Monday 17 October 2022

Cancelling Shakespeare.

The Master: Shakespeare’s art is of a power that at once confirms and dissolves history. In his incomparable mastery of the English language he reminds us that we are more than male and female, rich and poor, Māori and Pakeha. What this “Elizabethan playwright” reveals to us, and hopefully will go on revealing to succeeding generations until the end of time, is the wonder and woe of what it means to be human.

IT IS DIFFICULT to see the Arts Council’s decision to defund Shakespeare as anything other than “propaganda of the deed”. In the current, unusually tense, cultural climate, the idea that a decision to refuse a $30,000 grant to an organisation responsible for introducing the art of William Shakespeare to a total of 120,000 (and counting) secondary school students might, somehow, pass unnoticed and unremarked is nonsensical. The notion that the Council’s decision was a carefully targeted ideological strike is further buttressed by the comments attached to its refusal. To describe these as incendiary hardly does them justice.

Every year the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival invites secondary school students to compete for the best interpretation of an excerpt drawn from a Shakespeare play. To date, upwards of 120,000 students have participated in this hugely popular competition. While the Arts Council’s support accounts for only a tenth of the festival’s budget, its decision to deny this year’s funding application was couched in language that has outraged English teachers, English scholars, and educated English-speakers, both here in New Zealand and around the world.

According to The Guardian, the arts funding body, Creative New Zealand, in its advisory panel’s funding assessment document, stated that: “while the festival has strong youth engagement, and a positive impact on participants”, it “did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape”.

Putting to one side the self-evident reality that a festival involving thousands of young people in acting, directing, set-designing and painting, costuming, composing and providing incidental music to a host of independent theatrical productions, offers an unassailable prima facie case for being of great relevance to New Zealand’s “contemporary art context”: how should we decode the assessment document’s gnomic formulation: “Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape”?

Given that all state institutions are now required to ensure that their decisions reflect the central cultural and political importance of te Tiriti o Waitangi, as well as their obligation to give practical expression to the Crown’s “partnership” with tangata whenua, the advisory panel’s meaning is ominously clear. At this time, and in this place, the policy landscape has no place for artistic endeavours that draw attention to the powerful and enduring cultural attachments between New Zealand and the British Isles.

Expressed more bluntly, Creative New Zealand is serving notice on applicants for state funding that, unless their projects both acknowledge and enhance the tino rangatiratanga of Māori, they will be deemed to have insufficient relevance to the “contemporary art context” to warrant public financial support.

This is even worse than it sounds. Creative New Zealand is structurally disadvantaging the 60-70 percent of New Zealanders who trace their ancestry to, and derive the greater part of their cultural identity from, the British Isles. Moreover, future applicants unable to demonstrate a genuine familiarity with Māori language and culture, will almost certainly lose out to applicants who can. In other words: “in this time and place and landscape” and absent the most powerful political and/or institutional patrons, Pakeha applicants should expect to be refused Creative New Zealand funding.

Is this drawing too long a bow? Not when the Council’s own assessment document seeks to know “whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond”.

A “decolonising Aotearoa”. Here exposed is the unabashed ideological bias of the Arts Council and its assessors. There is a considerable head-of-steam building among some Māori (and their Pakeha supporters in the public service, academia and the mainstream news media) for a wholesale stripping-out of the political, legal and cultural institutions of the “colonial state”, and for their replacement by the customs and the practices of te ao Māori. At present, this is the agenda of the “progressive” elites only. Certainly, no such proposition has been placed before, or ratified by, the New Zealand electorate.

Not that these same elites would feel at all comfortable about important cultural judgements being placed in the hands of the uneducated masses. Indeed, it is likely that the decision-makers at the Arts Council are entirely persuaded that an important part of their mission is to so radically reshape the cultural landscape that the “decolonising of Aotearoa” comes to be seen as entirely reasonable. If re-educating the benighted Pakeha majority means limiting its own (and its children’s) access to the works of “an Elizabethan playwright” (indisputably among the greatest artists who ever lived) then so be it.

Too much? Once again, the document released by the funding assessors, suggests otherwise.

The panel of assessors is concerned that the festival’s sponsoring organisation, the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand, is too “paternalistic”, and that the entire Shakespearian genre it is dedicated to promoting is “located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance”.

That’s an imperialistic “canon” with one “n” – not two! Alluded to here, presumably, is the entire theatrical menu of Western Civilisation: from Aristophanes to Oscar Wilde. (Apart from Ireland, the English had no empire to speak of in Shakespeare’s time!) A cultural collection which, apparently, has no place in a “living curriculum” – from which, one can only deduce, Dead White Males have been ruthlessly purged. Only by excluding the cultural achievements of the past, the Arts Council seems to saying, can any artistic endeavour hope to “show relevance”.

To those who shake their heads in disbelief at this rejection of historical continuity, it is important to make clear just how hostile the post-modern sensibility is to the whole idea of a materially and imaginatively recoverable past – a past with the power to influence both the present and the future. The post-modernists hate the idea of History as both tether and teacher – fettering us to reality, even as it reveals the many ways our forebears have responded to the challenges of their time. When post-modernists talk about relevance, what they really mean is amnesia. Only an amnesiac can inhabit an eternal present – post-modernism’s ideal state-of-being.

Shakespeare and his works are downgraded and rejected precisely because his words and his plays connect us to the past – revealing the tragi-comic continuity of human existence. More than that, Shakespeare’s art is of a power that at once confirms and dissolves history. In his incomparable mastery of the English language he reminds us that we are more than male and female, rich and poor, Māori and Pakeha. What this “Elizabethan playwright” reveals to us, and hopefully will go on revealing to succeeding generations until the end of time, is the wonder and woe of what it means to be human.

Or, in the words of the man himself:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

A version of this essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 17 October 2022.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm a bit torn here. I don't think Shakespeare had much to do with colonisation, and he is part of Pakeha history. But having had something to do with the Shakespeare competition, which my son was in – I don't think much of it. It's almost inevitably won by a prestigious state school or a private school, partly at least because they can afford pay thousands to hire actors to coach their kids.
I guess there is a move to get away from the colonial cringe and hopefully to introduce more New Zealand writers – those who don't write in a language that is almost incomprehensible to modern kids. You will perhaps have noticed that Shakespeare plays in the books used in schools tend to have pretty much a dictionary of words and phrases that you haven't got a clue what they mean. All very well for you literary elites to study it, but it's not that brilliant for the average student. Maybe we confine it to universities?

Don Franks said...

I've had the pleasure of attending those youth Shakespeare festival performances. Some of the strong enthusiastic and joyous work I saw was produced by Maori and Pacifica children from one of the poorer areas. The smug little bastards denying future funding for this artwork are on the side of the elite.

Gary Peters said...

Imagine a world without the writings of Anais Nin, Sir Bob Jones, Maeve Binchy, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Tennyson, Orwell, Proust, Stephen King ... and so on.

Is that really what we want our children to inherit?

What about books by Michael King, Michael Basset, James Belich ... or do they not tell the "correct" stories?

Unknown said...

Bravo. Again

Anonymous said...

Or maybe it’s just that there are plenty of people already supporting Shakespeare one way or another, and limited government funding should go where it’s most needed. I.e. to things that are unlikely to be funded from elsewhere.

David George said...

I doubt it but perhaps there is some perverse justification in this for a "decolonised Aotearoa" (whatever that is) but similar initiatives are under way throughout the West - even in the home of the great man itself.

What is it, this strange thing, this war on the West. What prompts otherwise sane people to denigrate, dismiss and destroy their culture, it's history and it's heroes. There doesn't appear to be any reason, much less any love or understanding involved, nor any proven and worthy alternative offered.

"The best of human knowledge and culture must be transferable and understandable across racial and social lines. Otherwise we decide that some things must be cordoned off, offered to, and appreciated by only certain racial or ethnic groups. That way lies a replay of all the worst things of the past. Replayed in the guise of opposition to just such a replay"
The War On The West by Douglas Murray.

David George said...

Aside from his undoubted genius for exposing and understanding the human condition Shakespeare invented or developed 1700 words and phrases, hundreds of which we use in our daily discourses. Here’s just a sample of his words, A to Z:
Alligator, Bedroom, Critic, Downstairs, Eyeball, Fashionable, Gossip, Hurry, Inaudible, Jaded, Kissing, Lonely, Manager, Nervy, Obscene, Puppy dog, Questioning, Rant, Skim milk, Traditional, Undress, Varied, Worthless, Xantippe, Yelping, Zany.

Pearls before swine? These Art Council morons have no idea.

Posted previously on TDB

Anonymous said...

Soon any production of Swan Lake by the NZ Ballet and Bethooven’s 5th played by the NZ Symphony Orchestra will having funding for the same pulled by any government arts agency involved. Maybe I should say Ballet Aotearoaand Symphony Orchestra o Aotearoa. And will RNZ be able to play any Joe Cocker songs again – though not sure that they did…….

Graham Little said...

Brilliant Chris. Thank you. Graham Little

John Macilree said...

Wait till they find out about cricket and rugby! Pure British colonialism.

Wasn’t Shakespeare writing during Tudor times? A clear case of suffering from Welsh oppression if ever there was one.

Chris Morris said...

Why am I left by a continuing belief that these examples of stupidity are actually false flags implanted by ACT to get more voters? What world do the people who came up with this policy live in? I note there hasn't been any reported support for the policy. Where are its defenders?
If and when there is a change of government, then the new Minister will have a lot of support to do a total housecleaning.

Chris Morris said...

I went through the 60 plus comments on the site where originally published. Not one supportive one or an explanation.
I note NZ has made overseas papers yet again on this issue. Hard to have pride in being a laughing stock.

DS said...

While I agree with your sentiment, I would make one nitpick: England did have an Empire in Shakespeare's time. It was Ireland.

John Hurley said...

Certainly, no such proposition has been placed before, or ratified by, the New Zealand electorate

Chinese Whispers

Anonymous said...

I know a few young Maori actors who have pretty much made it on TV & film... guess where they got there start? yup the good olde local school give-it-a-go kiwi-as Shakespeare in School comp. I didn't see much colonial stress on their faces..just joy in taking the stage for the first time. FFS

Anonymous said...

Spot on Chris!

Bongo said...

Easy- translate the bard into Māori. Besides those Tangata whenua who agreed to te tiriti mostly understood that English culture came with some baggage, much of which they could use when not denied the opportunity. If bilingualism is the goal, promote one but don’t try to stamp out the other.

Archduke Piccolo said...

No one is going to promulgate and encourage cultural diversity by suppressing cultural diversity. This is starting to look a whole lot like fornicating for chastity: to achieve a certain goal, undertaking a policy that defeats that goal.
Ion A. Dowman

Anonymous said...

Well said, never lost for words which is the whole point.

David George said...

What is really going on here? The promotion of art as propaganda?
That idea was perfected by the totalitarian Soviets and that is what we are seeing I believe - art proscribed by ideology is no longer art but propaganda. Jordan Peterson has spoken about this a lot and describes the psychological and sociological processes involved in art's sublimation to ideology- such is his interest he has a large collection of Soviet era art.

“We need to understand the role of art and literature… and stop thinking about it as an option. It’s not an option. What is it said?” ‘Man does not live by bread alone’… that’s exactly right. We live by Beauty. We live by literature. We live by art… and LITERALLY… not metaphorically. We cannot live without it.” — Jordan Peterson

The Role of Artists, 6 minutes

Odysseus said...

A magnificent column Chris, you clearly have a deep understanding of Shakespeare's timeless art which speaks directly to the universal human condition. I am glad there has been so much pushback against the wretched "decolonization" argument advanced by Creative New Zealand. I fear however we are witnessing a highly orchestrated "ethnic cleansing" of New Zealanders' European heritage by the elites enabled by this government. As Martyn Bradbury observed, it's the kind of thing you might expect from ISIS, demolishing one culture to make their own appear superior. It is certainly morally equivalent.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

“We need to understand the role of art and literature… and stop thinking about it as an option. It’s not an option. What is it said?” ‘Man does not live by bread alone’… that’s exactly right. We live by Beauty. We live by literature. We live by art… and LITERALLY… not metaphorically. We cannot live without it.” — Jordan Peterson

Millions of people live without it – at least high culture art. They live without Jordan Peterson too – they've missed a bullet there, he's completely lost the plot. Gaga. Doesn't make sense – well let's say makes even less sense than he used to.

Anonymous said...

If Creative New Zealand are so woke, how come they haven't re-named themselves as Creative Aotearoa?

Anonymous said...

I doubt they gave their decision very much thought at all -"CREATIVE (?) NZ" (silly ass, knee-jerk, copy-cat, sycophantic 'knobs'(good one)
Didn't think one bit about the doubts that assailed Shakespeare's heroes. Te Rauparaha had no such thoughts as' uneasy sits the head that wears the crown,' did he, as he as he loaded up his war canoes and paddled swiftly over the strait to slaughter several thousand men women and children - or perhaps he did as he came back and later built a Christian church. Maybe there was a cultural correspondence there?
Macbeth was a bit of a role-model for the warmongers too - tribal, bent on annihilating the neighbours - although he is not known to have eaten them, and he did worry about things a bit.
They missed a trick there, in their haste to denigrate the 'colonialists'. It is not so much that they are jealous and jaundiced, these 'creative' people, it is that they are so IGNORANT, so incapable of thinking for themselves, so woke but braindead. I am ashamed.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. The Arts Council bigots have made New Zealand and its damn fine people and culture look like fools

To hell with them let us be proud of our whiteness our browness our newness our meritocracy and our unfaltering democracy

How I loathe these holier than thou hacks - away with them!

Brewerstroupe said...

Kapa Haka is about culture.
Shakespeare is about Civilisation.

Brent said...

The points re post modernism hit the correct nail - talked of little but absolutely to the point.

Horatio said...

The Plot of MacBeth is quite literally drawn from my clan history.

My family have been here for 180 years.

Creative New Zealand is saying not only that Shakespeare is irrelevant but that my Whakapapa is not relevant to New Zealand, despite those 180 years here. Does it mean that all the art made by Pakeha here, largely inspired by the history, stories, and images of its own ancestry, artistic or in fact of blood, is also irrelevant?

Where do we draw the line?

Does Katherine Mansfield pass muster? Her influences were in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia, who had little thought of New Zealand. She wrote about New Zealand but with a lens that was crafted in Europe, that she may have added a polish to here - but it was made in Europe, and to Europe she returned. And she was also from, unlike Mr Shakespeare, a period of colonial British rule, imperialism, and empire. Surely, that makes her one notch worse that Wills?

Deep within me, this stuff stirs something ugly.

"You know what? Fuck Maori and Maori culture. Maybe Maori don't have the right to appropriate the bard. Your interpretations are much less than even a polish on a turning of the lens, a lens that has, for centuries, now, been turned this way and that. Perhaps you only scratch it, or try to?"

This is passing bile. But this is the direction this sort of thing encourages me in. Because I love the bard, and I care about my family history and their stories, too.

Trev1 said...

"Creative New Zealand, exit stage Left, pursued by a bear". Act III, a Wokester's Tale.

DS said...

Had a wee chat with a theatre acquaintance. Turns out the Festival simply gets the attention because it's the biggest example of this. Creative New Zealand has also been turning down $500 requests to help fund Dunedin community productions of Shakespeares's King Lear and Julius Caesar, as well as a couple of Brecht adaptations. A mere $500! Talk about penny-pinching.

Phil McDermott said...

Your writing is testimony to the power of an open mind and understanding of the critical place of our histories. Culture is not a singularity . Progress comes from assimilating multiple stories. Without valuing and engaging with diverse traditions, Creative NZ will lead us into a destructive clash of cultural cul de sacs.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

At last – some common sense.

greywarbler said...

Stirring words Anonymous 20.16 Brown and white let's stick together for our mutual benefit.

Who would have thought that education would be our weak link. It should have resulted in more thought and understanding but it seems just another money-making venture for the neoliberal hyenas. It seems that the university educated middle-class may be our booby trap. The Brits had their academic spies who reacted against the trads and turned to Russia. Now we have the sharp minds in NZ turning to the USA. None of those countries referred to are exemplars of what we would want to aim for. More korero, more small projects from the people, not the professional speculators, more opportunities here and more successes that we hold onto will take us far. At present the sharpies can't wait to sell off our business to the sharp coves - Cockney? - wanting to hoover up the world.

D'Esterre said...

Trev1: "Act III, a Wokester's Tale."

Heh! Brilliant.... Gave us here a good laugh.

D'Esterre said...

DS: ".....Creative New Zealand has also been turning down $500 requests to help fund Dunedin community productions..."

It's not so much that it has turned down the funding application, but the reasons it gave for doing so. Just bizarre.

D'Esterre said...

An old friend who is a retired teacher of English sent me the Guardian link:

We fell about laughing at the sheer, blinding idiocy of it. Said old friend was appalled, but the only reaction ought to be one of derision.

That article quotes one Nicola Hyland, who is a lecturer at Vic. I'm a graduate of that uni: I'm very pleased to have studied there while it was still a proper university. Nobody who talked the nonsense she spouts would have been employed there during my time, I'm pleased to say.