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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 1 18 February 1970

The Visual Arts In New Zealand

page 16

The Visual Arts In New Zealand

The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council has called a conference—known as Arts Conference 70—for April 10-12 this year the aims of which are as follows:
1.To make an assessment of the arts in New Zealand as they stand today and to prepare a blueprint for the next decade.
2.To quantify objectives and define these as falling within the scope of the Council itself, Government Departments, the NZBC, local authorities and other sectors.
3.To provide information on the degree of public and private involvement in the arts.
4.To provide an open forum for the exchange of ideas.
5.To make projections into the future on the basis of the information obtained.
6.To endeavour to reach agreement on the broad needs of the arts in general.
7.To endeavour to set the arts within the general economic picture as part of our development as a nation.

In the following article, the Director of the National Art Gallery, Melvin Day, considers the state of visual arts in New Zealand today and discusses some of the problems which have arisen in this area of the arts. We shall publish articles on drama, literature, and music in future issues of Salient prior to Arts Conference to provide some background to the sort of problems that are likely to be raised there.

I suppose it is reasonable to say that, Polynesian art forms apart, there has been a history of art in New Zealand for about 200 years. I am, of course, taking as a starting point the time of Cook's voyages and the paintings produced by his artists. This suggests that there has been 200 years of activity in the field of the visual arts but this is not quite true. It is truer to say that before the 1820's there was little art produced in the country which attempted to come to grips with New Zealand life. Although some artists, like Angas, did produce work of interest it is not until the mid-19th century do we find a more consistent body of work coming from such men as Gully, Richmond and Barraud, Work earlier than this time, I feel, is related more to strictly topographical, historical or ethnological studies.

These introductory remarks axe, of course, dangerously generalised but are meant to serve as a reminder of the historical background rather than be a critical analysis. I intend that these remarks highlight the point that art in New Zealand has a very short history and, Polynesian art forms apart, there has been little time for work to develop which bears markedly national qualities—whatever they might be. New Zealand is not alone in this state of affairs. Australia is in a very similar situation and, as far as time goes, so is much of the United States of America. New Zealand's problems are different from both the latter cases: differences in their respective historical backgrounds, population differences and so on.

The case, broadly stated, is that New Zealand artists tended to study and live abroad, much like some famous American artists in the 18th century. This state of affairs continued till after the second World War, when massive assaults were launched on the value of academic art. This was furthered by the cultural domination of the United States. New Zealand was influenced to a great degree when these "standards" were tossed overboard, to the dismay of older artists and society in general. In the first place, we can say that among the first of the major problems facing art in New Zealand was the emergence of art standards other than academic. With the greater freedom and accent on individuality came the dealer galleries, and I believe I am correct in saying that the Helen Hitchings Gallery in Wellington was the first of its kind in the country—a blow to those who believe that nothing has ever happened in the capital city.

While it might be argued that dealer galleries have removed the reactionary control of the art societies, it is equally arguable that dealer galleries have, in turn, supplanted one form of artistic control for another—the "stable". The way in which artists have adapted to this form of control must be a very important factor to note when considering art policy in this decade.

This leads to some consideration of money and the artist. There is no denying the artist must have some money. This is not a recent phenomenon because we can read of artists and craftsman clamouring for more money far back in our history. One of the points to consider is how much we need the services of artists or, for that matter, whether we need them at all. In general discussion with New Zealanders, and on looking around our environment I come to the conclusion that this country demonstrates the thesis that man can live by bread alone, and live very well at that! Art today, as in any other time, is linked indissolubly with an educational programme. The classic case in English history occurred in the mid-19th century when a systematic programming of work was developed for art training. Today, the need is just as great. The question posed 100 years ago could be posed today—What must we teach students about art and for what reasons? I strongly disagree with the thought that art is some form of therapy only yet I have the feeling that in some peoples' minds this is the main purpose of art. If this grows to great proportions then heaven help us.

The problem of contemporary art education is very great compared with earlier ages. The English schools in the latter part of the 19th century, for instance, attempted to evolve a system of art training which would take into account the effects of the Machine Age. If the lesson of that society is followed we must be as sure as possible what it is we want of our artists. As an example of this I should like to briefly examine one of our educational problems—the training of art teachers. Since 1965 there have been 104 Fine Arts graduates from Elam in Auckland, and 119 Fine Arts graduates from Canterbury, a total of 223. The number of Fine Arts graduates (including a small number with uncompleted diplomas) who went to Teachers' Colleges is as follows: Auckland, 91 students and Canterbury, 40. This shows that approximately 60% of Fine Arts students move into the field of art teaching. Does this suggest that economic pressures force them into this work or does it mean that most Fine Arts graduates want to teach other people "all about art"? In either case, this seems a very roundabout and expensive way to train art teachers. It also suggests that if our art educational system exists for the purpose of qualifying people to teach others, for no well defined purpose, then we are in trouble.

In general, what has happened so far has not been very satisfactory from the artists' or society's viewpoint. The artist has been given enormous freedom of choice but that has often resulted in comparative lack of purpose, or, put another way, too great a freedom has meant a lack of tension existing between the artist and the client. An example of this tension would be the clash between Julius II and Michelangelo. Further consideration of this point would lead over too wide a field, but an indication of the problem facing our art educators should show us that this is a difficult question.

Summarising, then, I suggest that the whole of the art education programme in New Zealand needs re-assessing in order that it fits well within our social pattern, we must be quite sure what we want from our artists, while they, in turn, must feel that they form a vital part in our society. To train artists who in turn are let loose to train other artists for no particular reason is the quickest and surest way to debase the profession.