Writing on nineteenth century morality in his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault noted a significant paradox: for all their supposed prudishness, the Victorians spoke constantly about sex. Far from keeping sex hidden, the processes of repression made it all the more prominent. For sex to be forcefully banished to the shadows, it first had to be continually brought to light.
The same paradox can be found in the relationship of Australian artists to the suburbs. For more than a century Australian artists, writers, musicians and film-makers have grappled with suburban geography, architecture, lifestyles and values. They have addressed the physical nature of the suburbs (particularly their landscape and architecture), and the behaviour, values and ideologies associated with them (which I will term 'suburbia'). Suburbs and suburbia have often been condemned by artists, who have found them confusing and threatening. Yet as a result, the suburbs have become a leitmotif of Australian art and writing, one whose meaning is assumed to be self-evident but is, paradoxically, always up for grabs.
Such is the puzzling status of the suburbs: they are continually displayed, only to be declared a subject beneath the dignity of art; they are a subject of endless fascination, yet are repeatedly characterised as banal; they are condemned as uniform and monotonous, yet seem to provide an endless variety of imagery. Only in recent years have artists found ways to move beyond this pattern of attraction and repulsion, pointing the way towards a new appreciation of the suburbs and their acceptance as a legitimate subject for the arts.
The assumption that Australian artists don't picture the suburbs - or at least haven't until recent decades -has been almost a cliché of Australian art history. In fact there is an intriguing and diverse history of suburban images from the nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth, although often in media (such as print or watercolor), style (including decorative modernisms), or genre (such as architectural studies, still lifes or streetscapes) that traditionally held little prestige. Images of the suburbs were central to the vision of some of the most significant artists to come to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1970s the diversity of understandings of, and approaches to, the suburbs multiplied. It is now the norm, rather than the exception, for artists to address the suburbs in the course of their work. Art history is also, now, more inclined to consider the suburbs and a history of suburban imagery. This stems from a realisation that the task of analysis goes beyond establishing the meaning of a motif within art, and must encompass its meaning within society as a whole. The final chapters of this book, therefore, will provide a more detailed examination, and greater number of examples, from the art of the most recent decades. ……………………………………