Part of the democratic pantomime: An edited transcript of the 1993 Shelley Lecture, Margaret Mahy

Some years ago I wrote a children’s story called A Work of Art in which a woman made a particularly beautiful cake. Two gentlemen, proprietors of an inner-city art gallery, see it through the window, and ask if they may exhibit the cake in their gallery, where it is not only photographed but reviewed … (you know the sort of thing… “Implicit in the design are two time states … before cake and after cake”  “We are seeing the emergence of a new dynamic” and so on.)

Her cake turns out to be both democratic, since everyone loves cake, and an artistic success since she had managed, through skill carefully described in the story, to give it a mysteriousness which touched people’s emotions for reasons they were not always clear about. This collision between popularity and artistic recognition is not a unique combination, but it seems to be rare.

Life copies art and some years later I offered to review a display of cakes made by well-known men including the Prime Minister and the Leaders both of the Opposition and the Alliance. In reviewing the cakes, I was joking in the way that I enjoy most, but, as is often the case with certain sorts of jokes, I temporarily believed, as I wrote, that cakes were art and could be discussed in an artistic terminology that was quite appropriate but certainly made them seem inaccessible.

Art, incidentally does include literature, though in my nearest dictionary only poetry achieves inclusion as one of the fine arts, possibly because, on the page at least, it is the form of writing least accessible to the group of people described as ordinary. Anyhow it is certainly through literature, and sometimes poetry, that I have had those moments of transformation which I count as artistic experiences – occasions in which I felt myself changing from one thing to another, a mysterious quantum change, small but still vastly significant.

It seems to me that these moments of insight and of something beyond insight, of the recognition of something, are part of the nature of artistic confrontation working well. There have been times in my life when I have read some poem or story, and felt “This is the truth and I have always known it. But only now, seeing it set down by some artist in the outside world, am I able to understand just what it is I have known and have any sort of control over it.” Here is the cake maker of my story looking at her cake in the art gallery:

Her iced cake looked very beautiful, very mysterious. It looked a little like a lot of different things, but most of all it looked like something simple which somehow nobody had ever noticed until now. It was the mixture of looking like a lot of other things and looking like something entirely new that made it so astonishing. As well as that, it was a cake. Everybody liked it.


So this story concerns itself with the collisions between artistic excellence and democracy.

I am going to talk a little about moments like those, and also to say something about the difficulty of arranging for transformational experience by acts of democracy, important though we know democracy to be. I am using the word democracy, incidentally, to mean roughly, what most people appear to want and I don’t think I am stretching it.

On the whole, I repeat, fine art is perceived as being inaccessible to ordinary people, and during certain confident times art has encouraged this perception of itself, something for which it is suffering now when it is trying to move beyond the limitations of this view while still retaining the idea of a central mysterious excellence. I want to voice some reservations over the recent habit of describing the more eccentric as well as the well established areas of art as élitist, containing them in one pejorative category and suggesting that the people who are interested in – say, the opera, or book ownership or the Concert Programme are too rarified to count and exemplify a sort of snobbery that deserves to be put down. I hope my speculations will work in favour of diversity, illustrated in my own case by reference to a book I read as a child which would almost certainly be rubbished as “élitist” if it were published today, though today it would not be published by any publisher hoping to stay in business … not without editing anyway.

What do we mean by “art” anyway? First, the word implies a certain sort of transformational experience. The mere word “art” somehow invokes something ineffable, something beyond materialism – something exhibiting an excellence which is independent of whether or not it sells. Art is often, according to romantic legend, moving in advance of sellability, but, in terms of its primary inspiration, it doesn’t care. The artist produces his or her art of unique and powerful fascinations because it is somehow there, and the artist is fulfilled, first by the moment of recognition and then by communicating it.

Children’s writers are not the only ones to utter that magically arrogant phrase, “I write (or paint or compose) for myself alone”, with all its implications of a special perception that has not been modified by considering what people apparently want to read, see, hear or buy. Art is often perceived as existing, through some inspired creator, in its own terms. Victor Cousin said ‘We need religion for religion’s sake, morality for morality’s sake and art for art’s sake”. J O Urmson suggests the aesthetic quality is something entirely detached from social considerations, something categorical and inherent in an artistic artefact – a “pure” value that cannot be explained in terms of any other value. We appreciate art, be it music, painting or poetry, because of its “thrilling utterance” which I imagine is more or less the same feeling that I have described as transformation.

My dictionary defines art in terms of skill, but many creations of enormous skill are labelled crafts and have a different status. Even when people say they are beautiful, they are often at the same time thinking of them as being useful. Their very usefulness may count against their being defined as art, which is regarded as being abstract and contemplative rather than practical.

Nevertheless the skills of Mrs Baskin, my cake-making heroine are described in some detail as she makes the cake against a background of family argument and interruption. In the evening she ices it:

She made herself a cup of tea and sat in the moony dark for a little while, getting herself into a magical cake-icing mood. She had a short refreshing sleep, then got up, washed her face and put on fresh makeup. She thought about Brian who had been her first baby. She thought about him growing year by year, getting his first tooth, scraping his knees, learning how to ride a bike and so on. The cake needed to be iced in such a way that anyone who saw it would be aware of these things.


Cake is essentially democratic in that it is popular and liked by an overwhelming majority of people. Aesthetic theory as it developed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suggests that true art, fine art, is something reserved for those who are sufficiently well off to be sensitive, well educated or singularly perceptive, and that when ordinary people come to enjoy art, it is time for art to shift on. Not only the artist, but the authority that helps to define art, the connoisseur and the critic, must find a new place to stand.

This is not mere affectation. Our ability to be transformed by art is eroded by familiarity. Things that were once thought to be wonderful lose their astonishment and seem less wonderful. And in a lot of cases the privileged observer’s, the authority’s, feeling of personal power is threatened as the community catches up. So artists and authorities experiment and shift their ground to stay ahead. Art is remade in each generation, and tends to remain the possession of the few.

The artist Judy Darragh had an exhibition in Christchurch recently. Her experiments are intended to make art accessible and her artworks were constructed from objects commonly seen as junk. In a newspaper interview she commented on “the titillation of the idea that these objects justify the idea that Josephine Public has, that art is a load of rubbish. Art is meant to be very tasteful, very middle-class and very highbrow. I am trying to challenge what taste is.”

I sympathise with her irritation, though, by talking about art as very middle-class, she probably also intended to criticise it as élitist, for the two terms are often used as if they were synonyms. The paradox is that the people who turned up at the gallery to see her work were preponderantly the very middle-class, tasteful and highbrow people she is trying to get away from. I can’t help at this point giving a personal opinion that the middle class includes a large number of people who are iconoclastic, self-critical and self-derisive and creative in the way they expect art to work. It is often middle-class people nowadays who cry out against the exclusivity of art and demand that art incorporate more democratic principles.

The chances are that the artist who, for whatever good reason, abuses the status quo and the system will still end up by being supported by the system they are abusing and finally become part of it. Democracy struggles to make art more available to the people, but can also ensure that, on occasions, popular art is overwhelmed and taken away from them. It makes some areas vulnerable to absorption, alteration and restatement.

Art may not reside purely in the painting, book or music itself. It may be an interaction, a relationship between object and observer, music and listener, reader and writer, a flow rather than a single state residing in an object. Perhaps the artist only initiates a work of art, using what inspiration and skill he or she has available, and the reader, listener or observer completes it. I refer to my cake story again:

Wystan seized Mrs Baskin’s hand.

“Wonderful news, dear,” he said. “I’ve just had a Japanese firm on the phone and they want to buy the cake for ten thousand. We’ll only take 15% commission and the rest of that lovely lolly will be yours. Where is that cake? ”

Mrs Baskin pointed.

What was left of it was in the middle of the table. The cherries and angelica glowed like rubies and emeralds among the rich, dark crumbs.

“You’ve eaten it, ” cried Wystan, “You’ve eaten a work of art.”

“We all did,” said Brian, “It was my birthday cake.”

“But that wasn’t just a cake. That was art,” cried Wystan.

Mrs Baskin got up from the table.

“It was art,” she said, “but it was also a cake. Brian’s birthday cake. Some art is meant to last, and some is meant to be eaten up. Not everything has to be a monument.” And later both Zack and Wystan had to agree it was the best tasting art they had ever eaten.


In this case art actually becomes part of the consumer’s flesh and blood, which must be, in some less literal ways, what all artists want. The pleasure that people had, simply looking at the cake, was partly because they also had some idea of what it would taste like.

Certain experiences tend to accumulate value as they go… acquire a sort of historical depth because of the way reiteration establishes recognition and response in the observer. When we respond to wonderful stories – or cakes – it is sometimes because there are already memories of wonderful stories, and of cakes as well, in place for these initial responses to link up with.

And authority counts, when it comes to establishing these responses. F N Sibley thinks certain people have the power to recognise artistic excellence to a greater degree than others and that they teach other people to see that excellence. I’m sure the experience of learning to see or hear or enjoy what authority suggests we should see, hear or enjoy is familiar, though of course one can sometimes be instructed by strange and even fictional authorities. I began listening to Bach and, as we suddenly emerged from being an exclusively tea-drinking country to drinking coffee as well, drank coffee black because I was copying Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayer’s well-bred detective. And part of the reason I respected him as an authority was that he was not only well-bred, but well-read and could quote so widely and appositely, in a way that I envied. Not only that, this fictional authority did achieve something in my life for I went to university partly because of the ideas of intellectual life outlined by Lord Peter and Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. At any rate we advance most confidently to our transformation when we have some indication of what sort of experience we are going to have. The cake in my story, once moved from the kitchen to the art gallery, is given the blessing of authority by its setting. The photographs and the reviews alter the usual context in which a cake is seen, and give the authority of the gallery ever more force. People have become used to the idea that whatever is in the gallery is to be seen as art, though of course there is plenty of room for debate as to whether or not it is good art. The inertia of the first encounter has been overcome and from then on linkages are easier.

Here is a small speculation from an old children’s book, The Flint Heart by a writer called Eden Philpotts. He talks about a stone age mystery man and poet called Fum, and says that Fum learned his own poems by heart and recited them for his friends “which, after all, is the best way to publish,” says Eden Philpotts, “if your friends are patient and kind”. He then adds:

Some poets before Fum’s time lifted up their voices and sang. And the first New Stoner who sang made everyone jump I can tell you. In fact he was so amazing and so wonderful and so unlike everybody else that they took him out to the top of a high hill and chopped off his head with a flint axe – just for a warning to other people not to be too clever. But the second poet who found he could sing was cleverer still and he told people exactly what he was going to do before he began and they didn’t jump and thought it was beautiful. In fact they made a tremendous fuss about him and bragged about him to other New Stone tribes who had no singers. Which shows you may do anything new within reason, as long as you don’t make people jump too much, but give them fair warning.


This account suggests the alarm of a new, unmediated artistic experience, reminding one of the story, quoted as true, of a man who punished his wife for some misdemeanour by taking her to an art gallery and ruthlessly confronting her with pictures by Picasso in spite of her weeping protests. History does not record whether any group started a shelter for people brutalised by forcible contact with new art. In this anecdote Eden Philpotts is associating art with authority and familiarity, even if the authority is the artist himself, speaking with such conviction that he alters the receptive state of his listeners and they willingly embrace a new experience.

But art flows through several systems. It may begin with inspiration but at some point, after the artist has done his or her work, art, be it literature, music or paint on canvas, encounters materialism, capitalism even. The links are well established and more profound than we often choose to recognise. Sometimes the relationship is pervasive. Robert Hughes, in the book The Shock of the New, said of old paintings (say, those by Giotto), that it was impossible for us to look at them nowadays without being aware, at some level, that they are worth millions of dollars. Their price has become part of our experience of them. When I saw the crown jewels at the Tower of London I had no response to them at all. There was no transformation and only a very general interest. It was only when I thought of how much money they represented that I felt the twitch of sharpened response.

It is not accidental that I have invoked children’s books so frequently, because these days when I fill out any form that asks for my trade or, rather more genteely, occupation, I am able to put writer, something that I have wanted to do from the time I was seven. And when anyone asks me just what sort of writer I am, I expand very happily and say I am a writer of children’s stories. People react in various ways, one of which is sometimes to say something companionable and comforting, suggesting that I don’t need to be too ashamed of filling my adult life with essentially childish preoccupations. This is a common experience for children’s writers, and defensiveness has led many of them in the recent past to deny that they are writing for children at all. Instead they suggest that they are writing for themselves or their own satisfaction, as if this automatically precludes childishness.

In the past, and probably within the hearing of many people here tonight, I have quoted from Arthur Ransom, P L Travers, Leon Garfield and others rather too frequently to want to quote them yet again. Suffice it that statements made by these authors, along with many others, seem like an attempt to counter implications of immaturity, by associating the speakers with the condition of being artists. They don’t suggest that books written for children can be art (though Mrs Molesworth did once say that writing for children was a peculiar gift, not on a lower rung of the writer’s ladder of excellence but on a different ladder altogether). Instead, they invoke the idea of the artist as a person of magical inner perceptions, which is part of the romantic idea of an artist we tend to share.

Currently in New Zealand, writers of children’s stories are coming out of the closet to assert that they too, are part of literature, that they too, are legitimate artists, not only in terms of any magical inner perceptions they might happen to have, but because children’s books are part of written literature, the literary art, of the community. They wish to say, not only, “I write for myself according to my magical perceptions”, but “I am a writer of stories intended for children and children’s stories involve skills and insights and authority that place them with the fine arts”. Their books are consistently scanned by adult readers who are assessing not only the pleasure and transformation that children might get from these books, but for the lessons implicit in the narrative. This happens to adult books, too, but to a much lesser degree.

Meanwhile publishers make a point that compels respect: good children’s books can sell well, better than most adult books. All those writers who declared they wrote for themselves alone were not telling the whole truth. In due course they sent their stories to a publisher and the publisher employed an editor to assess, among other things, whether the book was going to line up with current social theory concerning children and childhood and if it was going to make money by appealing to that wide unspecialised group called “the kids” or to the ghostly group of monitoring adults who stand between the story and the child. This may be another sort of collision between art and democracy.

“Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said, on hearing that poor people could not get bread. In his recent book, The Boundaries of Art, David Novitz suggests that the aesthetic movement at the end of the last century separated high arts, the fine arts, from everyday life and that “art” has been hijacked by people who have had the time and money to become specialised and to think about high art, which retains its artistic integrity or purity by refusing altogether to attend to the issues that concern people in their daily lives. He goes on to develop an argument, with which I agree, to the effect that our lives are shaped by art, that it is not the mere decoration it is often represented as being, but something real among us in spite of the persistent view that art is an end in itself.

Children’s books, however, are never allowed to be ends in themselves, and people who play too much within the form of a children’s book can be accused of being too clever, of doing something for their own sakes, not for the sake of the children who are to read the story. On occasions books in this latter category become respected by adults, and then people begin to say, “Of course Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is really for adults”, which was just not true. It was a story made up for children and was popular with children for many years. But today the expectations where successful children’s books are concerned are highly democratic.

Some years ago I wrote The Pirate’s Mixed-up Voyage, a sort of vaguely picaresque nonsense story, though with moral elements, too. The pirates learn to read, for example, and fall under the stern, though essentially benign, control of a Doctor of Literature called Mrs Hatchett. I tried to make the book entertaining in the way a patter song is entertaining. I went through a process, reasonably normal and desirable in producing a book for children, of considering the audience for whom the book was intended, and editing out some of the adult reference that had crept in. However there is an unyielding element in most authors. We all feel romantically about our own preoccupations. On the first page there was a reference which I was asked to remove, but which I decided to leave in.

Doom and Destiny, Toothpick, the pirate’s parrot, would cry, for he was a determinist and believed everything happening in the universe was part of a vast mysterious plan. But Lionel Wafer believed in free will.

What rubbish, Toothpick, he would cry. The world isn’t run according to any plan and that’s that! In the heroic life things are simple, free and unplanned.


This is the sort of sequence which annoys some critics. It seems to be aimed at the adult beyond the child, an indulgence by the writer which is not wholly on behalf of the prospective reader. I would defend it by what I hope to accomplish for those readers who approximate to the sort of reader I was as a child. I can remember enjoying, as I wrote, the tremble of alternation between invention and reality. On the whole the book had good reviews, but one review in Britain rubbished the book, and ended up by saying, “I suppose there are some children in Hampstead who might enjoy this story but most children won’t like it.”

The critic is suggesting that the experience of the children in Hampstead who might enjoy this book is not to be counted. It is not what that democratic group “the kids” will enjoy, and therefore does not deserve to exist. In the context of artistic experience I disagree with this. The review I have just quoted immediately reminded me of a significant childhood reading experience of my own, and I return to The Flint Heart.

I read this book sometime during the 1940s but it had been published in 1910. It is the story of a charm, a flint heart, made by a Stone Age mystery man Fum on behalf of a young Stone Age warrior called Phutt. Anyone wearing the flint heart grew hard-hearted with a speed greater than the speed of light and, having achieved a hard heart, enjoyed a tremendous advantage in business and politics and all the sort of material success currently applauded by governments around the world. At one point in the modern part of the story a boy called Charles approaches the pixies hoping to get some due as to why his father had suddenly become hard-hearted. He encounters a pixie who has adopted for himself the name of De Quincey, after he says,

“… the noble Theban who wrote books, the most wonderful books in my opinion. So when the time came for me to choose my name I called myself De Quincey.”

“Do fairies choose their own names?” asked Charles.

“Certainly. Why not? The great name of De Quincey was not appropriated in fairyland, so I took it. And this brings me naturally to the saddest subject in the world. I refer to the subject of English prose. It has gone. We have lost it. The music of prose is a thing of the past.”

He took out his handkerchief and was evidently going to cry.

“Don’t cry – explain,” said Charles. “I don’t know what you mean by the music of English prose.”

“Then read Sir Thomas Browne, and Milton and De Quincey and Landor and Ruskin,” said the fairy. “Walter Landor, let me tell you, is an immortal banner on the topmost turret and battlement of our glorious mother tongue.”


What is going on here? Philpotts can’t have felt that even wonderfully erudite children of his own time would have known much about de Quincey, let alone Landor, or been concerned about the beauty of English prose. Theoretically I should have been confused by this piece and there is a tendency, when I point out that I enjoyed it, for people to dismiss my experience by saying that I must have been a smart-arse. I don’t think that disposes of the essential truth of my reading experience which I think was entirely legitimate and to do with the life I was forming for myself according to my own choices.

When I was a child, reading was my area of power, and, as I blazed tracks through its complicated jungles, I looked forward to entering in the most complete way the world of literature, and at the most mature level possible. When I wrote at this age I wrote at the most adult level of understanding of which I was capable. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I consciously began to write children’s stories. My mother had Confessions of an English Opium Eater, so the name De Quincey intrigued me, partly because I felt I was being treated as mature and knowledgeable, I was in on the joke, and De Quincey, a distant figure on my literary landscape, seemed to come closer. I was anxious for intellectual adulthood, as simply and sincerely as boys in television ads yearn to be great All Blacks, and pieces like this allowed me a form of access, and, at the very least, a right of reference. In retrospect it seems a relatively harmless precociousness which I made up for by being backward in nearly every other way.

Of course I do think children, like adults, read primarily for entertainment if they are allowed to, but part of that entertainment lies in the feeling of inclusion and access to adult power. A S Byatt, writing about children’s books in the book Readers on Reading gives her own views on Tolkein and C S Lewis and ends by saying, ‘It follows from that that I mistrust romantic theories about wisdom or truthful vision of children such as were rife in the 1960s. Children are just people in the process of getting older, vulnerable people learning to be human, and wise children know that being men and women is much more interesting and complicated than the state in which they are temporarily stuck.”

My experience is one of a range of legitimate responses. Diversity is vital to us all. Philpotts was probably doing what children’s writers are supposed not to do, looking at the adult over the child’s shoulder, but suppose the adult the writer is looking towards, happens to be, the adult the child will one day become. I, too, write stories which I hope people will read in one way when they are seven and another, say, when they are 47. I don’t think that is élitist at all, though in order to appeal to the 7-year-old one has to be careful about the amount and level of attention you give the ghostly 47-year-old somewhere out there in the future.

In Signal, one of the most profound periodicals on children’s books, Peter Hollindale’s article on ideology and the children’s book distinguishes between child-centred judgement and book-centred judgments, and suggests that the division between literary and social priorities is a difference in emphasis “disguised as a difference in principle”

I have talked as a book-centred person, but I can be sincerely democratic, too. Talking in schools about my childhood reading, I often choose to talk about the rich moments I shared with comics and B-grade films, because they were just as true as the rich moments I encountered in a book like The Flint Heart, and tend to be more recognisable. It is a way of saying I am not isolated as an exceptional reader who became a librarian, someone whose experiences aren’t to be really regarded as relevant to the majority of children. Often in these circumstances I choose to keep stranger, more scholarly encounters secret, almost as if I, too, were saying they don’t really count. If children ask me what children’s books I enjoy reading most, I mention writers I think they will recognise, Roald Dahl, say, or Paul Jennings and then, rather hesitantly, Diana Wynne Jones because I don’t expect her to be recognised and neither she is. One of my great favourites is William Mayne, published as a writer for children, but who sometimes seems to be read only by children’s librarians, and I don’t mention him in the classroom.

So I too, play the game of democracy, the game that suggests the ratings must be right. I certainly get their attention through liking what they already like and hope I demonstrate encounters with diversity and the idiosyncratic way an individual builds up a collage of artistic response that helps them to become what they are.

For anyone as puzzled by the world as I am, it is hard to end up with a clinching argument, but I can end up with an appeal which, though it sounds mild is really empassioned.

Art works in the very core of life. I feel the effects of various stories and narratives, as art in part of my continuing construction of myself every minute of every day. Art flows, working as it flows and I want it to be seen flowing. I don’t want to see our diversity reduced, or established beauties like opera or the national orchestra or the concert programme grudged an existence because we are trying to acknowledge non-traditional areas in our view of art, or the world of books reduced to a quick-fix moral formula in the name of political correctness, or constructed according to fashionable views of childhood (and childhood is constantly being remade).

I believe the word “democratic” with all its powerful suggestions of justice, is often used to attack the diversity it should passionately protect, for diversity uses a lot of energy, including the sort of energy we compress and symbolise as money, along with the energy we spend in day-to-day decisions. One has to negotiate so much more with diversity and may have to surrender the security of knowing one is in charge Above all, let us remember that intellectual ideas and artistic transformations are not the sterile constructions they are sometimes represented as being, but are part of the magical life of the community, part of the pantomime, and every now and then we should assert their wonder and central excellence and our right, as individuals, to be transformed by them.




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