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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 9. 1963.

Read, Munz Trounced . . . — Read Self-Contradictory Apologia Failed

page 6

Read, Munz Trounced . . .

Read Self-Contradictory Apologia Failed

Fortified with Heath Joyce's recent obiter dictum that you don't need to be a critic to criticise the critics, a recent correspondent (Mr. Peter Munz) takes vigorous if rather ineffectual umbrage at my comments on the work of the English aesthetician, Sir Herbert Read.

It is not my practice to engage in practical and futile debate with those who seek to found their case upon personal aspersions of a highly speculative character, and upon textual misinterpretations.

Nor was it my intention to cite specific and concrete examples to bolster up the remarks I made on the critical works of Read.

However, it has become expedient for me to do so. Although I have rather a higher regard for Munz's "very uninformed" public, it is not entirely improbable that some of his students may think his name invests his statements with some species of ex cathedra authority.

First, then, a few comments on Munz's letter in general. Casting aside the varied and multitudinous accusations of ignorance, prejudice, grammatical incorrectness, inferiority and general resentments which purportedly festoon my misinformed and inarticulate mind, and excising the distorted interpretations put upon certain of my remarks concerning the effect of Read's literary confidence trickery upon the English, we find an ineffective and none-too-subtle apologia.

By Gary Evans, Salient Art Critic

Turning to Read himself, Munz asks me where I get my knowledge of Read from. "Certainly not from Read's lectures or books," he suggests, for Read "relies almost exclusively upon the writings and views of the artists themselves."

From this, says Munz. "It is quite amazing to see how G.L.E. can get himself to dismiss, in a high-handed fashion, the relevance of what the artists themselves have said."

Munz accuses me of sophistry; one would go far to find a sophism as good as this one. Quite apart from the fact that it is my invariable practice to read the author himself, I am concerned not with quotations from the artists, but with quotations from Read himself. And unless Read is an editor simpliciter—the alter ego of the artists—then the quotations I shall use affirm Read's own contradictory beliefs. Therefore, this nonsense about my dismissing the views of the artists—with its curious corollary that they are sacrosanct—just doesn't wash.

Read's critical writings rest upon a morass of inconsistencies, invalid generalisations and contradictions; and it is the consequent emphemerality of his value judgments which I deprecate. His critical views take the form of a patchwork quilt built up from the cerebral contortions of one who cultivates, and even anticipates, the exigencies of fashion.

It was Read who, having taken a deep dive into the rapidly rising pools of surrealism, found them deceptively shallow and struggled out recanting. It is the same Read whose abortive flirtation with modish Marxism has left a legacy of ambiguous Marxist terminology. It is the very same Read who can hail, in his "Annals of Innocence and Experience," the weapon of reason ("which alone can slay despair and cut the fetters of doubt and superstition which binds us to the Ethiopean rock" [!]), as the universal remedy, and yet can record a talk for the NZBC categorically informing us that the fear and despair of today may be rectified by the cultivation of the arts.

In his notes on Paul Nash in the Penguin Modern Painters series. Read gives us his credo: "I write not as a painter, nor even as someone particularly knowledgeable about the technique of painting: I write as a poet" (p.15).

Then, in his "Letter to a Young Painter," Read informs us that in the past he has written about art. "generally with a philosophical or . . . a psychological intention." A quick volte face and Read the literary Houdini is back again (at p 48 of the same book) to declare: "I have no ambition to write about art as an historian or a philosopher." The conclusions are obvious.

But to crown it all, Read has the outrageous audacity to suggest that "People's minds are like pernod—they go cloudy when you pour words into them."

Well, it's a point of view. I suppose.

Munz tells us. "Read is a prudent man and was not anxious to rush into print with opinions about New Zealand painters. . . . In private he was much less discreet." In view of the fact that the only Press statement Read made was little short of an ignorant farrago of nonsense, it is small wonder. And one must admit that the private mullings of a professional dilettante make a fine yardstick with which to beat the public evaluations of a practising art critic.

Read's Press statement—I suppose he thought he had better say something before he left our shores—was made in Dunedin (May 8). "New Zealand public art galleries ought to be pulled down," we are sagely informed. "They were built at a time of bad taste, when architects did not understand lighting or the importance of setting for appreciating works. . . There is a certain absurdity in putting modern art into old-fashioned Victorian buildings."

There is also a certain absurdity in describing the National Art Gallery as Victorian when its architectural style (built 1930) is post-Edwardian. His comments on lighting are little short of laughable.

A minimum of research would have told him that both the National Art Gallery and the McDougall in Christchurch—not to mention Wanganui's Sargeant Gallery—employ the Hearst Sedger system of lighting, a system which was revolutionary at its time of installation and which remains—as the comments of visiting gallery experts witness—an eminently satisfactory system.

I have neither the time nor the space to further elaborate the manifold and manifest defects in Read's writings and opinions, but I believe these defects stem very largely from Read's peculiar approach to criticism: To him the fine arts are little more than a cerebral exercise, a series of problems to be solved, rather than beautiful pieces of work to be evaluated and enjoyed. Only an intellectual of Read's calibre could commit the stupidities inherent in the following passage culled from "Education Through Art."

In his chapter "Nature and Art" we are informed: "Jugs are of all shapes and sizes but if we held a census of jugs, I think we should find that one form has predominated ever since pottery was invented: The pear-shaped or unduloid jug." To my knowledge the Greeks almost invariably preferred the more elegant inverted pear with high shoulders to the pot-bellied pear. And it is doubtful whether the unduloid form finds favour with Bernard Leach and the contemporary Japanese—to say the least.

Read continues: "Now though it is pear-shaped I do not think this form is derived from the fruit." Well, who but Read would have thought so for one moment! "Pear-shaped" is merely a convenient description of a simple shape. But he goes on: "What I am suggesting is that when a coffeepot or a milk-jug assumes this shape (pear-shape) and we find it beautiful it is because the potter, in shaping the pot, has instinctively given it the tense form of a liquid drop." This is nothing but a poet's conceit; and is not even a logical assumption.

However, it illustrates how out of touch with reality Read is: the pear shape of a jug is functional rather than aesthetic; the greater bulk of the contained liquid is concentrated in the lower half of the vessel and makes for stability. The convex form at the neck provides a convenient space for the placing of the handle—convenient to construct and convenient to hold and to pour. Being narrower towards the top than near the base, the liquid is unlikely to spill when carried and the balance is right for carrying.

Surely these considerations would weigh more with the potter than fanciful resemblances to a drop of water; or is Munz's mind like Pernod, too?