Felix the Catalyst: An Antipodean Who Animated Modernism
Keywords:Felix the Cat, animation, popular culture, Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer, transnationalism
Despite acknowledgement that cultural exchange is an active two-way process, there remains metropolitan condescension towards the role played by the less powerful peripheral partner in this transaction. It is still the centre that determines whether to recognize, to accept, and to appropriate the visual imagery of its former colonies and, finally, whether or not to absorb it into the High Art canon. Yet, in peripheral societies that lacked both public art institutions and private patronage, the imperium’s cultural traditions could not be reliably promulgated by High Art alone. Instead, this cultural colonisation was achieved by means of the less esteemed imagery that commonly goes by the misnomer ‘popular’ visual culture.
If, in its reductive simplification of great art, popular visual culture is considered well suited to a mere colony, is it not ironic that it has been reabsorbed surreptitiously from colony back to metropole? Because of its lowly status, its ubiquity, its anonymity, and the speed of its distribution, popular visual culture has infiltrated the metropolitan mainstream as if it were a clandestine colonial counter-attack—as seen in the example of Felix the Cat, alter-ego of the Sydney-born cartoonist Pat Sullivan, whose Australian larrikinism has been recast as the exemplar of ‘modern trickery’, and whose self-referential, metamorphic, transgressive and updated carnivalesque behaviour has influenced modern culture, world-wide. Sullivan/Felix is just one of many unrecognized expatriate Antipodeans who, as popular artists and performers working ‘undercover’, have successfully challenged—even changed—the hierarchical tenets of traditional western culture.
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