Accounting for the culture, Hamish Keith

New Zealand Cultural Statistics 1995
Statistics Department and Ministry of Cultural Affairs, $39.95

Some years ago rugby commentator John Macbeth, in full flight during an encounter between Maori All Blacks and British Lions, declared a particularly elegant Black rush to the British line to be  “Maori rugby at its best”. That was a cultural observation.

At the beginning of this season an equally excited Keith Quinn noted of the clash between Probables and Possibles “30 of our finest players swarming all over the field” and marvelled at “the millions of dollars represented by their salaries”. That was a cultural statistic.

In the brief history of cultural studies in New Zealand, we have had a great deal of the former and far too little of the latter. A lacuna, a little repaired by the publication earlier this year by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of New Zealand Cultural Statistics 1995. It is a fascinating document, despite enormous and understandable gaps in the data.

But back to the rugby.

It is not just a sly prank on my part to select an opening metaphor from the “national game”. As the recent television series established, it looms so large in the imagination of some New Zealanders as to obscure almost all other national endeavour; for some of us, so much so, that it has assumed the status of, if not exactly a religion, at least a cult. That the game does define us all is seldom questioned, not even when, quite obviously for reasons of gender, it excludes from active participation slightly more than half the population.

Nor is its defining status challenged in the least by that fact that in countless leisure time activity surveys since 1969, playing or watching rugby figure well down the list of preferred pursuits, with reading, gardening and listening to music consistently coming out at the head of things we all like to do. Prime Ministers do not seek photo opportunities at orchestral concerts or book launches or at garden centres.

Despite all the evidence that might be to the contrary, rugby and a handful of other sports, do provide the nation with a fair number of what are rightly seen as defining moments. Partly that is down to the position the popular media assigns to sports in its general order of things, but it is mostly, I think, due to the fact that when a handful of our fellow countrymen (and almost never a handful of our fellow countrywomen) wrest some sporting trophy, like the America’s Cup, from some other country, sport crosses over into culture; the natural home and nurse of defining moments.

Take John Macbeth’s description of that passage of play. Here were two teams of equal numbers of men, playing the same game to the same rules, but playing it in different ways. There was something about the elegant parabolas described by the ball as the Maori All Blacks spun it out to the wing, that was entirely unlike that of their opponents the Lions. The different attributes of each team extended beyond the field to those spectators who felt a natural affinity for one group or the other and identified themselves, however distantly, as sharing them.

Doing the same things in different ways is as good as any point I know, to begin to come to terms with the idea of culture. Essentially the codes, languages and behaviours of a culture define difference; the way we differ from others and the different ways we are the same as each other. Of course those things shift and blur, but when they are sharply and crisply presented, as they were to John Macbeth that day, they do provide enduring definitions.

The problem is that these transcending moments in sport, the cultural tail as it were, are too often mistaken for the whole dog – or worse as being attached to the wrong dog entirely. James Belich, in Making Peoples, has extended the idea of tails wagging dogs to a point where the metaphor has probably gone far enough in the field of cultural studies, so suffice it to say only, that the sporting tail does wag our cultural dog, with dire results.

Culture and sport are presented as glaring at each other across an unbridgeable divide, the former being defined as an optional extra while the latter as an absolute essential to the well-being of the nation and its international significance. That there might be a continuum is never canvassed. We have a Minister for Sport and a Minister for the Arts and in the present cabinet two less likely collaborators could hardly be imagined.

Sport is exclusively defined as the critical factor in our international status never mind the measurable reality of international response.  For example, the numbers of television viewers internationally who saw Anna Paquin score an Oscar for her performance in The Piano exceeded those who watched us win the America’s Cup by exponential numbers, and the audiences for, The Piano, Once Were Warriors and Heavenly Creatures probably exceeded in international scope and actual numbers, any who have been gathered in by whole seasons of rugby. Our local heroes are, by definition, international heroes too.

Even the exceptions to this general rule are significant. No doubt at all that public persons not given to the enjoyment of opera, are happy to acknowledge Dame Kiri Te Kanawa  as our own international superstar, while others with similar achievements – Noel Mangin and Donald McIntyre for example – are not granted the same status. And there are historical examples too – Katherine Mansfield and Frances Hodgkins, but not Len Lye or Raymond MacIntyre. It’s okay to admire success in the arts if it is done somewhere else so it seems and, one suspects, if it is done by an individual who has natural excuse not to excel at some masculine sporting endeavour.

At least the process is consistent. However it has come about, by accident or cunning design, in general we appear content to have our virtues defined by rugby players and yachtsmen rather than painters or poets. We are satisfied to be projected as a nation involved, almost to the point of obsession, in vigorous outdoor activities and sport. Along with the obligatory cleanness and greenness we sell and subsidise adventure and sweat as our most tradeable national commodities, despite Tourism New Zealand’s own surveys establishing that none of those last two things figure in the top four most preferred visitor attractions.

Without a public murmur, the government assigns $4 million from the public purse to the development and support of elite sportspeople, when there is absolutely no doubt that the public outrage would have been deafening had we assigned a similar sum to elite artists. (This pattern is repeated at all levels of government. Without a nanosecond of ratepayer concern or public scrutiny, Auckland City provided an unsecured, interest free $1.5 million loan to the Rugby Hall of Fame, and progressively reduced its city gallery purchase budget to less than the price of a medium sized McCahon. )

These responses and decisions are all made on the assumption that they reflect the way we actually are. Clearly the assumptions are safely made since they are seldom challenged. In the same way television and other newsrooms assign a high priority to sports results – presented as news – while virtually ignoring news of cultural activity unless it is of the man bites dog variety. As a result, cultural decisions and expenditures go largely unreported and thus unscrutinised.

In short, the received wisdom about this place is that sport matters a lot to a majority of people, culture matters a little to a few.

That is not the picture of ourselves presented in the lists and tables of New Zealand Cultural Statistics 1995.

A survey carried out by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs established that of citizens over the age of 18 an astonishing 81% declared themselves interested in culture and cultural activities. Only 18% confessed to a complete lack of interest and 1% did not know. This confirms the result of an earlier survey made by Internal Affairs for the Arts Council in 1979 which put the interest figure at 82% for females and 80% for males.

Statistics New Zealand’s own Household Economic Survey demonstrated a willingness on the part of our citizens to put their money where their mouths were; in 1993/94 they spent a total of $1.57 billion on cultural goods and services or an average of $26.60 a week for every adult. Despite the percentage reported on the culturally interested table, a total of 96% of all adults in the economic survey reported spending something on cultural stuff.

Although there are gaps in the financial data, what is there is significant enough. Total expenditures reported amount to something more than $3 billion in the cultural sector significantly the same as reported for leisure and recreation’s share of the gdp. Economically at least these interests are level pegging. Culture is clearly good business for the government too; its total share of the cultural spend is just under $329 million, while a crude guess at its take from gst and taxes would be about $800 million, or over two dollars returned for every dollar spent.

There are some interesting footnotes to this economic accounting reported elsewhere than the survey. A Colmar Brunton survey for Project Blue Sky established that the film industry earned some $85.5 million in foreign exchange in the 1993/94 financial year – equal to the combined total of the wine and venison industries in the same year. One project alone, the Pacific Renaissance production of the television series Hercules and Xena will have injected something like $100 million into the Auckland economy by the end of this year and a $150 million by the end of the 1996/97 financial year; an input at the bottom end of the predictions for the America’s Cup defence in the same city.

Culture is an equally significant employer; the cultural workforce was around 54,636 souls, or 3.9% of the total in work. They work in 11,835 businesses, 5.7% of the total. Against the grain cultural employment increased by 6.3% against a general decline of %6.6.

This is not a statistical picture of a cultural wasteland, although it does have its small chilling moments. Workers in cultural activities receive incomes significantly less than those in the total workforce; 21% earned under $10,000 compared with 16% for the total despite the fact that more of them were qualified. The chill is taken slightly off this by the fact that more cultural workers perform part time than in other sectors.

Crunching these numbers is not simply of internal interest either. Nearly half the folk who visit us from elsewhere prefer to visit art galleries and museums to doing anything else. Yet cultural tourism hardly figures in the strategies of Tourism New Zealand, Air New Zealand or anyone else who markets us as a destination to the world.

The net of New Zealand Cultural Statistics is, naturally enough, cast pretty wide. It’s definitions of what constitute culture and cultural goods and services are generous. They are hard to argue with, however, and whether those surveyed are consuming Women’s Day or To the Is-Land is beside the point. It is the sum total of these things that constitute the culture and by which, in the end we define ourselves, our relationships and our differences – the best of things and the worst of things.

What should give us pause, is that the reality of our interests, is clearly out of step with how those who make decisions on our behalf and who interpret the world to us and us to the world, define it. It is not that we are not interested in sport or that we do not make significant achievements in sporting arenas, but that that is not all we are interested in or the best of all that we do.

Hamish Keith is an art critic and writer.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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