Home is where the art is
By applauding Hugh Roberts guest editorial “Virgin on the ridiculous” [June issue of New Zealand Books], I guess I’ll be accused of elitism. Well, so be it. In true Kiwi fashion the permanent art exhibit at Te Papa entitled “Parade” has been an occasion for our cultural spin-doctors to reinvent the wheel. The traditional priorities of nasty ol’ eurocentrism have been replaced by a jumble of disparate artefacts that perfectly reflects the current confusion of middle-class Pakeha culture. Here, it seems, art requires domestication to be palatable. Well, I’m sorry. Not all of us need or want our art neutered by the everyday and not all of us find art threatening or intimidating. If our culture is, for the moment, unable or unwilling to tell the difference between a McCahon and a fridge, then, frankly, we neither need nor deserve a national art gallery.
I want to contrast some remarks on New Zealand identity by Lloyd Jones in your August 1998 issue with others by Jock Phillips in The New Zealand Journal of History 30/2, 1996
(especially p119). Jones claims he never had any sense of coming from anywhere else. Phillips, on the other hand, maintains that the central truth of our identity must be that we are a migrant people attempting to make a new home: all Pakeha New Zealanders or their ancestors suffered the uprooting of the voyage, had to set down roots in a new land, and this is a founding trauma at the core of identity (my emphasis). Phillips supports pluralism with regard to identity but in fact maintains that migration must be central.
Jones, on the other hand, writes that his generation felt completely homegrown with no sense of having come from somewhere else. For him, the gorse-covered hills had been there for centuries, he did not think of transported cultures because the ordered streets, city councils and austere state housing were organically attached to place.
For what it is worth, my sense of place is the same as Jones’s, and I am older than he. I cannot remember even my grandparents indicating that they or their parents had suffered the uprooting of the voyage. They would have been surprised if anyone had told them they were not at home here. For them the streets were already ordered. Admittedly, some New Zealanders (perhaps especially Maori and Pacific Islanders) might be sceptical about the ordered streets with their decaying state housing, but that is not because they are migrants. It is because of what some people here have done to other people here.