Nihilism in New Zealand art: Ben Webb

Artbeat column no 437 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 23 February 2009

What is the place of Nihilism in New Zealand art? I’ve been thinking about this in connection with Ben Webb’s work, considering its New Zealand and European antecedents.

Our tradition was dominated by Romantic landscape in the 19th century and morphed into a kind of sometimes lyrical, sometimes visceral and occasionally prophetic expressionism in the 20thcentury. I’ve given a brief overview before of how this relates to western art generally. (This column, ODT 28/8/2006.) We are part of it and have fashioned responses to particular developments in Europe and America. We don’t entirely share those places’ social and intellectual climates but still dance to the same broad tunes – while sometimes repeating what seem like familiar New Zealand notes.

Toss Woollaston’s paintings can be lyrical and visceral at the same time, in wonderfully chaotic paroxysms. McCahon used raw materials and raw means to produce elegant and eloquent prophecies, not of doom, but of a deeply discounted hope. Hotere has shaken black banners, bespeckled with what might be blood, in warning at a wayward world. Younger expressionists like Jeffrey Harris have pointed to more personal abysses, while Andrew Drummond with his performance and installation work crossing the boundary between visual art and theatre, again referenced planetary apocalypse. In talking about his own thought and work Webb has spoken of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Art Brut and the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961).  Is there a common theme?

Antonin Artaud (1895-1948) was a French playwright and theoretician concerned that European theatre of his own time was conventional and ineffective. Drama should not be confined to stating a problem and finding its solution through character. It should be like “primitive” theatre, that of the Balinese or the ancient Dionysiac drama of the Greeks, a “communion between spectators and actors” which produced a kind of “frenzy and moving violence” a “delirium” through which fundamental, metaphysical truths become apparent to the participants – in the words of Wallace Fowlie. To achieve this Artaud thought the audience needed to be awed and even terrified. To that end theatre should make use of cruelty and danger. Artaud admired the paintings of Vincent van Gogh – the grandfather of modern expressionism. Like van Gogh Artaud suffered from mental illness and, being of a later time than the Dutchman, was aware of 20th century ideas about psycho-analysis which laid emphasis on dreams as a means to access significant truths.

Art Brut is the name the artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) gave to what we call “outsider art”, although Art Brut – literally “raw art” - is more narrowly conceived as the art specifically of the mentally ill. Dubuffet was using his term by the time Artaud died. In a view of the visual arts, parallel to Artaud’s of drama, Dubuffet felt that mainstream culture assimilated new developments in art rendering it ineffectual. The art of the mentally ill was not like that because the mentally ill are insulated from mainstream culture by their illness. Their art is thus apparently free from intellectual concerns, primitive and childlike. Dubuffet seems to have thought its effect is something like Artaud’s “primitive” forms of theatre. Dubuffet believed ordinary artists could achieve something comparable. He formed his own collection of Art Brut, now in Lausanne in Switzerland, and appears to have aimed to emulate it.


Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) was an innovating French novelist who made use of slang and coarser speech to give expression to a bleak view of the world which was nevertheless highly popular with the French reading public. There is something in his antiheroic take on human suffering which connects with a lot of people – at least in Europe. He is controversial, having been accused of anti-semitism, but has also been very influential, on writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, for example. Celine, like Artaud and Dubuffet, believed art needed radical re-invention. He thought the world was oblivious and needed re-connection with fundamentals - and that art would have to adopt something like shock tactics to achieve it.

There are common themes here with McCahon, Hotere, early Harris and early Drummond. All are innovators; Harris could be said to be an outsider; all seek to spark an awareness of danger in a complacent world through means which could be described as “shock tactics”. Yet there are differences. None of these seems burdened by the continental European sense of guilt and moral ambiguity, except, perhaps, McCahon. And, while all of them are elegant artists, producing works of great formal beauty, all employ shock tactics, taking no prisoners. This is the point at which Webb differs.

He has the European sense of déjà vu, or the European burden of guilt. Sixty years down the track from 1945 it comes out in understatement. There is shock here, but no horror; perception, but no anger.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times