallow perceptions? Regardless of what these labels do for us, one Australian identity has remained consistent with the alternative ideologies and cultures that have proudly shaped Australian culture: the bohemian.
This fascinating event, chaired by ABC Radio National producer Sarah L’Estrange, delved into the history of Australian fringe culture: those larrikins and intellectuals who have shaken up politics and popular culture, and lived according to no one’s expectations of good, bad, clean or dirty.
Among those interviewed were former and current bohemians; Dr Tony Moore, a writer, historian and Monash academic; Si Jay Gould, a Melbourne-based promoter and poet; and designer Caroline Vains. Each speaker reeled off a list of their “bohemian credentials”; their reasons for deserving a place in the legacy of Australian bohemianism that stretches back to 1860.
Dr Moore recalled his involvement with post-punk subcultures in the 1980s, while Caroline Vains was “horrified, disturbed, distressed [and] disgusted” by the bourgeois values she grew up around. She literally removed herself from that part of society and spent ten years living with disenfranchised members of Sydney’s outer suburbs. There was also frequent mention of parties.
But, as the speakers took pains to express, there’s always been more to bohemianism than sex, drugs and rock and roll. The bohemian is unashamedly elitist in his or her tastes, carrying around a leftist sensibility and flare for activism that is communicated through their talents.
Moore, now author of an engaging study into Australia’s bohemian history, Dancing With Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians, was embedded in the underground media scene, working his way up to the ABC and Ms Vains has professional experience in interior architecture, theatre, film and television design. Both emphasised the notion that bohemianism is an ideal training ground for youths to gain the experience and values in order to enter into the working world in creative and exciting ways.
And as Gould argued, it isn’t all us-and-them. Some of our most edifying cultural footprints have come from a constant tug-of-war between the fringe and the mainstream, including festivals like Big Day Out and radio station Triple J, which has helped many bands achieve commercial success. This sentiment was echoed by an energetic and inspiring performance of Gould’s metropolitan epic, This City Speaks To Me.