Monday, May 23, 2016

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“RE-INVENTING NEW ZEALAND – Essays on the Arts and the Media” by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Press, $NZ45)

Roger Horrocks, Professor Emeritus of University of Auckland, has had both a distinguished academic career and a long engagement with arts and media administration, with a special interest in film and television. On the Auckland campus he is best known for his campaign to get film and media accepted as respectable tertiary studies. Perhaps to the wider reading public he is best known for his biography of Len Lye and other books on that multi-media artist. He’s also earned some distinction as a poet, with his latest book The Song of the Ghost in the Machine [reviewed on this blog] being a finalist in this year’s national book awards.
In more than thirty years, Horrocks has also been a prolific, and often provocative, reviewer and essayist.
With a lively cover design by his son, the graphic artist Dylan Horrocks, Re-Inventing New Zealand: Essays on the Arts and the Media is Roger Horrocks’ selection of what he regards as his best essays, from the early 1980s to now (the earliest piece dates from 1983; the most recent from 2014). As a career summing-up, it is something like Murray Edmond’s very different Then It Was Now Again (which was also published by Atuanui Press).
Re-Inventing New Zealand is a capacious book of more than 400 pages, comprising 21 essays and a long and partly autobiographical introduction. The first seven essays are under the subheading “Re-Inventing New Zealand” and are overviews of New Zealand culture, fittingly ending with Horrocks’ 2007 essay “A Short History of ‘The New Zealand Intellectual’ ”. The next six essays come under the heading “Film and Television” and the last eight essays are about specific “Artists, Writers, Composers”. The essays are arranged thematically and not in chronological order of publication, but the first in the book, “The Invention of New Zealand” (1983), delves into themes of national cultural and artistic identity which are revisited from a different point of view in the very last essay in the book, “Douglas Lilburn: Nationalism Now” (2011). It is possible to see a subtle shift in Horrocks’ perspective by comparing these two essays.
The reviewer’s temptation with a big collection of essays like this is to name-check all the contents and treat each as a discrete statement. It’s probably more fruitful to comment on Re-Inventing New Zealand by considering Horrocks’ most consistent themes. As I read it, he has five preoccupation; (1.) a struggle with New Zealand’s cultural identity, which he believes still labours under a “realist” tradition; (2.) an advocacy of avant-garde experimentalism, which has not really entered the cultural mainstream; (3.) an acute awareness of the damage done by neo-liberalism; (4.) continuing in the neo-liberal environment, a critique of the anti-intellectualism of much public discourse, as seen in various media demagogues; and (5.) the direction and management of the mass media [film and television] in this environment.
How do these concerns manifest themselves in Horrocks’ essays?
I’ll take them one by one.

The struggle with New Zealand’s cultural identity – In his essay “The Invention of New Zealand” (1983), Horrocks posits that the 1930s generation of New Zealand writers and artists (Curnow-Fairburn-Glover-Sargeson et al) wanted to shuck off their colonial status by asserting the “realism” of New Zealand and a “nationalism”, not in a bellicose flag-waving sense, but as an assertion of separateness from Mother England and “Empire”. But, he argues, their realism in poetry, prose and fiction was the invention of a “myth” in the real sense of the word. This was perceived by the 1950s, when a degree of conscious mythologisation began to overlay the established “realism” (the era of Baxter and later Curnow). Horrocks wants New Zealand art and culture to move on from this “realist” foundation. He argues that there is still a strong hangover of this “realism” in his essay “Off the Map” (1983), where he takes C.K.Stead to task for being too prescriptive and still rooted in a “realist” tradition which excludes surrealism and other tendencies.
Horrocks also sees the hangover of this “realism” as having become the new gentility. In his 1985 essay “ ‘Natural as Only You Can Be’: Some Readings of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry”, he attacks a sort of confessional poetry which he sees as too concerned to document the individual’s literal experience:
… there is a mass-production of the short (one page or less) lyric in unrhymed or loosely rhymed ‘free’ verse. It’s remarkable how many people write poems, despite the small audience. (Even a university press publishing a well-known poet does well to sell 500 copies.) Much of the writing seems to have a personal therapeutic value since it develops the poem as an assertion of individuality – ‘I can sing’ – or to translate it more fully: ‘It’s difficult being me, but here I am fighting back against all those forces that are trying to keep me silent and anonymous.’ The poem is a rush of adrenalin to the “I”. Interest focuses on its bursts of imagery, its ‘expressive’ language, its charm – the poem is not strong in structure, sustained thought or experiments with language, but writing proves that one is not prosaic.” (p.86)
[For reasons of tact, because he says “some of my criticisms were somewhat brutal”, he reproduces only part of this essay and leaves out the specific criticisms he originally had of Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire.]
This very same complaint is picked up in Horrocks’ four-page rant against the timidity of Landfall, his 1992 polemic “ When Fringe Writers are ‘Warmly Invited’ ”, which is in the nature of what earlier avant-gardists would have called a “provocation.”
The narrow perspectives of the present are epitomised by the form that has dominated local poetry over the last decade – the ‘personal poem’, short, anecdotal, usually in the first person, mostly prosaic in a free-verse way but climaxing in a little burst of lyricism. Such poetry invites the reader to share a humane space in which some likeable, liberal person (usually the poet) becomes a little more sensitive or learns some wry lesson about life. This genre has become a cliché not only in Landfall but also in Metro, the Listener, and other magazines. The ambitious sense of ‘we’ in Landfall in the 1940s has given way to a sprinkling of sensitive first persons.” (pp.128-129).
In poetry, as in the other New Zealand arts, what was once vital and communal in “realism” has run to seed.
Horrocks is of course aware of many changes in New Zealand society since the “realist” heyday – the Maori renaissance, Pasifika consciousness, gay and lesbian openness and feminism. His essay “ ‘Reader’ and ‘Gender’: Watching Them Change” (1986) comes close to chronicling New Zealand feminist responses in the arts until it turns into a close reading of a particular filmic text.
As he struggles with what has become the mainstream of New Zealand literature and culture, Horrocks frequently champions poetic and artistic avant-garde experimentalism, meaning largely artists and poets whom he sees as being undervalued because they do not fit the “nationalist/realist” paradigm and are part of what Horrocks calls “alternative traditions”. Such experimentalism is often associated with cultural theory. As Horrocks notes twice in the essay “Off the Map”, theory goes against the pragmatic New Zealand grain:
The New Zealand literary scene has traditionally been hostile to anything that smells of theory, suspicious of manifestos and nervous that criticism is getting to big for its boots.” (p.71)
To accuse any New Zealand writer of being a theorist is asking for trouble. Our writers value their innocence, their sense of travelling light, uncluttered by theories or ‘prescriptions’.” (p.75)
Most of Horrocks’ advocacy of the avant-garde is in the third section of Re-Inventing New Zealand where he critiques specific artists and writers. I confess I found it hardest to engage with this section of the book as Horrocks is discussing at length the work of people which I hardly know – the painters John Reynolds, Julian Dashper, and Tom Kreisler and the poet Leigh Davis, about whom Horrocks writes one of the longest essays in the book. It is here, however, that he comes to give a more positive view of the original “nationalist” movement in his review of a book about the music critic and theorist Frederick Page (who was at least willing to speak to the avant-garde) and in his essay on Douglas Lilburn.
But there is no foreseeable easy leap from the older cultural orthodoxy of realist nationalism to something more visionary and avant-garde, partly because of our current historical situation.  Neo-liberalism has intervened and has managed to do powerful damage. Art has become the market. Academe has become business.
Horrocks’ 1988 essay “Re-locating New Zealand” is a discursive reaction to the early phase of neo-liberalism in New Zealand, the “Rogernomics” phase, which encompasses the paradox that the virus was introduced via the Labour Party rather than its traditionally more business-oriented rival the National Party. In this environment, as it has developed since the first “Rogernomics”:
Many university courses and staff publication are routine in character, forms of intellectual busywork. Bureaucracy has mushroomed, and money-minded managerialism plays an increasing part in the running of tertiary institutions. There are considerable tensions between the ‘critic and conscience’ role of the universities and their need today to keep governments happy and to fill the large holes in their budgets by extracting money from corporations and wealthy patrons, some of whom are quick to take offence. Expensive advertising campaigns by competing universities stress academic ‘excellence’ but also promise prospective students that the campus will have first-class sporting and recreational facilities and a friendly, fun atmosphere. In short, while New Zealand universities continue to play a very valuable role in our culture, it is important not to overlook their prosaic, conformist, commercial aspects.” (from the 2007 essay “ A Short History of ‘The New Zealand Intellectual’ ” pp.160-161)
Incidental to this cultural situation, Horrocks stands against the demagogues of neo-liberalism who are the latest edition of the old New Zealand brand of anti-intellectualism.  Says Horrocks:
New Zealand has outgrown much of the puritanism that dominated its way of life at least until the 1960s. But another old repression – anti-intellectualism – still rules. Its style has changed over the years, but the basic belief persists that thinking leads to trouble once it departs from the quiet, normal suburbs of common sense. Less down-to-earth ideas stir up scorn and suspicion….” (p.133)
Fittingly, Horrocks makes some strikes against the smug, intellectual-baiting media populism of (the late) Frank Haden and Paul Holmes. His comments are as relevant to the age of Mike Hosking and Cameron Slater.
So to Horrocks’ concerns about mass culture and the mass media, especially television and film.
The 2004 essay “How to Create a Film Industry” argues that New Zealand cinema was born in the 1970s of “alternative” experimentation. But it does encompass the irony that, in film-making, the 1970s “rebels” who rejected bureaucracy, and who unwittingly helped to endorse neo-liberalism, ended up marginalised:
Communal, non-commercial values made the initial takeoff possible; but what began as a free-wheeling film movement evolved in the ‘80s into the hierarchical ‘industry’ that we know today. This seems largely inevitable as feature film-making demands a highly organised infrastructure; but today some tensions still exist between the old communal-style ethos and the codes of professionalism and specialization.” (p.193)
The 2004 essay “Turbulent Television: The New Zealand Experiment” reads as an attempt to infuse a commercially-driven system with at least some of the values of a responsible public broadcaster, but with an awareness that this is an uphill struggle:
In academic circles the impulse to give up on mainstream television and to focus energies on a small access channel or the Internet is understandable but is to give away too much in a country where the creation of an independent broadcaster serving as a cultural forum is still unfinished business in post-colonial terms. Because of the volatility of our politics, both popular culture and mainstream culture remain important arenas for activism.” (p.244)
Some of the essays on mass media are topical, and have not aged well. The 1999 essay “Cultures, Policies, Films” is essentially a dated survey of New Zealand film production up to that time, raising the obvious point that New Zealand cinema was more than just the “cinema of unease” which it had been labelled in a popular documentary of the time. Some of the essays have a twinge of melancholy or nostalgia in them, as in the 2003 essay “Documentaries on New Zealand Television”, where Horrocks laments the squeeze that was increasingly put on serious and/or innovative documentaries on New Zealand television, in contrast with the livelier documentary scene in the 1990s. The essay holds out the hope that better things might come – but, alas, this was before the age of clickbait news and even more dumbed-down “documentaries”. In the 1999 essay “The Late Show: The Production of Film and Television Studies” Horrocks specifically says he will not write “another sentimental history of heroic new subjects struggling against a reactionary regime.” (p.274) but does nevertheless give an account of the hardships he had trying to set up film and other media studies at the University of Auckland. It is a valuable and self-effacing account.
Thus far, I think I have charted accurately both Horrocks’ preoccupations and the contents of this book. Now comes the critical part.
As I am sure Roger Horrocks would himself concede, a volume of essays written over many years and written to appear on many different platforms will not always be consistent in either the arguments it makes or the tone in which those arguments are made. I have already suggested that the younger Horrocks was a little more aggressive in his rejection of older New Zealand cultural “nationalism” than the older Horrocks is. However, one of my major oppositional arguments would be that Horrocks is consistently at odds with himself. On the one hand is a desire for new forms of national cultural expression. But on the other hand there is the frequent admission that the forms he seeks are the avant-garde from elsewhere. I am not reproducing here the crude philistine kiwi cry (which Horrocks rejects at various points) that anything avant-garde should be spurned because it is merely aping foreign “fashions”. But I am saying that much of the New Zealand being “re-invented”, as the book’s title says, is more in the nature of a shift from British to American cultural dominance, for all the social changes (feminism, Maori renaissance, Pasifika consciousness, gay and lesbian openness) which Horrocks lauds.
Further, at the risk of appearing petty, while I do appreciate Horrocks’ reaction against the self-obsessed (and ultimately self-congratulatory) varieties of poetry, I do have to note that confessional, autobiographical poetry and prose per se is often robust and certainly a persistent part of our identity (see Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light; see the autobiographies of Martin Edmond).
Finally, I note that populist (and sometimes demagogic) railing against intellectuals isn’t exclusive to New Zealand. It is not peculiar to the New Zealand psyche even if we do (as does every country settled relatively recently by Europeans) look to a history of pioneers who worshipped practicality and physical labour, and did not value thinkers. It is more a matter of a lack of “critical mass” – the factor to which Horrocks appeals when he is discussing the difficulties in developing an independent movie and TV culture. Small population means not enough of those people whom Horrocks would call intellectuals – even if intellectuals are as large a proportion of our population as of populations elsewhere. But in a larger country, one can immerse oneself in a larger intellectual culture, even if the mass of the population is as unconcerned with intellectual matters as the mass of the population is in New Zealand.
            But I am loath to close this notice with such carping arguments. Here is an old but truthful statement – if a book is worth arguing with, then it is a book worth reading. Roger Horrocks has one major virtue in common with C.K.Stead (from some of whose views he occasionally dissents). He writes clear and accessible prose even when he is discussing specialist matters. Re-Inventing New Zealand is a bracing report from the cultural battlefield and worth the week or so of evenings which it takes to read.

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