Culture wars, ancient and modern, Hugh Roberts

The Critic’s Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971-2013
Wystan Curnow
Adam Art Gallery/Victoria University Press, $80.00,
ISBN 9780864739322

Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing
Murray Edmond
Atuanui Press, $44.00,
ISBN 9780992245368

The editors of The Critic’s Part tell us that Curnow’s prolific but scattered art-critical writings (reviews, catalogue copy, journalism, essays etc) together reveal the “arc, progression, and continuity of Curnow’s thinking” and deliver a “general, ‘big-picture’ account of New Zealand art”. If there is some truth to the first of these claims, the second cannot be said to bear much examination. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the history of New Zealand art in the late 20th century will be grateful to Christina Barton and Robert Leonard for making these pieces available.

In the 1960s, Curnow completed a PhD in American literature at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1970, he returned to New Zealand to take up a position (alongside his famous father, Allen) in the English department at the University of Auckland. In his seven years of absence, Curnow had soaked up as much experience of the vibrant New York art scene as he could. More than that, though: like a small-town provincial coming to Paris in a Balzac novel, Curnow constructed a mythic New York which symbolised everything he felt himself deprived of, both in New Zealand and in Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Canada, where he actually lived and worked during his time abroad.

Memories of his visits to New York during this time are scattered throughout these pieces as touchstones, both of what a “high culture” art scene should be and of Curnow’s own (heavily romanticised) spiritual turangawaewae:

My place? An artist’s loft on Chrystie Street, one block from the Bowery – alkies, soup kitchens, kitsch lamp shops – and two from Hester Street. On the Lower East Side, where the living’s not easy, or safe. South is Chinatown, territory of the Tong. The Mafia? Little Italy’s just to the West and, if you continue, across Lafayette and Broadway, you’re in SoHo. And SoHo?…It is now the heartland of contemporary art. In New York, in the US, in the world.

It’s no surprise, then, that Curnow viewed his return to New Zealand in 1970 as a form of exile, and that he developed a critical position which was essentially missionary: his role was to bring the Good News of Soho to the savages of the South Seas.

This avowedly “elitist” understanding of both the artist’s and critic’s relationship to their cultural context provides the main thread of that “continuity” of Curnow’s thought promised by his editors. The best-known piece in this anthology, “High Culture in a Small Province” from 1973, lays out the argument in its starkest form: “the belief that the arts communicate much to any other than a few well-trained perceivers is fallacious”. Art does not, for Curnow, bubble up out of a vibrant cultural ferment; rather, it is more like some abstruse branch of theoretical physics, whose practitioners need to stay abreast of the latest, cutting-edge developments in their field, and whose breakthroughs remain largely unintelligible to the non-initiate.

This view helps explain Curnow’s central theoretical concern with psychic insulation – a term he borrows from the work of his thesis advisor, Morse Peckham. For Curnow, psychic insulation is the essential support structure that allows artists to do their work: the protective cocoon of patronage, sophisticated critical engagement, institutional support and so forth that “insulates” the artist in their “high cultural level” from the distractions, misunderstandings and outright hostility of the hoi polloi who inhabit “the lower levels of culture”. Psychic insulation was what New York – with its dealer galleries, artists’ associations, museums, foundations, well-heeled patrons and so forth – could provide to the artists who flocked there. New Zealand, by contrast, “a relatively classless, homogenous welfare-state”, suffers from an irretrievable mixing of “cultural levels”.

This is, tellingly, something of a one-sided reading of the theory of psychic insulation, which, for Peckham, is as important for the artistic “perceiver” as it is for the artist. Peckham’s Man’s Rage for Chaos posits the “primary role of the artist” as being “to provide stylistic disorientation”: to interrogate the boundaries of what can be considered “as” art. Psychic insulation (the contemplative space of the gallery, the hushed quiet of the concert hall etc) is necessary for “the individual to let down his defenses and fully expose himself to disorientation”. Curnow’s singular focus on the artist – with, at best, a kind of “trickle-down” benefit for non-artists (“Of course, something gets through; if it did not, high culture would be of no value to the lower levels …”) – is profoundly characteristic.

Curnow’s chief complaint in “High Culture in a Small Province” has to do with New Zealand’s relentless “amateurism … people playing roles above their cultural level”. True art requires “specialized and professional” work by artists and by those who provide their psychic insulation, and Curnow is unsparing in showing how easily people with no special training in art history or art theory move into positions of influence in the New Zealand art world. It would be easy to wax ironic about Curnow’s own subsequent career as amateur Jack of All Trades (critic, curator, poet, artist-collaborator etc) on the New Zealand art and literature scenes (Robert Leonard does, mildly, in his introduction), but he could always argue that this simply proves his point: that New Zealand culture is simply too thinly spread to provide the kind of psychic insulation the artist needs:

the New Zealander can gather a small circle of friends around him, or go bush, or seek the sanctuary of the university, or grow a twenty-foot hedge around himself and guard it with mad dogs, but he cannot live in the East Village or the Upper West Side and have the New York Times delivered, and never be caught dead in the suburbs.

If “High Culture” helps us discern the through-line of “continuity” in Curnow’s criticism, it also explains why this volume does not deliver a “ ‘big-picture’ account of New Zealand art”. Curnow isn’t interested in “New Zealand art” as such; an overview of New Zealand art of the last three or four decades drawn from Curnow’s book would not quite be Hamlet without the prince, but Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius and Horatio would get left by the wayside. Curnow is interested only in identifying those rare few – a mere handful – who, in his view, have somehow broken through to the highest “cultural level” and are doing work that actually matters; work that might be recognised as a significant contribution, even in his beloved New York.

For Curnow, with the notable exception of Colin McCahon, about whom Curnow writes with real acuteness, but without directly facing how poorly he fits within the theoretical framework he privileges elsewhere, this would mean “post-object art” above all: conceptual and/or performance art which, while it might produce many documentary “objects”, offers no “art object” as such for the audience’s aesthetic contemplation. Any student of New Zealand art history will value this collection for the crucial documentary record it provides of this strain of activity in the New Zealand art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. Curnow’s enthusiasm for such art is not hard to explain; this is, indeed, art that speaks only to “a few well-trained perceivers”. If, as Curnow notes, Joseph Kosuth (the American conceptual artist) hoped that conceptual art “makes a [critical] middleman unnecessary”, in practice it has privileged the critic as someone who does not merely “respond” to the work, but who – by working with and elaborating the very conceptual “stuff” of the work – becomes a creative participant in it. Curnow is always happy to put himself front and centre in his writing: “the critic’s part” is an heroic one. With work that gives us no stable aesthetic “object”, it is up to the critic to rescue the artist’s conceptual gestures from oblivion: “it is left to the critic alone, through his exemplary account, to preserve that experience, to resist the ephemerality of the works”. His impressionistic accounts of Bruce Barber’s “Mt. Eden Crater Performance” or Peter Roche’s and Linda Buis’s quasi-ritualistic performance works are attempts to convey the reader unapologetically into Wystan-Curnow’s-experience-of-the-works rather than attempts to reconstruct the works in any “objective” sense.

This blurring of the lines is nowhere clearer than in Curnow’s curious relationship with the artist Billy Apple: an ex-pat Kiwi who was a fringe figure in the 1960s London Pop Art scene, went on to become a successful “creative” in the New York advertising world (think Mad Men) and an even more marginal dabbler in the New York art scene in the later 1960s. For Curnow, Apple is one of New Zealand’s two or three greatest artists, and the one to whom he returns most frequently in this book.

Curnow recognises the problematic nature of his critical position in relationship to Apple (“I seem…to have overstepped some sort of mark”). From passionately defending his controversial 1975 tour  against a philistine New Zealand, Curnow moved, on Apple’s return in 1979, to “act[ing] the part of Billy’s agent, tour manager, and PR man”. Apple’s shows in 1979 (under the Curnow-penned title: “The Given as Art-Political Statement”) contained unsigned statements written by Curnow. When a conceptual artist contracts out the “conceptual” part of the work, it raises some interesting questions about who the “artist” actually is. Curnow makes it clear that he has given significant collaborative input to almost all Apple’s work after 1979 (the title of Apple’s current major retrospective at the Auckland City Art gallery: “The Artist has to Live Like Everybody Else” is an Apple/Curnow co-creation). This has not, however, deterred Curnow from continuing to act as Apple’s vociferous critical champion.

More interesting than this ethical question, though, is the question of what Apple’s New Zealand adventure suggests about Curnow’s “high culture” thesis. Curnow’s angry denunciation of New Zealand’s inability to provide Apple with the necessary psychic insulation on his 1975 visit is premised upon an invidious comparison with New York. He paints Apple responding with wide-eyed and baffled horror to the know-nothing responses his works received: an exhibit including neon lights shut down by the New Plymouth Fire Brigade for contravening fire safety regulations; works that involved removing accumulated dirt from certain areas of the gallery met with puzzled head-scratching in the press, and so forth:

It may be hard to credit that the artist was surprised and distressed by the attention and hostility that greeted his works. The work does, after all, knowingly violate viewer expectations. And Auckland is, after all, no New York. His innocence was, however, genuine. No doubt it reflected the particular provincialism of New York, the long-standing and effective psychic insulation that goes with being the art capital of the world.

What, then, to make of the fact that a search for “Billy Apple” in the online archives of The New York Times reveals that, in 1966, his show of neon art (in the lobby of the Pepsi-Cola building) was shut down by inspectors from New York’s Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity (October 8, 1966)? Or of the fact that the only other substantive reference to Apple’s work to appear in the Times prior to 1975 is a swingeing attack on one of Apple’s “ridiculous” conceptual dirt-removal pieces by the Times art critic, John Canaday (unlike Curnow, an art historian by training and profession): “the fact that Mr. Apple can get space on this page (or anywhere else) is indication enough that things are pretty bad. Yet ‘Roof Dirt’ is no more ridiculous than examples of its kind that have been exhibited in serious exhibitions” (May 16, 1971)?

The point is not whether Canaday or Curnow is right about Apple’s merits. Personally, I find the supposed “philosophical” rewards of Apple’s art to be pretty thin gruel. Curnow wrings what significance he can out of, say, emptying a gallery and selectively polishing certain floor tiles in it, or painting red the features of a gallery that offend against the ideal of the “white cube”: it draws our attention to the fact that the gallery is not a neutral space, that it conditions the viewer’s relationship to the artwork and so on (“Which space is it, exactly? What is it? I mean, what does it amount to?” asks Curnow, rather breathlessly). The problem, to me, is one which applies to so much conceptual art and which we might call the “let’s not and say we did” problem. What does actually doing or seeing such an installation add to the “concept”, which seems all-too-easily conveyed in a sentence or two? Perhaps I suffer from an excess of psychic insulation, but I cannot feel much “disorientation” in being asked to think – yet again – about a proposition that has been familiar since Marcel Duchamp probed the way the gallery context changes our relationship to a urinal presented as a sculpture.

More troubling, though, is that Apple’s New York (non-)career suggests there is something fundamentally awry with Curnow’s high-culture psychic insulation model. Had Apple stayed in New York, he would now be an almost completely forgotten figure in both New Zealand’s and New York’s art worlds. No serious New York art institutions (the lobby of the Pepsi-Cola building notwithstanding) would give him space to pursue his conceptual “interventions”. It was, in fact, the very things Curnow excoriated New Zealand for, including the relatively low threshold to our “high cultural level”, which made Apple’s extraordinary reinvention as a “major New Zealand artist” – showing “controversial” work at New Zealand’s leading public galleries – possible.

Like Curnow, Murray Edmond has had a remarkably varied career in New Zealand’s “high culture” scene and, like Curnow, he has always been keen to see himself at the cutting edge of whichever garde seems most en avant. That proves, in this collection, however, to be something of a moving target. Emerging at first as a poet associated with Alan Brunton’s The Word Is Freed, Edmond’s career has been primarily directed toward work in experimental theatre, but he has remained active as a poet and a critic. Then It Was Now Again gathers together a selection of his critical writings from 1973 down to the present. No one, I think – not even Edmond himself – would make a claim for any “continuity” of conceptual position in these essays. It can become something of a game keeping track of the number of times he argues vehemently on opposite sides of a question: from angrily denouncing the idea that Bob Dylan – or any “pop” artist – could be taken seriously as a poet, to celebrating Dylan as the central influence on the “Big Smoke” generation of poets – Edmond’s own – (“Dylan’s lyrics contained the same charge as Rimbaud’s”); from celebrating the death of the playwright and the rise of actor- and director-centred experimental theatre, to arguing in the preface to a collection of interviews with 20 New Zealand playwrights that their (traditional, writer-centred) works represent “the strongest literary contribution” of the past 30 years of New Zealand creative writing; from dismissing traditional (read staid, dull, bourgeois) theatre as part of the recolonisation of New Zealand (lumping Chekhov and Brecht in as “English dramatists in this context”), to praising Hone Kouka’s  The Prophet as theatre “in the best Chekhovian manner … In fact, even less ‘happens’ in The Prophet than in Chekhov”. One could go on.

If this gets, at times, a little dizzying – all the more so because Edmond is never less than passionately committed to whatever thesis he happens to have settled on for the moment – there is, nonetheless, a great deal to be learned here about the history of New Zealand theatre over the last half century. I often found myself disagreeing with the terms of Edmond’s analysis. For instance, the disparate theatrical acts he tries to yoke into a buried dell’arte tradition – The Front Lawn, Red Mole, the Topp Twins, Dramadillo and Inside Out – seem as notable for their differences as their similarities. Similarly, his attempt to read the early history of Wellington’s Downstage Theatre as something radically opposed in spirit – read avant garde vs conservative – to the network of regional theatres it was later to be held as exemplary of, is selective and tendentious. However, Edmond’s deep conviction that poetry and drama matter, that (pace Auden) they can “make something happen”, is welcome and, if his argument is always trenchantly expressed, it seems both to expect and welcome equally engaged and riotous counterargument. The cumulative effect of these pieces is like a series of enjoyable disputes with an engaging, if sometimes exasperating, friend.

Hugh Roberts, a New Zealander who teaches at Irvine, UCLA, has written widely on New Zealand literature and art writing.

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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