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The Spike or Victoria College Review October 1929

An Artistic Stocktaking

page 12

An Artistic Stocktaking

It was William Moore who first suggested to me that New Zealand might be entering upon a revival of art. Why a "revival" I do not know. The word presupposes high times which have passed, times which my memory cannot trace, and which doubtless exist only in the most romantic of minds. The attempt to create for New Zealand a past of achievement and endeavour is an amusing movement, no doubt the psychologists seen in it something significant, and it certaintly has attained little. A friend of Keats, a man who corresponded with Carlyle, a fleeting visit of Meryon; these things amount to nothing. The Brackens and Dometts, I fear, are also doomed to be among those who make no commotion in the world. But here was Moore, with art in his mind (he had just come from Friedensen's latest exhibition), and he had recently been in New Zealand where he had been struck by the number of buildings that had gone up. Moore was interested, he mentioned architecture, he talked of the formation of musical and repertory societies, of the literary work which New Zealanders were doing, and I had not the heart to argue.

To a realist in New Zealand, of course, matters appear different. The buildings which have moved skywards everywhere save in Dunedin, indicate to him not any time of effort, but a sudden leap in land values and the rapid growth of the cities which causes the Farmers' Union so much concern. The formation of musical societies seems to him overdue, and the standard of performance in them not any too high. His attitude may be defined as encouragement of "a praiseworthy attempt." He heaves a sigh, maybe, for the Halle orchestra, the baton of Wood, or the north of England choral societies, but accepts the present without complaint. The work of his local artists has an unfortunate habit of showing poor design. The arts societies are fortunate in their membership. "Patronage of the arts," in the Dominion, has come to mean something in the nature of a social duty. One belongs to the local society; attends the infrequent exhibitions with all the consciousness of going to a race meeting, a theatre, or a house-warming, and with the certainty that on one's return home there will be two questions put, one the vague, "What is the exhibition like?" to which one quotes the annual remark of some dignitary that "the standard is higher," or says that there are a lot of things which one likes; the other query (which really matters), "Who was there?"

It has long been apparent that a member's views at any exhibition is not a moment at which to see the pictures. For one thing it is physically impossible to get near some walls without sidling past a dozen people who appeared to be rooted on all the possible places discussing the doings of friends and relatives. For another, anything like a consistent and quiet inspection is checked by the crowds. And for a third, the din makes one a little be-dazed.

Still, one belongs to the Society. Purchases of pictures are made and are sometimes not regretted. Careful brushwork is not infrequently to be page 13 found upon the walls. There are many dilettantes, people of no real feeling for colours or form, people whose visual effort in the attempt to conceive a picture ought to leave them exhausted for weeks. But there are others of competence, reasonable selective ability and a technique which is long past the student stage. These are our artists. They enjoy a prestige out of proportion to their ability, they are reverenced by the strugglers and by the people who are anxious to admire the right thing, and they command prices for which one could get some of the lesser but admirable work of well-known Englishmen. There is, of course, a 25 per cent. ad valorem duty upon works of art.

In literature the situation is somewhat different. Novels by New Zealanders are not now the rare event that they were before the war. "Another New Zealand novel" was how one reviewer greeted a recently published book. Here there is a great deal of activity, crude and ill-directed, but still ambitious and with some promise. Katherine Mansfield has done something which fifteen years ago was unthinkable, she has demonstrated to the New Zealanders that a New Zealander can create a flutter among the literary ladies and gentlemen twelve thousand miles away. Something of her reputation she now owes to the publicity work of the gentleman who used to be her husband, and who, in the face of her instruction to burn as many of her manuscripts as possible, has published every scrap he could find. Something she owes to her early death. But there she is a Name and a proved ability, and our feet are upon the road which may lead to something approaching literature. In verse the position is certainly promising. I have just completed an examination of the output of over one hundred versifiers who have written during the last ten years. and the impulse undoubtedly is there. Probably it has always been there, but did not meet with a reception stimulating to its development. Sometimes, of course, the more combative have left the country and won recognition elsewhere (as Katherine Mansfield), which has led to the gibe that New Zealanders will not recognise ability until it is noticed in London. An unkind gibe; for probably the emigrant developed in London as he would never have had the opportunity to develop in New Zealand. There, the limitations are definite and severe. One of them is an utter lack of support,—interest in, or encouragement for, the artist in whatever field. Another is the sharp limitation of a land poor in good models, a new land and ill-stocked with fine works of the brain, though thick with sheep and cattle. Indifference, lack of contacts, little civilisation, in a word, provincialism, this has been the handicap of the country for the would-be creator.

Before there can be any renaissance, that indifference must pass. As yet it has not done so. There is a wider interest in verse, a sharper response to journalism of ideas. There is still barrenness for the novelist—no publisher, no public—there is still lack of understanding for the artists in paint, though he is getting a scholarship or two; there is still the dead-weight of tradition upon the architect, the flat level of sheer dull incompetence in much musical performance. . . . No, I am afraid that I cannot agree with Mr. Moore.—C.Q.P.