WHICH DID MORE FOR DUNEDIN – the City Council’s public relations department, or the creators of the “Dunedin Sound”? In any battle for excitement and attraction it would be most unwise to put your money on bureaucracy. Something all governments, and all Ministers for the Arts, would be wise to remember.
The power of creative communities is little short of miraculous. A handful of self-conscious avant-guardists, playing to each other in the draughty church halls and commercially fragile pubs of the world’s southernmost university city, may not have seemed powerful at the time (the early 1980s) but, in remarkably short-order student radio stations from Oregon state to the River Clyde were playing the music of The Clean, The Chills and The Verlaines.
At a time when most Dunedin politicians would’ve characterised the Dunedin Sound as bagpipes and the bells in the varsity clock-tower, indie-music-loving young Americans were thinking “cutting-edge”.
The same thing happened (albeit multiplied by ten) in Wellington. The artistry, this time, was located in Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop and the ever-expanding army of creatives that marched in lock-step with his success. Could the inspired slogan “Absolutely, Positively, Wellington” have worked half as well had the creative community not made all those cafes, clubs, restaurants and bars the places to be seen, and then supplied them with the people to be seen with?
It works everywhere that creatives find the critical ingredients for the mysterious alchemy that is art. It may be as simple as an abundance of cheap space. Abandoned warehouses with square-footage to rent at rock-bottom prices. Inner-city housing emptying-out as its former occupants head for the suburbs.
Most of the people filling these cheap spaces will be poor people of colour, but among the racially downtrodden and friendless immigrant will also be found the artists. And out of these unplanned social combinations, these random assemblies, the sparks of creativity fly upward.
Perhaps the creativity is inspired by the new proximity of cultures previously unencountered. Maybe it’s the novel experience of poverty. The solidarity of the marginalised. Whatever the explanation, new and exciting arrangements of images, sounds and words begin to emerge – like pearls from these gritty oyster neighbourhoods.
The impresarios of artistic production – the record producers, gallery-owners, theatre managers, content-hungry publishers – may be the first to notice, the first to profit. But what they are both responding to and encouraging are the audiences that effective art invariably attracts. Creative communities are only able to thrive and grow when they are noticed.
But, when that happens, the effects can be spectacular. Down through the ages, historians have described the special quality of those special city “quarters” frequented by artists, university students, ne’er-do-wells , prostitutes and outright criminals – the people to whom the Nineteenth Century gave the name “Bohemians”. All of the world’s great cities, from Paris to New York, have these Bohemian haunts, and all of them would be the poorer if the “buzz” and the “vibe” of their creative communities were absent.
Because they’re magnets: huge and immensely powerful magnets; attracting not only real and aspiring artists of every kind, but also those who like to luxuriate in their creative glow. The Dunedin Sound not only transformed its cold and dreary host-city into a Neo-Gothic playground for musicians with a fondness for jangly guitars and mumbled vocals, but also for poets, painters, graphic artists and the punk publishers of fanzines.
The thousands of university students who listened to the artists of their adopted city on Radio One, and who thronged to the bars and concert venues where they performed, would in just a few years become the Dunedin Sound’s greatest evangelists – New Zealand’s current Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, among them.
The problem was, by the time its local politicians grasped the importance of Dunedin’s home-grown artistic movement, which, in its hey-day, had elevated the city to the same level of brand awareness as made-over Glasgow – Scotland’s post-modern urban showcase – the Dunedin Sound had made the transition from hip to history.
It’s a lesson which New Zealand’s artistic community earnestly wishes the present government would learn. That art is not simply important for its own sake, but for the powerful contribution it can make to the reputation, cultural vitality and economic growth of the places where it flourishes. Not only does like attract like, but burgeoning artistic communities are also apt to attract entrepreneurs eager to turn all that creative energy into hard cold cash. Just like all the others, the creative industries require infrastructure. Cheap warehouse studios become expensive studio apartments.
Crass commercialism wasn’t always the prime motivation of our political class’s support of the arts. In New Zealand, state support was a socialist objective long before it became a capitalist fetish. The Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, threw his political weight behind the creation of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and set up the New Zealand Literary Fund.
Partly, this was because Fraser understood that if, in a country the size of New Zealand in the 1940s, the state didn’t get in behind its musicians and writers, then nobody would. But, that wasn’t the only reason for the Labour Party’s support for the arts. As democratic socialists, they were determined that working-class people should have as ready access to the cultural production of their nation as the bourgeoisie. Why should the appreciation of Beethoven and Mozart be limited to the elites?
To political and economic equality, the pre-1984 Labour Party was determined to add cultural equality. Nation-building wasn’t just about erecting hospitals, schools and hydro-electric schemes, it was about resourcing New Zealand’s artists to create and shape the development of a unique national character. Labour used to believe as fervently in fostering a robustly egalitarian New Zealand culture, as it now believes in advancing the indigenous Māori culture.
While there are powerful arguments for redressing the historical under-funding of Māori cultural endeavour, there are equally powerful arguments for supporting the creation of a broad New Zealand culture reflective of all its many peoples and their experiences. Bureaucracy may never be equal to the sort of fleeting cultural moment that produced the Dunedin Sound, but, without intelligent state support, the emergence of a New Zealand voice will continue to be an aspiration rather than an accomplishment.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 3 July 2023.