Place of the Arts
Sport, then, is considered manly, and manliness wholly desirable. In the past, preoccupation with this principle led New Zealanders to despise aesthetic values, and their habit of doing so dies hard. Nevertheless, it is dying. Interest in the arts has grown at an increasing rate ever since the First World War ended, and local accomplishment has advanced steadily. From earliest times new surroundings and splendid scenery have proved an inspiration for landscape painters, and the visual arts have always flourished in some degree. In literature, the initial impulse came from novel conditions of living which begot books of experience. Poetry came later with the growing consciousness of individual nationhood, and the last few years have seen the publication of several novels of real merit. During the great slump of the early thirties theatrical companies from overseas ceased to visit New Zealand, with the result that theatrical entertainment was undertaken by amateur local enterprise. The movement led eventually to the founding of a professional company which had considerable success before succumbing to financial difficulties. A second attempt on the same lines is in process of being made. Music was the last of the arts in which New Zealanders were to win distinction or show a practical interest. Several composers of talent have appeared during the past decade and a half. A National Orchestra, subsidised by the State, has come into being and a chamber music society owes its origin and success to the work of individual enthusiasts.
The Philistines, however, are still powerful among us. They complain because the National Orchestra is not a paying proposition. Their influence is indirectly responsible for the fact that articles for journals and periodicals or radio broadcasts are paid for at rates that would be rejected out of hand by representatives of unskilled labour. Artists, indeed, are not yet regarded as an indispensable or even an important section of the community. Congalton and Havighurst, when carrying out the investigations referred to above concerning the social status attaching to various occupations, did not find it worth while to include the occupation of “artist” within the scope of their inquiry, feeling obliged, no doubt, to recognise the prevalence of a materialistic attitude among the people whose tastes and prejudices they were endeavouring to discover and define. Not long ago a South African professor who held the chair of philosophy at one of our universities, noticed that whereas South African students had been content to take philosophy as a subject worth while for its own sake, New Zealand students were invariably anxious to ascertain whether knowledge of philosophy would be likely to increase their earning power.
Without the stimulus of discerning criticism, the arts are apt to languish, and in New Zealand criticism has never reached a high standard for several reasons. Only a very few journals and periodicals devote space to discussion of literature and the arts, and the rates paid to contributors are not calculated to encourage writers to make themselves expert in any special branch of criticism. There is also the point that in a small country where, so to speak, everybody knows everybody else, there is a strong disinclination on the part of critics to hurt the feelings of personal acquaintances. Mutual appreciation is comfortable but not conducive to improvement.