One of the more delicate questions we ask our interviewees in a life story interview is how they feel about death. When I posed this question to art writer Guy Brett (1942 – 2021) in 2008, he gave an answer which succinctly encapsulated our own collaborative endeavour in that moment: ‘I believe in human memory. If nobody remembers you, then you’ve gone, but if people remember you, you live on in some form or another […] that is the afterlife’.
Guy had recently returned from a writing residency in New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori culture and their value system. He lingered on the ideas behind Maori attitudes to life informed by their belief in ancestor worship. The Maori people, Guy explained, are conscious all the time of the genealogy of their families and those who are no longer alive: their ancestors have a present quality and are always being invoked, so their sense of the past remains ever present.
At the end of recording Guy’s life story for ‘Art World Professionals’ as part of 'Artists' Lives' [shelf-mark C466-270], I told him that National Life Stories had made a life story recording with his own father, the architect, town planner and writer, Lionel Brett (Lord Esher), for the ‘Architect’s Lives’ archive [shelf-mark C467/14], a decade earlier. Guy found the discovery of his father’s narration of his own life journey profoundly moving. As a thinker, Guy insisted on the clear understanding of the beginnings of things: ‘it’s like a seed’, he said, ‘tracing back to where things originate’. Perhaps this perspective was why the intergenerational exchange of father to son through life story testimony became such a moving moment; through Lionel Brett’s reflections, Guy returned to his own beginnings.
The Bretts enjoyed tremendous privilege, but they were acutely aware of their sense of responsibility outside themselves. Even though father and son pursued radically different paths in their lives, their recordings testify to a mutual devotion to public service. Guy took the freedoms he inherited and used them deliberately, responsibly: he dedicated his life to championing the work of marginalised artists and worked tirelessly to reorient the art world’s gaze to the innovations and contributions of artists from the Southern Hemisphere.
Sometimes Guy’s concerns meant turning his back on the art world altogether. About his 1986 book, Through our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, he confesses that ‘my interest in those popular forms were connected not with disillusionment, but a disappointment, with the professional art world […] I wanted to use my writing to make an intervention in the political process through art. It wasn’t to do with any particular political movement. The theme of the book was lived experience—the strange connection between an untutored practice or language dealing with overwhelmingly powerful social experiences’.
In order to pursue the causes in which he ardently believed, Guy had to operate independently. and it was perhaps due to his early life that he had the inner confidence to operate outside of the academy or institution, to shun dominant ideology. In this audio clip, Guy Brett explains how his response to art and artists were in opposition to the forces and mechanics of the art world at large.
Guy’s deliberate choice of ‘unjust’ in his description of neglected artists is significant: justice becomes a kind of leitmotif of Guy’s recording and lies at the heart of his personal motivation. From an early age, he identified his commitment to social justice—but the art world, as he emphatically reminds us, is a very unjust place. In his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown, Lionel Brett described his son as belonging to ‘the generation of Marcusean alienation’—that is, a generation of young people eager to break out of the ‘one dimensionality’ of a culture that meant that people found themselves in the commodities they purchased, not the ideas they thought. Looking at Guy Brett’s lifework, it becomes clear that his choices were informed by political convictions that, in his own words, ‘permeate your whole consciousness: it’s simply the pursuit of some idea of freedom, freedom from oppression’. Guy’s younger brother, the Chilean-based Human Rights activist, Sebastian Brett, observes that ‘the alienation of which my father wrote attracted us both to what in those days was optimistically called ‘The Third World’ […] we romantically identified with its liberation movements, and barely a few years later, with the movement of solidarity with victims of the military repression that swept the continent in the 1970s.’
Guy’s understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary moment illuminates his excitement for the promise of a more inclusive, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan London that was in its infancy as Guy came of age. From his earliest days in professional life, Guy aligned himself with a completely international notion of art and art practice that would undermine an art history predicated on a colonial gaze. He wanted to capture what, in his words, was the ‘extraordinary diversity, which is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-genre, and ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of artists themselves’.
In collaboration with Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, Guy helped set up the radical and short-lived Signals Gallery in 1964. This space provided a platform to a host of Brazilian artists—among them, Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo—as well as Venezuelan artists Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. While London museums and galleries promoted British formal abstraction and embraced American-oriented material culture, Guy was busy writing about bubble machines made by David Medalla. Generally perceived at the time as mad experiments, these temporal sculptures were, for Guy, a ludic riposte to the new forms in British sculpture: whatever forms the bubble machine made immediately evaporated—thus contradicting the notion of a permanent piece of sculpture. In this next audio clip, Guy articulates his response to seeing kinetic artwork produced by the Greek artist, Takis, for the first time. Guy’s spoken expression captures the sense of quizzical intrigue and excitement with which he received these new forms of art. When the rest of the world caught up several decades later, Guy curated Takis’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.
Guy’s receptive sensibility meant that his writing existed in a symbiotic relationship to the artwork he sought to explain. In his recording, Guy describes the process of identification he felt with certain artists when he responded to their work. He explains how Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s attitude made so much sense to him that it became ingrained in his own way of looking at things. Guy’s sometimes humourous, always poignant, recounting of organising Oiticica’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition, the ‘Whitechapel Experience’, in the face of mounting establishment opposition, reminds us of the battles fought by this generation who innovated radical new propositions in art. The panoply of experiences on offer—the staged beach experience; human-sized nesting boxes; and a billiard table that invited the participation of local youths—was a far cry from the self-contained art objects usually on quiet display.
Guy’s lifelong commitment to the path less travelled took courage: an autodidact with no formal training, he enjoyed a curiosity uninhibited by convention. His writing about art drew not on academic jargon but on pre-verbal feelings stimulated by his engagement with both the work and the maker. He cherished intellectual freedom and made unexpected connections between cultures and disciplines—from the lived experience to the interplay of science and mystical philosophy; in his words, ‘All I have learnt about art I learnt from artists and knowing artists and talking with artists and looking at what they did and my own reading’.
In keeping with his interest in Maori custom, Guy Brett’s presence will continue to be felt, not only through his finely-wrought prose and quietly radical sensibility, but also through his words as captured by his life story recording, which still have much to teach us if we make the time to listen. The gently probing, deliberately paced and stripped back audio recordings in the National Life Stories archive offer an antidote of resonant, lived reflection: they create a vital space, amongst the digital noise of our twenty-first century lives, for profoundly felt, movingly candid responses to the human condition.
Written by Hester R. Westley.
Hester R. Westley interviewed Guy Brett for the National Life Stories Project Artists’ Lives in 2007-2008. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/270 at sami.bl.uk The interview with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher) can be listened to online at BL Sounds.