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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

'A Country Serving under Gross Masters'

'A Country Serving under Gross Masters'

The perception of a stagnant, conservative, provincial cultural and intellectual environment was the principal stimulus behind the foundation of Tomorrow and the major theme of its cultural critique of New Zealand. It is this critique which forms the common theme of the cultural analysis of Rhodes and the left-wing cultural activities of the 1930s and 1940s, and the literary nationalist movement of the same time.

The complaint voiced by Rhodes and others of New Zealand's 'lack of mental and aesthetic vitality' has been a constant refrain of New Zealand artists, writers and critics, and a central component of the manifesto of cultural nationalism. In Landfall in 1953 Charles Brasch, reflecting on the previous two decades, described New Zealand society as 'inimical to the arts and to any freedom of life and spirit'.63 At the same time James Bertram, in an article on Robin Hyde, wrote of: 'The nature of New Zealand society, with its profound distrust of the artist in any field but war and sport, and its instinctive dislike of page 45 the abnormal', and observed that, in response: 'Most New Zealand writers . . . have rebelled against their own environment, and made a more or less emphatic protest in their lives or in their work.'64 Twenty years earlier A.R.D. Fairburn berated the New Zealand public for its neglect of the young poet R.A.K. Mason who is said to have disposed of 200 unsold copies of his first publication, The Beggar, into the Waitemata harbour. Fairburn's 1944 essay We New Zealanders was 'a sustained attack on the moral cowardice and aesthetic dullness of his countrymen'—'We have enshrined dullness as a national idol', he charged.65 In Tomorrow the artist Toss Woollaston, writing of the art society establishment, described 'the implacable enmity which exists between an artist who retains the intensity of his calling, and the bourgeoisie'.66

McCormick, Holcroft and Chapman in their major studies of New Zealand literature have taken up this same theme. The charge is also made explicitly, as well as implicidy, in the poetry of this period. In the 1939 verse series Not in Narrow Seas Allen Curnow wrote: 'Poets, painters, musicians, scientists will suffer agonies in a country serving under gross masters', while Denis Glover, in characteristically lighter tone, contributed to Tomorrow four lines entitled 'NZ Author':

Lame pigeons struggling home across the sea,
My manuscripts come back to roost with me.

The only ones that reached the public eye
My friends contrived to read, but not to buy.

Elsewhere in Tomorrow Glover bluntly observed: 'this country doesn't want poets. Only profits.'67

This charge levelled at what Frank Sargeson later termed 'the weighty and deadening forces of philistinism'68 has remained a consistent undercurrent in the discourse on New Zealand culture and national identity. New Zealand society has been experienced by its artists as fundamentally materialistic, conformist and hostile to creative expression: a society which is 'practically devoid of cultural interests, and in fact almost despises them', as 'A New Zealand Artist' opined in Tomorrow.69 Materialism, philistinism, conformity are terms which are also central to the analysis made by the left of culture in western capitalist societies in this period. Here, however, these terms are not based on a political analysis but are rather an expression of social and cultural alienation. A fundamental antipathy to the cultural effects of capitalism, or 'The Money Measure'—the title of a D. H. Lawrence poem printed in Tomorrow and of an article by Winston Rhodes—was a major theme of Tomorrows cultural critique. It was expressed by Rhodes, Sinclaire, and most virulently by Kennaway Henderson; and also by Denis Glover, for example in his 'Ode to a Cash Register'; by Frank Sargeson, who wrote in a 'Notes By The Way' column about 'the Protestant tradition' page 46 which informed New Zealand culture and observed that 'Money' is 'the sole integrating factor ... [of] the condition of the world today'; and by Fairburn, who observed that: 'The rule of Big Business either perverts the arts and turns them to its own low purposes or throws them out into the street.'70

It is also the case that the intellectual swing to the left in Britain in the 1930s, from its basis in a widespread apprehension of the economic and political crisis of capitalism, was accompanied by a broader moral radicalism, or questioning: 'a dawning challenge to accepted sex morality, a challenge to widely taught standards of behaviour, and a broad challenge to the religious oudook.'71 However, the dominant literary movement which emerged at this time in New Zealand was an expression of cultural dissent, in the broadest sense, and was not significandy influenced by political radicalism. Phoenix laid down a challenge to the shallow materialism which its authors saw as the defining characteristic of New Zealand society, stating its belief in 'the potency of culture as a spiritualising agency' and acknowledging its literary and philosophical mentors in D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry.72 The expression of student 'radicalism' in the early 1930s was more often a challenge to the moral puritanism than to the political conservatism of the establishment and the culture which it was seen to represent; the third issue of Phoenix was censored because of an article about sex, not because of its Marxism. And it was Bertram's first version of Phoenix, not the second edited by Mason, that came to serve as the manifesto of the Phoenix literary movement. The distaste for the materialist ethos of capitalism expressed by Glover, Sargeson and Fairburn expressed the same cultural rather than political 'rebellion' that was the motivating idea of Phoenix.

This cultural protest rather than a political consciousness is also expressed in the satirical poetry of Fairburn, Glover and Curnow of this period, much of which was printed in Tomorrow. This is the common theme of their 'political' and 'literary' writing: of Glover's four line satires on capitalists and 'middle classism' and Curnow's Not in Narrow Seas with its complaint about New Zealand's 'gross masters'. Both of these poets published satirical writing under pseudonyms—'P.K.' and 'D.G.', which Glover used in Tomorrow, and 'Whim Wham', under which Curnow published satirical verse in the Christchurch Press and the New Zealand Listener. This device could be seen, perhaps, to denote a dissociation on the part of the writer between two separately defined activities, as a strategy by which each writer accommodated the conflicting demands which the 1930s presented. By this means they sought an accommodation of literary and political activity, of the private and public voice, of nationalist and left-wing interests. Yet one can identify across both 'spheres' of their work a common theme in their protest against a society that is inherendy hostile to the artist— against the 'raw, aesthetically hostile' environment which Sargeson described.73

This idea also informs what has become one of the central icons of New Zealand literary historiography: the 'man alone'. The solitary, itinerant, socially- page 47 outcast figure who appears in Glover's poems in the persona of Harry and later as Arawata Bill, as John Mulgan's anti-hero Johnson in Man Alone, and in the stories of Frank Sargeson, has been seen as a defining motif for the nationalist literature of the 1930s and 1940s, if perhaps to a greater extent than its actual presence warrants. It has been interpreted either as a distinctively New Zealand cultural theme, or as a literary by-product of the depression. The latter argument sees here a concern for the social underdog, a democratic impulse which reflects the influence upon these writers of social realism and the left-wing sympathies of the younger British poets of the 1930s. But alternatively, the prominence of the social outcast in this literature (and the critical focus on this theme) can be read as a projection of the writer's own feeling of cultural isolation and of alienation from a materialist, narrow-minded, indifferent society. This is the 'essential character' which Curnow found in Mason's poetry, that quality that identified it as distinctively New Zealand writing: The image of isolation, the raw edge, the unformed, the strong man in the wilderness'.74 To the left in the 1930s the 'ordinary man' was the man in society, rather than the man out of society. A critic writing in New Zealand New Writing in 1945, complaining of the preoccupation of writers like Curnow and Holcroft with distance, isolation and cultural dislocation, astutely observed that it was the writers and intellectuals themselves who were 'self-conscious and affected, sapless, rootless and unhappy'.75

Nothing about this is original, of course. It is not a discourse peculiar to New Zealand. The charge of anti-intellectualism, and the underlying experience of alienation from the dominant culture, are also important themes in Australian and American cultural criticism. Australian writers have also found their culture 'derivative, dependent and closed', and have made 'a perpetual complaint of philistinism [which] implicidy places the "detached" critic apart from the masses'.76 Wrote Australian playwright Louis Esson in 1943: 'We are still a nation of Barbarians.'77 And there, as in New Zealand, 'philistinism' has tended to be identified as a peculiarly national characteristic.

For both Winston Rhodes and Frederick Sinclaire, however, the experience of New Zealand as an isolated, conservative culture was undoubtedly sharpened by the contrast it made with Australia, where both had been active in progressive literary and political circles. When Rhodes returned from a trip home in 1935 he described the intellectual atmosphere in Melbourne, which he termed 'the buried life of Australia', in an article entitled 'Mid-Melbourne Madness':

in the studios and at cultural gatherings the conversation eddies to and fro. Art with a capital. Freudian rehash. Always the psychology of sex. And proper names all in a row. Marx, Huxley, Sholohov [sic], Eliot. Fixations, inhibitions. Education, morals, economics, literature stirred into the vortex of unceasing argument.78

page 48
H. Winston Rhodes (Elsie Locke)

H. Winston Rhodes (Elsie Locke)

In other articles he compared contemporary New Zealand and Australian literature and found the former lacking the 'virile ... militant' tone of Furnley Maurice or the 'angry note of true sincerity' which characterised the novels of Katharine Susannah Prichard, and noted the existence in Australia of cultural organisations such as the League Against Censorship, the League of Writers in Defence of Culture and the left-wing Melbourne Writers' League.79

Rhodes' impression of a more lively climate of cultural debate in Australia was not simply a product of homesickness or patriotic bias. The dramatic growth in the production of avant-garde little magazines in Australia in the 1930s, paralleling a similar development in America, contrasts sharply with the absence of a single progressive literary or arts periodical in New Zealand, and testifies to a greater receptiveness to current international trends in art and literature, such as modernism and socialist realism. These influences were also felt in the visual arts more strongly in Australia than in New Zealand. The work of a handful of New Zealand artists in this period, notably Toss Woollaston, Colin McCahon and Rita Angus, broke away from the conservative tradition maintained by the art society establishment, a tradition based on naturalism in form, the genres of landscape and still life, and the search for national identity through a faithful rendering of mountains, lakes, rivers and streams. McCahon, particularly, challenged this orthodoxy with the development of a distinctive style. There were a number of minor artists in these years producing dull imitations of impressionism for the art society exhibitions. Yet this did not compare either in scale or in its aesthetic radicalism with the work of the young, radical Australian artists who emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Sidney page 49 Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale and Albert Tucker. Many of these were members of the Contemporary Art Society, which was formed in 1938 and expressed a growing interest among younger Australian artists in expressionism and social realism. The Contemporary Art Society combined aesthetic and political radicalism and enunciated anti-fascist, Popular Front ideals, but would later be split by bitter infighting between its avant-garde and political factions in the post-Popular Front climate of the mid 1940s. In the early 40s the Adelaide-based avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins also provided a forum for the modernist debate. The work of Nolan, Boyd, Drysdale and others brought together modernist aesthetic influences and a developing Australian consciousness to produce what has been described as 'a distinctive Australian modernism'80 in the 1940s, while the left-wing artists, such as Noel Counihan, Vic O'Connor and Yosl Bergner, produced a significant body of social realist art, which also evolved as a synthesis of international influences and national forms. This climate of innovation and debate was not matched in New Zealand.

63 'Notes', Landfall, 25, Mar. 1953 (v.7, n.1), p.5

64 J. Bertram, 'Robin Hyde: A Reassessment', ibid., 27, Sept. 1953 (v.7, n.3), p.181

65 Trussell, Fairburn, p.221; A.R.D. Fairburn, We New Zealanders. Wellington: Progressive Publishing Society, 1944, p.13. Fairburn's comment on Mason was made in the New Zealand Artists Annual, 1929, p.69, quoted in Trussell, Fairburn, p.64

66 T. Woollaston, "'Life: Art" and the Bourgeois Manifesto', Tomorrow, 29 Apr. 1936 (v.2, n.21), p.22

67 A. Curnow, Selected Poems. Auckland: Penguin, 1982, p.24; Glover, 'NZ Author', Tomorrow, 24June 1936 (v.2, n.26), p.19; 'Pointers to Parnassus', ibid., 30 Oct. 1935 (v.2, n.1), p.17

68 Sargeson, Sargeson, p.351

69 'A NZ Artist', 'Art in New Zealand', Tomorrow, 26 Feb. 1936 (v.2, n.16), p.8

70 F.S., 'Notes By The Way, ibid., 3 Aug. 1938 (v.4, n.20), p.625; Fairburn, correspondence, ibid., 25 Sept. 1935 (v.i, n.48), p.22

71 J. Klugmann, 'The Crisis of the Thirties: A View from the Left', in J. Clark et al, (eds.), Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979, pp.12-16

72 Phoenix, March 1932 (v.1, n.1), p. [2]

73 Sargeson, 'Sherwood Anderson', Tomorrow, 6 Nov. 1935 (v.2, n.2), p.15

74 Curnow, 'The Poetry of R.A.K. Mason', Book, 2, May 1941

75 R. Seymour, 'A Present Tendency in New Zealand Literature', New Zealand New Writing, 4, March 1945, p.32

76 B. Head and J. Walter (eds.), Intellectual Movements and Australian Society. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp.9, 241

77 L. Esson to D. Cusack, July 1943, quoted in Walker, Dream and Disillusion, p.155

78 Rhodes, 'Mid-Melbourne Madness', Tomorrow, 20 Feb. 1935 (v.1, n.31), pp.10-11

79 'On Swearing', pp.12-13; 'Writers in Australia', ibid., 17 Mar. 1937 (v.3, n.10), pp.307-10

80 R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors. The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art. Ringwood, Victoria: Allen Lane, 1985, p.184