Wednesday 5 July 2023

Art For Our Sake.

Tally Ho! 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.

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 website on Monday, 3 July 2023.


chris prudence said...

Flying nun and the dunedin sound were the anthems of free education.

oneblokesview said...

Sad that you couldnt help throwing in some racist bait.

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.

How about just poor people????? Because poor people come in all colours!

The Barron said...

It is a mistake to separate Maori from wider NZ cultural endeavor. My mate, who sadly passed away, drummed with David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights was Maori. His artistic expression was intrinsically entwined with his Maoritanga which was in turn shaped by personal impact of both Maori and Pakeha interactions. Shane Carter would similarly be artistically expressing as Dunedin raised Maori. It may not be as overt as some commentators wish to label, but none the less it is art from an artist shaped by personal experience, which includes being Maori.

Peter Jackson did not arrive in isolation from a movie history in NZ. Much of this was exploring the ethic relationships that shape NZ. As Blue Smoke by Pixie Williams and The Ruru Karaitiana Quartet effectively founded NZ musical recording, Rewi's Last Stand by Rudall Hayward, is seen as the launching of our film industry. John O'Shea and others that followed continued to focus on themes of NZ stories which incorporated Maori expression. We should never underestimate the Maori input to these foundation movies.

There are those which make a distinction between Maori art and artist who happen to be Maori. I think this is artificial and dangerous. The role of the artist is expression of the personal. If the personal is Maori, whether urban or traditionally inspired, the art reflects their personal experience of being Maori.

The development of NZ culture is not independent on the historic and contemporary indigenous and the development of the introduced within a NZ prism.

To address your central point, the Beatles brought more income to Britain than the car industry in the 1960, ABBA was Sweden's top industry in the 1970s. How did NZ react to the development of independent music? 40% sales tax and a Prime Minister that said the music was not culture, inspiring the rejoinder -

'Don't give me culture, I'm not hearing you Rob. I can buzz around like a Beehive boy, but I'd like to see you do my job.' - The Knobz (1979)

Gary Peters said...

True art doesn't need government funding, it needs government's absence.

John Hurley said...

Lianne Dalziel said (on Nigel Latta's Hard Stuff) "a city needs diversity or it gets stuck".
Anyone familiar with Cathedral Square knows it was full of home grown culture, thanks (most obviously) to The Wizard. There was diversity within the population as there was in Dicken's England.
Now days beloved comedian Guy Williams [sarc] does a voice over when he meets the Wizard as he isn't PC ("I'm a chick magnet").
I just hate the way the city focuses on trophy projects that neglect life on the ground. Hairy McLeary would be any old dog were it not for Donaldson's Dairy.

ChrisH said...

Apparently, one very effective method of fostering the arts is to designate an area for a motorway--but never build it. This was what Haight-Ashbury and the Aro Valley had in common. And what Auckland did not.

chris prudence said...

WINZ owe me a grand.They paid two weeks benefit into my dead mums bank account instead of my bank account.The ANZ.

Anonymous said...

Someone changed the suffix of my bank account and stole a grand off the govts.

chris prudence said...

$28 million for 50 more places at auckland med school pales in comparison to the $400 million proposed by the nats cos tha nats r rats for a new med school at waikato.

GJE said...

Money is corrupting and no more so than when it is ladled out by the state in support of some worthy cause.
Ask yourself how many government grants Flying nun needed to establish themselves (None)..and you'll get my drift.

sumsuch said...

From our great quiet, music.

We had to sort out things for ourselves, beneath the glowering sky of ... having to sort out things for ourselves. I'm grateful for it, but wouldn't wish it on our youngers.

David George said...

Yes, there's always the risk/inevitability that "Bureaucracy.....intelligent state support" becomes narrowly focused or formulaic or even propagandistic. Is it the cringy sanctity of anything "Maori" that led to Kapa Haka getting 34 million? Indicative of that, there was an article in Newsub recently: "How businesses can celebrate Matariki without being slammed for commercialising the holiday". I'm not a fan of the commercialisation of Easter, the holiest days of the Christian calendar, but I don't see anyone getting "slammed" over it.

Thankfully there are things that are sublime, magnificent, inspiring and beautiful that we can enjoy for free, untouched by that weird Kiwi cultural cringe.

Chris Trotter said...

To: GJE @ 15:34

Ha! You're not alone in that opinion, GJE.

When asked if he intended to avail himself of Fraser's State Literary Fund, A.R.D. Fairburn replied, poetically:

"The mushroom grows in the open ground
The toadstool under a tree."

I have to say, I sort of, kind of, agree with him. Sort of. Kind of. Hmmm.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

All I can say David is that if you haven't heard of anyone being slammed for over commercialising Easter, you must move in fairly rarefied circles.

sumsuch said...

Up by your bootstraps ay, Chris and GJE. The whole friends of the rich's bullshit, despite the joke of the saying originally. I'm middle class because of 2 generations helping the next.

We didn't take money seriously, new money does. Transfers over to ideas I'm sure. Both are good.