new zealand electronic poetry centre


High Culture Now! A Manifesto 

(for Hesketh Henry)

Wystan Curnow

This lecture began as a contribution to a meeting of stakeholders—they came bleeding, grasping at the four-by-twos projecting at crazy angles from the breasts of each, staggering from the elevator, reaching out their hands for the nibbles provided, the drinks, the hands to shake of the partners, their hosts—to discuss New Vision, A Critical View of the Visual Arts Infrastructure, commissioned by Creative New Zealand and the Chartwell Trust and released in April 1998. The idea for the meeting came from the law firm Hesketh Henry and was held in their offices on the 3rd of September 1998. By calling it a manifesto I hoped it would be taken internally. Not to be taken as absolute truth nor with a grain of sand. It has been supplemented with an assortment of annotations and interpolations.


1. Art is not for its own sake but for the sake of thought and feeling. Art is a set of practices which together sustain the capacity of a variety of media to generate new forms of thought and feeling. The measure of their novelty is their potential to displace, replace or misplace dominant and familiar forms of thought and feeling, not of their newness as such.

The practices which contribute most to that capacity are in the long run valued more highly. These new forms of thought and feeling are the basis for art’s social value, for its proper relation to power and culture.

Art by this description is a kind of research, as the presence of Schools of Fine Arts, of Music, as well as Departments of Literature, Art History and so on, within our institutions of higher learning implies. Indeed, what I would call high culture is largely made up of the basic research activities of all those organizations and businesses that promote and sustain them. Morse Peckham’s definition which I quoted in ‘High Culture in a Small Province’ way back in 1973 is worth restating

The highest level of culture is marked first, by extreme richness; it contains in solution innumerable ambiguities and ambivalences and puzzles and problems. Anyone who, lives at that level is as much involved in discovering problems as he (sic) is in solving them. Second, therefore, the life of members of the highest cultural levels requires psychic insulation for only that makes problem exposure tolerable. Third that level maintains itself by alliance with political power, social status and wealth.

Lest it seem I would abandon high culture to the academy as we know it, however,let me echo concerns about its institutionalised forms sounded recently by my colleague, Charles Bernstein:

Research and analysis can exist independently of the forms in which they are represented but cannot finally remain unaffected by them. The governing principle of the plain style of much critical prose is that it should be as neutral as possible that it should not call attention to itself. Untidy thoughts and facts must be made to conform to this ‘anti’-rhetoric, if not by the author then by the interventionist editorial practices of professional journals that enforce mood and tone control …What justifies this monologic tone-jammed prose? It is always fair to ask of a mode of writing—what interests does it serve?

It is the extreme richness Peckham describes that makes possible the process of critical change that characterises the dynamic of art in the high culture. Of course wholesale displacements of forms of thought and feeling don’t happen every day. Those that I know something about all date from the 1970s, and are associated with conceptual art, post-structuralist theory and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. These areas of practice have gone through significant and more or less parallel changes since then, as the new forms broadened out to take in a wider range of cultural experiences, particularly those of marginalized gender and ethnic groups. The challenges they pose to the ruling forms of thought and feeling remain the most telling of the alternatives. 

Two questions are relevant (1) does our high culture fit Peckham’s description better now than it did in 1973, and (2) has it generated new forms of thought and feeling? The answer to the first is yes, but it remains fragile and thin, and to the second, yes but unevenly. The 80s were good years for the high culture, but the last ten years have put those gains at risk. Over the last two decades it is the middle culture, however, which has shown the most significant growth in New Zealand. And in the 1990s some of that growth has been at the expense of the development of the high culture, in so far as resources have been shifted from it to the development of audiences, and markets, and definitions and understandings of purpose (it’s a playing field, a mission statement, its a performance indicator ) changed in line with that shift. 

2. Art may be entertaining (often is ) but it is not entertainment first and foremost. Entertainment sustains the capacity of various media to maintain enjoyment of the familiar (novel variants on it), to massage the ruling forms of thought and feeling. Commonly the enjoyment comes from the pleasure to be had from the fear the ruling forms will fail (all hell breaks loose) combined with relief that comes with the assurance they have after all held firm (whew!).Entertainment is a house of wax. Not always amusing—frequently beyond a joke, a graveyard, the resting place of forms of thought and feeling that have had to be put down. Bless them. May they rest, then, in peace, and patiently await the call (if it ever comes) to reincarnation in the high culture.

Time now for a few examples

(a) Poetry. Anthologies of New Zealand poetry have over the last 50 years played a defining role in the critical understanding of our literature. Alex Calder has shown how a short history of poetry and nationalism in the now-called Aotearoa/New Zealand can be written by way of a history of the major anthologies. Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse proposed a radical revision. One fifth of their material was Maori; they gave us our first bicultural canon. Equally important was their ability to pick out for the 1980s, a range of ambivalences and ambiguities, puzzles and problems, in the understanding of our literature and culture not identified by previous anthologists. The same cannot be said, however, for the Penguin’s 1990s successor The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams. As Calder noted, ‘It is national only in the limited sense of hoping to capture a national market. To this end, the publishers sent out a circular canvassing the opinions of university and school teachers of English as to their favourite poems and poets. I am not sure how much influence this actually had on the selection and arrangement of content but the result prompts an instructive, if discouraging comparison with its predecessors.’ It is, however, a nineties question, a nineties problem.

A more important problem or puzzle which the editors have left to their successors is the extraordinary sameness of recent poetry or their selection of it, a fact made more obvious by the odd decision to begin their book in the present and work backwards. Since one of the few claims they make is for the diversity of their collection the sameness of it must arise largely from a blindness to it. The first 100 pages or more consist mainly of short lyric poems each of which is unified by a voice, one which does not change much from poem to poem, author to author. Usually colloquial, and in the first person, these poems concern themselves almost exclusively with personal feelings, shifts in individual consciousness, as if this was all that poetry could do. In a decade during which the news and entertainment media increasingly personalize and privatize social and political problems, sentimentalize and sensationalize all emotion, this kind of poetry seems a part of the problem of public language in our culture rather than a critical response to it. This kind of poem was designed for the passionless people Gordon McLaughlin once accused us of being, but today everyone is passionate about everything they do, at least they had better be. The new forms of thought and feeling proposed by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were a response to corruption of public language in America, and yet the editors of the Oxford dismiss them as another foreign fad. In this they are not alone. Policing the boundaries of the ruling forms with cheap passing shots at L=poetry is as close as we get to serious debate in the poetry world these days.

(b) In the 1990s Colin McCahon became a New Zealand icon. The prices paid for his work separated him from his predecessors and contemporaries more decisively than years of critical praise and discussion had managed to do. In one of those millennium publications whose name I have already forgotten, he was voted our greatest artist. A set of McCahon stamps has been minted. The Maori activists who stole his Urewera mural to make some political capital out of it, knew this was more than a painting, as did the galleries that made an exhibition of its return, and said it was his most famous painting. Before it disappeared it was in fact one of his least known paintings. In becoming an icon McCahon has become more than a painter, and this changed and complicated his relation to younger generations of artists. His work is out of art’s hands now. Where once it influenced his fellow artists, in the 90s, it became by way of a series of homages and rip-offs, a preferred site for negotiating art’s current relation to the culture. Peter Robinson, Dick Frizzell, Gail Haffern, Ian Scott, and even Australian artists like Imants Tillers and Greg Bennett, are among the painters who have turned McCahon’s 1976 painting Am I Scared into a 90s palimpsest. This kind of appropriation, re-rendering, this speaking through, another artist’s work is the commonest form of conceptual painting. 

(c) Post-structuralist theory. The recent visit of the famous post-structuralist, Jacques Derrida was an important high culture occasion. His public lecture more than filled the Town Hall. It was followed by the conference, Derrida Down Under at the University of Auckland. I was surprised (pleasantly) by the size (a full house) and engagement of the audience for the public lecture, and disappointed (unpleasantly) by the standard of the papers offered to the conference. As much as anything it was a reminder that the translation of the new forms of post-structuralist writing into the antithetic rigidities of academic exposition is a typical failure of the high culture. To cite Bernstein again: ‘The test of the new poststructuralists will be whether we will change the prevailing institutionalized infatuation with triumphalist specialisation, neoscientific prose, and all shape and manner of standardization from tests to course designs.’ And it raised a question for that Town Hall audience: what has our own high culture got to offer it?

3. Art is not thought and feeling, but forms for same: signs, languages, codes and conventions. Form has a bad name because it is associated with formalism, which is supposed to abhor thought and feeling. Also because it is associated with aesthetics, which also has a bad name. Both are considered essentially decorative, form is mere form, decoration, is mere decoration, an optional extra to thought and feeling. But meaning is form, and form is not an attribute of art only but determines cultural meaning as well. Culture is a battleground of forms and don’t you forget it. Artists are among those who know this already.

4. Art communicates (often does) but not first and foremost. And mostly not at first hand. New forms of thought and feeling are not always recognizable without some real time and trouble. Of course, they are not. A better word for the process is dissemination. This circulation of forms is far too complex to be captured by audience surveys.

5. Art’s public is not single. Nor is it passive. What are new forms of thought and feeling to one public are familiar and established forms to another. What is art to one may be entertainment to another. Art’s initial public consists of other artists and art world insiders. Indeed, the set of practices by which new forms are generated include those of both art makers and expert viewers and readers. So forms and feelings tend to move, with a little help or a lot, from one public to another in a more or less structured way. A public shares some of the attributes of a community.

6. Art’s primary support structures (museums, universities, galleries, publishers, public and private funding agencies) are responsible for recognizing/constructing new forms of thought and feeling, and the challenges such forms pose, the links they suggest with more familiar and established forms. This is the first of their responsibilities to art. Then second, and secondmost, they are responsible for dissemination, for moving them from smaller publics to larger ones, and in the direction of places of power, culture and even of entertainment.

There was an art gallery building boom here in the nineties. Te Papa was just the most nationally visible example of a national trend. Dunedin got a new Public Art Gallery, Auckland the New Gallery, Wellington the City Gallery, New Plymouth a new wing to the Govett-Brewster. And it continues, with work beginning on a new MacDougall for Christchurch, additions to Wanganui’s Serjeant. Many of these were actually refurbishments rather than new structures. Oddly enough this unprecedented investment in bricks and mortar coincided with a period of re-structuring local bodies in which the value and purpose of not to say the existence of public art galleries was questioned, and amalgamations, redundancies and budget cuts resulted. All these new or refurbished buildings moved the art galleries closer to the local downtown area, closer to the flows of shoppers, movie-goers, on-going streams of benefits and so on. Although there were genuine inadequacies in the kinds and quantities of space available in some of these institutions, the rush to build must also be explained as a form of aggressive defence against the threats posed by their local and national government masters. The new buildings are intended to serve a new, larger audience, itself still under construction, rather than say to meet the demands of a new burgeoning of the high culture. Te Papa, which as a new institution, was formed with exactly this intention, and has led the way in delivering this wider audience for museums. By the same token it was the recent review of Te Papa, commissioned by the new Labour Government, that identified the by no means necessary price of the high culture price exacted by this new focus The review highligthed the marginalizing and fragmentation of the spaces devoted specifically to art, and the hijacking of art objects for confusing essays on New Zealand culture in the installation PARADE.

If the characteristic public gallery exhibition of the second half of the 1980s was the theme show -- The Self, 1986; Exhibits, 1988; Sex & Sign, 1987; When Art Hits the Headlines 1987; Nobodies,1989; Imposing Narratives, 1989; Putting the Land on the Map, 1989; Choice! 1990, culminating in Headlands in 1992 -- the characteristic 1990s group show featured the private collection: Dream Collectors, 1998; The BNZ Collection 1999; Collected Works. Going Public at the Govett-Brewster, 1970-2000. Home and Away, the Chartwell Collection, 1999; Collector’s Choice 1999-2000. Theme shows could be controversial because they were explicitly engaged in the work of displacing familiar forms of thought and feeling. It was sometimes said that the curator and his thesis got in the way of the art. The recent rash of collection shows, on the other hand, privileges the private collector with much less justification. It is not the collector’s ideas we are asked to consider but ‘the passion, commitment, individual vision and sometimes quirky nature of some of New Zealand’s great collectors’, that are offered for admiration. These shows, we are told on the Te Papa website, "are as much portraits of the collector as they samplings of art. " (Add these words to your vocabulary: ‘passion’, ‘vision’, ‘commitment’. ) While there is no doubt that there are more art collectors than there were, or that they have an increasingly important part to play in the high culture, or that their projects should be applauded, there is something questionable in making cultural heroes of them. Exhibiting their collections in this way would seem to have more to do with good PR for the gallery; and another example of the aggressive defence mentality that grips the sector. The advertising for some of these shows has been remarkable for its willingness to appeal to people who don’t like art (but respect the money that gets paid for some of it) and to offend those who do. The Bates campaign on behalf of Te Papa’s Dream Collectors, its first touring exhibition, set a standard. ‘Go to the Bloody Opera’ (and I am quoting) you creeps!

7. Art’s forms of thought and feeling have lives of their own, however. While institutional structures try to manage their dissemination, to see to their progress from public to public, art makes its own way to places where the source of those forms in art practice is simply lost sight of. It makes itself felt in fashion, in craft, in advertising, in music videos. Art gets by without (or despite) support structures, just as society gets by without art. Art spreads, infects the social body, and is not to be second-guessed. Watch out.

8. Art’s publics are communities of thought and feeling changed by the art they are an audience for. They also say what the art is, and they change it, for better or for worse, in the process. Understandings are partial to the point of being misunderstandings. New forms of thought and feeling are commonly mistaken for variants of old forms.

9. Art sponsorship is usually not patronage. It is probably advertising, supporting art for commercial or political ends. As soon as use to those ends is in doubt the money goes out faster than it came in. Rip-tide. See ya later, Royal New Zealand Ballet, New Zealand Opera. Patronage, on the other hand, supports art for art’s ends. Sponsors want gratitude -- it adds value. Patrons may be embarrassed by it.

You can see I am warming to my task. Or, in the words of Saatchi supremo and art collector, Kevin Roberts, I am getting seriously pumped. If we don’t define art from the perspective of the high culture, if we don’t say what we believe art does in the culture at large, then of course others will confuse their own ends with those of art, including the ‘average punter’on whose behalf Radio New Zealand’s Paul Bushnell badgered the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, or the Kate Belgraves of the culture: ‘the point is not results.’ she writes, ‘it’s all about making money available for as many people as possible to express themselves -- even if the rest of us can’t understand what they’re trying to do." (New Zealand Herald May 30, 2000). Or Peter Biggs, the ex-adman director of Creative New Zealand:

The enormous task in front of us is to shift the consciousness of this nation. And it is the arts sector who must lead the way in doing this . . . my vision and hope for New Zealand is that we can and should be a country of passion and compassion, of vibrancy ( yes lord) of mind, body and spirit, of generosity (yes lord, say it again) and openness . . . It is through the art that the unique radiance which is ours in Aotearoa-New Zealand will shine out to the rest of the world and, in doing so light up our lives.

I can confidently say that the many artists, writers, critics, and scholars with whom I work and associate do not see themselves as part of the Creative New Zealand project as Peter Biggs describes it. And that is one of our problems.

10. But art is not applied. In this art is unusual if not unique. It does not illustrate capitalism or the story of Rangi and Papa. Its forms have their sources and their uses, but art’s philosophy of practice is its own. Its power to generate new forms of thought and feeling depends upon its not being already being spoken for.

I had coffee once with George Barker, the author of Cultural Capital and Policy 2000, a short book commissioned by the Film Commission. He was recommended to me as someone with some sharp economic ideas about the funding of the arts. He told me what an exciting field modern economics was, and then wanted to tell me what its implications were for the arts. Well, I wanted to tell him what an exciting field the contemporary arts were and what its implications were for economics. After a while it became clear to us both that nothing was going to come of this conversation.

Physical capital: physical objects reaping a whirlwind of benefits through riotous analogies in an ongoing way. Strike a rock with a stave. Traditionally inputs (outputs, snake it aboutputs) into production processes (machinery, land) but now consumer dirigibles (fridgibles, motor mowers, whistle blowers) and more, such as objects empowered with the symbolic (I’ll say it does.)

Human capital: knowledge, competencies and the unavoidable quriky foibles embodied in people as language implants. No cyborgs allowed. Traditionally seen as skills acquired through education, boot camps, mountain retreats and nights on the town that reap astream, that descry a river of munificence and damn the consequences of marketable ser abilities that can be cashed up. Make no mistake Conceptual art poses new challenges to accepted ideas of human capital which will broaden horizons. I said prophetic not prosthetic.

Social capital: the newest, brightest and least though through of our supercharged Linguistic attack groups, one which knows full well that people get/wet/ set Ongoing streams Of benefits from relationship building airship hydrogen jukebox knuckleheads. Social Capital is commonly seen under a malevolent light as the goo that produces communities, but this ignores the power point implants in relationships that may also explode with remarkable results.

(with thanks to Christopher Madden, ‘The economic benefits of art,’ 1998. Discussion paper commissioned by Creative New Zealand.)

11. Art (call it ‘high’ culture) is not opposed to, nor the opposite of, popular (call it ‘low’) culture. (nor, on the other hand is popular culture at one with entertainment.) Art will of necessity find its practices in unlikely places. While it participates in the context of culture at large and affects the forms of thought and feeling that give meaning to that culture, art cannot not belong entirely to it because it also sets the terms of what culture might be thought to be.

Here, to end with, are two more examples of art in high culture action. Michael Parekowhai, a Maori artist who over the last ten years has led the way in challenging the dominant forms of contemporary Maori art, is currently showing this installation. Ten Guitars is a homage to the 1960s Engelbert Humperdinck chart-topper, that old Maori standard as Robert Leonard refers to it. These flash top-of-the-line, customised guitars, with their individualized kowhaiwhai paua shell inlays, have a brand of their own: Patriot. Ten Guitars is an exploration of nostalgia and identity whose cool ironies displace the more art-craft hybrids ordinarily associated with contemporary Maori art.

Whereas Parekowhai’s installation silently reincarnates a pop song, Anna Miles’ installation The style of address, 1994, gives a new body to the design featured on the fabric worn by Betty Curnow in Rita Angus’s 1940 portrait of that name. My mother fashioned this jacket out of two identical aprons she bought at Woolworths. The address was Riccarton Road, Christchurch, and the artist lived with us at the time. This portrait has become more than one of Angus’s most admired works, more than a crucially representative work of a decade and a generation. Once again it is about to feature on a book jacket; this time of a publication on the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery. The doubts about whether this really is a picture of my mother keep growing. Miles’ curtain makes us look again at the design. It is a piece of Mexicana. And as such reminds us what a rich and ambiguous patchwork of distinct and distant cultural references this New Zealand art icon actually is.


(under continuous construction)

A lecture commissioned to open the University of Auckland's Winter Lecture series 18 July 2000. The State of the Arts was the theme of the series.


©Wystan Curnow

Last updated 02 March, 2002