For Dr Chris McAuliffe, Professor of Art at the School of Art and Design, Australian National University, Canberra, the era of rock ‘n’ roll began on 27 January 1956, with the release of Elvis Presley’s single, Heartbreak Hotel. The decade following the Second World War was an era of great societal change and the global rise of mass media and mass consumption, driven by the new teenage and youth markets. Across the arts, new ways of being in the world called for new ways of picturing, leading the way to Post-Modernism.

Visual artists such as Sir Peter Thomas Blake and Ray Johnson were quick to engage with rock ‘n’ roll’s totally new and different way of delivering sound. Their response to the sheer sexuality of the music and its performers, the emphasis on rhythm rather than melody, and the advent of the frenzy of the fan, led to a new kind of subjectivity and an insistence on new ways of looking. Elvis himself quickly became a favourite subject, artists playing with his masculinity and dandyism, or portraying him as a mythical, tragic figure.  Art became visceral and live in its depiction of rock ‘n’ roll’s energetic audibility.  Jackson Pollock’s work can be seen as his response to the stimulus of rock ‘n’ roll.

The insistence on looking hard and looking properly also shifted art into the new practice of cultural studies. Artists such as Blake were no longer simply interested in making pictures, but attempting to engage with the new teenage consumers, as seen in his 1961 Self Portrait with Badges. The impact of their work had a reach far beyond art. Indeed, the Rock Artists of the late 1950s fostered a revolution that would mould and reshape the very roots of culture and society worldwide.
Elizabeth Kay

Feature image: Left to right, Elizabeth Kay, President; Jillian Wellings, Vice-President; Sarah Farrar, Senior Curator Art; Dr Chris McAuliffe, Professor of Art at the School of Art and Design, Australian National University; Charlotte Davy, Head of Art; Dayle Mace, Co-chair Te Papa Foundation.