Light on a left-wing cultural movement, Erik Olssen

A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950
Rachel Barrowman,
Victoria University Press, 1991, $34.95

Rachel Barrowman has written a well-crafted study of ‘a left-wing cultural movement which was contemporaneous with, and in important ways related to, the [well-known] rise of cultural nationalism’. The attempt to form a Popular Front which could effectively combat the rise of Fascism provided both the inspiration and the stimulus for this ‘left-wing cultural movement’. In New Zealand, Barrowman argues, ‘the influence of the left was felt not so much in cultural production, in fiction, poetry, drama and the visual arts, as in the infrastructure of culture: in bookselling, publishing and theatre’ (p4). I was not entirely persuaded but she develops her argument with chapters on Tomorrow, ‘The Left Book Club’, ‘The Cooperative Book Movement’, ‘The Progressive Publishing Society’, and ‘Left Theatre’. She provides a brief history of each organisation and a socio-economic profile of the membership. There are also some useful appendices.

Many of the organisations recruited such small numbers of people that a question must emerge concerning the appropriateness of the focus. Fortunately she strays from the ‘infrastructure of culture’, especially when dealing with Wellington organisations and provides some lively sketches of such rituals as ‘Extrav’. And there are unexpected delights, such as the proletarian coal miners of Huntly denouncing Odet’s Waiting for Lefty because of its coarse language (not to mention the Sunday night performance). There are also useful sketches of such figures as Winston Rhodes, R A K Mason, and Ron Meek, and she has interesting evidence of the Second World War’s role in rendering ‘A Popular Vision’ anachronistic. In her ‘Conclusion’, Barrowman abandons her preoccupation with ‘infrastructure’ and analyses the tension which existed between a ‘model of an organic, popular culture … and an emphasis on the active role of the artist or intellectual …’ in creating a popular culture. In the Conclusion she also discusses the relationship between ‘left-wing culture’ and ‘left-wing’ politics (although, oddly, she largely ignores the Labour Party, presumable on the grounds that it, unlike the Communist Party, was not ‘left-wing’.

The idea of an ‘avant garde’ deserved more attention, for it seemed as though that concept unified the various characters who people Barrowman’s pages better than the concept of left-wing. Had she focussed on the idea of an ‘avant garde’ it might have allowed a more fruitful analysis of literary radicalism and the links between radical politics, ‘avant-garde’ art and literature, and Bohemianism. The roots of this distinctive if confusing ethos lie outside New Zealand and go back before 1936, yet it flowered in the period between the Popular Front and Hiroshima and profoundly influenced many who came of age in those years. Some, young then, recall those years as exciting, but Barrowman conveys little of that mood and, by concentrating on infrastructure, avoids probing beneath the surfaces. For all that, this is a solid monograph, clearly written, well organised, and nicely illustrated. I only hope the author goes on to tackle the larger topic.

 

Erik Olssen is Professor of History in the University of Otago.

 

 

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