Story: Arts and the nation

Page 6. Artists reject nationalism

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While the nation honoured creative artists as central to the nation’s identity, artists themselves became more sceptical.

Wellington poets

In the 1950s a group of Wellington poets became critical of the 1930s nationalists. In brilliant lectures poet James K. Baxter suggested that earlier writers had shied away from sociological themes and had written ‘more readily of mountains than of marriage’.1 He called for poets to become social prophets, and was suspicious of ‘New Zealandism’. Instead he asked for regional exploration, and pointed to writers such as Louis Johnson, who found poetry in suburban Lower Hutt. He also wanted more expression of sexuality in writing.

Young critics of the 1970s and 1980s

From the late 1960s another generation of largely Auckland writers, influenced by the counter-culture movement and American writing, challenged the ‘reality gang’ of the Curnow school in small magazines including Freed and, in the 1980s, AND and Antic. They were urban in approach and emphasised texts as texts. Art critic Francis Pound pointed to the inherited ‘frames’ – the conventions within which nationalist painters had operated – and he highlighted significant artists such as abstract painters Milan Mrkusich and Gordon Walters, who had not fitted the nationalist canon.

Identity politics

The literary nationalists and the movements that followed were dominated by Pākehā men. From the 1970s other groups demanded a larger place in New Zealand, encouraged sub-national cultures and heightened criticism of a narrow cultural nationalism.

Māori activists highlighted discrimination and looked to express their culture in creative ways. They critiqued the heavily Pākehā focus of much cultural nationalism and noted the condescending and superficial way Māori culture was used to express New Zealand identity, for example poi-twirling concert parties. Artists such as Ralph Hōtere and Cliff Whiting, poets including Hone Tuwhare and novelists such as Witi Ihimaera and Alan Duff posed major questions about culture and the nation. The success of the Te Māori exhibition of Māori art forced an increased recognition of Māori creative arts as central to national identity.

The rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s sparked criticism of the patriarchal assumptions of cultural nationalism and encouraged work that explored women’s distinctive experience, including women’s place in New Zealand society. Women set up their own groups to support cultural activities, such as the Spiral collective and Feminist Art Networkers, and works with a feminist outlook were created by artists such as Robyn Kahukiwa and Alexis Hunter, and writers including Fiona Kidman.

What is ‘New Zealand’ culture?

In the 2000s many New Zealand artists did not give their work a ‘New Zealand’ context. Many writers set their stories in international settings – for example, Nigel Cox’s Responsibility is set in Berlin, Charlotte Randall’s The curative in 18th-century London and Lloyd Jones’s Mr Pip in Bougainville. Prominent ‘New Zealand’ artists such as Boyd Webb and Bill Culbert (who represented New Zealand at the 2013 Venice Biennale) lived in London.


The exposure of creative artists to overseas experiences, and the continuing influx of images, texts and films from overseas, sparked a questioning of national definitions of culture. Artist and writer Gregory O’Brien rejected nationalism ‘with its tub-thumping, its crude simplifications and its agendas’2 and preferred a focus on provincialism or regionalism. Poet Ian Wedde wearied of ‘being a nationalist donkey, doomed to stagger under an unfair burden of “national identity”’3. Poet Chris Price pointed out that artists were not a national team and should not be branded traitors if they used international settings. Other critics suggested that associating the creative arts with ‘creative industries’ implied culture was beholden to economic goals. Instead they asked for a culture that was unsettling and questioning, and called for diversity, not a national uniformity.


The anti-national viewpoint was so strong that even historians whose subject-matter was the story of the nation rejected ‘nationalist’ approaches and looked for ‘trans-national interpretations’. Historians such as Tony Ballantyne and Giselle Byrnes critiqued any idea of unique national characteristics.

In 2014 the paradox remained: New Zealand society and politics increasingly recognised the importance of the creative arts in articulating the nation and bestowed money and respect towards creative artists, while the artists themselves vehemently resisted nationalist agendas.

  1. James K. Baxter, Recent trends in New Zealand poetry. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1951, p. 7. Back
  2. Gregory O’Brien, ‘“Creative” New Zealand.’ In Writing at the edge of the universe: essays from the Creative Writing in New Zealand conference, University of Canterbury, August 2003, edited by Mark Williams. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 200, p. 37. Back
  3. Ian Wedde, How to be nowhere: essays and texts, 1971–1994. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995. p. 172. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Arts and the nation - Artists reject nationalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014