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Arts reviewing

by Peter Clayworth

Critics and reviewers give public opinions on artistic and literary works. The best critics provide thoughtful analysis, capable of provoking discussion about a work – or even an entire art form.

Colonial critics, 19th century


Critics and reviewers give public opinions on artistic and literary works. In the 19th century they wrote in newspapers and magazines. In the 20th and 21st centuries they moved into the new media of radio, television and the internet. The subjects they reviewed expanded with technological change: from literature, art exhibitions and live performances of music and drama, to films, recorded music, radio and television shows and computer games.

Reviews can have a strong impact on public responses. A critic’s opinion can help make or break a show or film, and can affect sales of books or music. Critics can be ‘gatekeepers’, protecting what they see as cultural standards, or they may be advocates for change. Well-written review articles are entertaining and may even be works of literature in themselves.

Early critics and reviewers

New Zealand’s first reviews of live performances and literature appeared in newspapers in the 1840s. Later in the 19th century occasional reviews of local art exhibitions were published. By the 1880s some papers, such as the Otago Daily Times, ran Saturday supplements with regular literary and theatrical reviews.

In the 19th century reviewers were generally anonymous. Many regular reviewers used pseudonyms, for example ‘Puck’ and ‘Benvolio’. By the late 1890s an increasing number of reviewers were writing under their own names, especially academics acting as guest reviewers.

In the small world of colonial New Zealand, the identities of ‘anonymous’ reviewers were probably well known in their local communities

Clash over comic opera

In September 1880 the touring American Lingard Company put on a season of HMS Pinafore at Auckland’s Theatre Royal. The Auckland Star wrote reviews of each night’s performance. One review stated, ‘Mr Lingard acts better than he sings’, Mrs Lingard’s singing involved ‘laboured and ill-timed respiration’, while the choruses were ‘very indifferently rendered’.1 The Lingards responded by cancelling the Auckland Star critic’s season ticket and stating that the Star had insulted the company by sending an opera critic who knew nothing about music.

Live performances

Early New Zealand newspapers published reviews of drama and live music, including opera and brass bands. Initially reviews were short, but by the 1860s some newspapers had very astute reviewers writing long, detailed articles, such as those by the Otago Daily Times opera critic in the early 1860s.

Reviewers were often outspoken in their criticism of local performances, but more positive when reviewing touring acts. Some newspapers ran regular features on music, but these were often music-scene gossip reprinted from Australian or British newspapers, rather than serious reviews.


The newspapers of the 1840s occasionally reproduced book reviews from British or Australian papers, a practice which continued for many years.

The first reviews written locally were of non-fiction books or pamphlets relating to New Zealand. These were usually travel accounts, works discussing immigration, or works on Māori or New Zealand’s natural history. As magazines and books began to be published in New Zealand, they were reviewed in local newspapers. By the 1860s many papers wrote their own reviews of all forms of literature, rather than reprinting overseas reviews.

Works in Māori

In September 1847, the New Zealander published a detailed review of missionary John Whiteley’s pamphlet, Rongo mau. The pamphlet, written to encourage Māori to abandon warfare and live in peace, was entirely in the Māori language, so the reviewer must have had a working knowledge of Māori. In 1851 and 1852 the Wellington Independent reviewed Māori translations of Robinson Crusoe and a pamphlet on money matters. In these cases the reviewer praised the intent of the translations, but admitted to not having the language skills to judge their quality.


There was little art criticism in 19th-century New Zealand newspapers and magazines, apart from reprints of British and Australian reviews. Critics did, however, review local paintings on the rare occasions when art exhibitions were held in New Zealand. The Dunedin New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1889–1890 included an art section as well as industrial courts and fun-fair attractions. Newspapers reviewed the paintings in detail. Most were from Britain or Australia, so reviewers compared New Zealand works with those from overseas.

Literary magazines

There were a number of attempts to establish literary magazines in 19th-century New Zealand. Zealandia featured many book reviews, but was short-lived, lasting from 1889 to 1890. The New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, published from 1899 to 1905, reviewed drama and literature.

The most successful literary magazine was the Triad, edited by Charles Baeyertz. Founded in 1893, it was published in New Zealand until 1914, then moved to Australia. Baeyertz wrote opinionated reviews of books and musical events. Frank Morton, a Triad reviewer from 1905, was unafraid to offend local or international authors and artists. In the 1910s Morton, Baeyertz and other Triad reviewers fiercely attacked poets and painters of the modernist movement.

Attacks on new developments were to become a common feature of arts and literary criticism in New Zealand.

    • Auckland Star, 30 September 1880, p. 2. Back

Struggle with modernity, 1900 to 1960s

Early 20th century

Twentieth-century technological changes brought changes in criticism. From the 1900s critics began to review films. Some papers had regular columns on drama and film, although these often concentrated more on gossip and advertising than serious reviews.

The advent of radio in the 1920s brought a new platform for reviewers, and the wider availability of recorded music meant that music critics were no longer restricted to reviewing live music.

The tradition of reviewer anonymity gradually faded.

The show’s over

Charlie Norman was music and drama critic for the New Zealand Times in the 1910s and early 1920s. He was such a good writer that his critical pieces were usually published without sub-editing or checking. Norman got into the habit of writing reviews for shows without attending them. He was found out and fired after the Times published two reviews he wrote of shows that had not yet been performed.

Newspapers and magazines, 1910s to 1940s

The major daily newspapers and many of the provincial papers published regular reviews. Longstanding critics included:

  • Alan Mulgan, who wrote on literature in the Auckland Star
  • Hilda Keane who reviewed music in the New Zealand Herald under the pen-name ‘Critic’
  • Nan Russell, who was a drama critic for the Hawera Star and other Taranaki papers.

Some weekly newspapers and magazines also published reviews. Truth’s Deadhead’s Diary presented humorous reviews of live events. Shibli Bagarag (Pat Lawlor) wrote book reviews for Aussie magazine and the New Zealand Railways Magazine. Until the 1940s New Zealand literature was regularly reviewed on the Red Page of Sydney’s Bulletin.

Art in New Zealand magazine (1928–1946) provided art and drama reviews and criticism.

The New Zealand Listener, founded in 1939, reviewed literature, drama, film and music, but seldom reviewed radio programmes. The magazine often employed prominent writers as reviewers, including Gordon Mirams, perhaps the country’s only serious early film critic.

Critical writing in books

Introductory essays were another source of literary criticism, such as Quentin Pope’s introduction to the poetry anthology Kowhai gold (1930). Later Allan Curnow, in A book of New Zealand verse (1945) and The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1960), gave powerful reviews of New Zealand poetry from a nationalist point of view.

E. H. McCormick’s 1940 centennial survey Letters and arts in New Zealand gave a critical overview of selected writers and artists, and this was followed in 1946 by J. C. Reid’s Creative writing in New Zealand.

Modernism and literary controversy: 1930s to 1940s

In the 1930s a group of young writers, including R. A. K. Mason, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and Charles Brasch, were strongly influenced by the ideas of modernism in literature and art. They helped found literary magazines such as Phoenix (1932–33), and Landfall (1947–). The young writers questioned the role of the critic in society and argued for higher standards of literary and artistic criticism. They attacked the old ‘journalistic’ critics such as Alan Mulgan and art critic Charles Marris. Kennaway Henderson and Winston Rhodes, strongly influenced by 1930s left-wing politics, established the literary journal Tomorrow (1934–40), another source of new criticism.

The new magazines also expanded the world of artistic criticism. In 1947 Landfall featured one of the first serious articles on New Zealand photography, written by John Pascoe.

Music and art: modernists versus anti-modernists

In the Dunedin Evening Star L. D. Austin’s Thoughts about Music column (1929–67) fought a fierce rearguard action against modernist influences. Austin wrote scathing reviews of modern classical music, in particular works by composer Douglas Lilburn.

Lilburn and other modernist composers were supported by younger critics such as the Listener’s ‘Marsyas’ (Antony Alpers), Frederick Page in the Press, and Owen Jensen. Jensen edited Music Ho (1941–48), a journal publishing critical writing on classical music. The magazines Art in New Zealand and Music in New Zealand also often contained critical articles supporting modernism.

The young critics were not necessarily supportive of all new musical developments. A. R. D. Fairburn wrote an article in Music Ho dismissing swing jazz as ‘Music for Morons’.1

Debates over modernism in art and music continued into the 1950s. They came to a head with clashes between critics over the merits of the Henry Moore sculpture exhibition in Auckland in 1956–57.

L. D. vs D. L.

Reviewer L. D. Austin castigated composer Douglas Lilburn in Dunedin’s Evening Star on 12 May 1945: ‘It was my misfortune the other evening to be obliged to listen to a sonata for violin and piano written by a New Zealand composer. I have not space to enumerate the work’s defects … Wild horses will never drag me back to such an example of decomposition.’2

Radio and reviewing

Print reviews of radio programmes tended to be brief and often superficial. On the other hand radio broadcasts had a considerable number of book, film and music reviews.

In the 1930s Alan Mulgan gave literary talks. In the 1950s the YC stations had a programme called Bookshop and some stations had film reviews. Owen Jensen had a program on 1YC looking at new records. Arthur Pierce, as ‘Turntable’, gave serious jazz criticism on his programme Rhythm on record.

Reviews for the revolution

In the 1910s and 1920s the socialist weekly Maoriland Worker had regular book reviews, often written by editor Robert Samuel Ross. The reviews not only covered political works but also novels by left-wing authors such as Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, the novelist David Ballantyne wrote film reviews for the New Zealand Communist Party newspaper People’s Voice.

    • A. R. D. Fairburn, ‘Music for Morons.’ In Music Ho 4, no. 1 (June–July 1945), p. 11. Back
    • Quoted in Philip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: his life and music. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2006, p. 157. Back

Expanding the horizons of criticism, 1960s to 2010s

Popular music

The New Zealand Listener’s music reviews were originally confined to classical music, but by the 1950s included jazz. Ray Harris was the principal jazz reviewer for over 40 years. In the early 1960s the Listeners engagement with rock ’n’ roll was confined to brief chatty articles about ‘pop’ stars. By the late 1960s the Listener had a regular column, ‘Sound Round’, written by performer Ray Columbus. Gordon Campbell’s serious column ‘Rock’ on overseas music lasted from the early 1970s until 1985. In the early ’80s Frank Stark’s ‘Sound Check’ documented the emerging New Zealand scene.

Over this period, newspapers began to attempt to review modern music. Playdate (1960–72), a magazine aimed at a youth audience, expanded from reviewing films to covering popular music. The most significant development in criticism was the rise of specialist music magazines such as Rip It Up, focused on serious criticism of rock music.

Dance reviews

In the early 1980s dancer and choreographer Liong Xi noticed the paucity of dance reviews in New Zealand newspapers. He told Mike Nicolaidi, chief reporter for the Evening Post, ‘You must appoint a dance critic. You can’t just keep sending the music critic along to review the ballet.’1 The Evening Post appointed Jennifer Shennan as dance critic. She was still doing that job, for the Dominion Post and online, in the 2010s.


Radio has proved a major source of reviewing in New Zealand. Book reviews have been a prominent feature on Radio New Zealand National (formerly the National Programme) since the 1960s. William Dart’s New horizons, on Radio New Zealand Concert, began reviewing a range of popular music in 1980 and was still going in 2020. Dart was also a reviewer of classical music on the radio and in print. In the 2010s Radio New Zealand National had daily book review programmes, a weekend arts review programme, a film review programme, and a range of music review programmes. Regular reviewers included Kate Camp and Kate De Goldi (books), Simon Morris (movies), and Nick Bollinger and Nick Atkinson (music).


While television programmes have become a topic for serious review in other media, New Zealand television has provided few programmes devoted to criticism. The small range of programmes included the 1990s art show Backch@t with Chris Knox as movie reviewer, the book review programmes The book show and The good word with Emily Perkins, and Hamish Keith’s documentary series reviewing New Zealand’s art history, The big picture.


Newspapers have continued to be a major source of reviews for television programmes, films and live music. The coverage of books and arts in the daily papers declined during the 2000s, but weekend papers reviewed films, music and literature.

Magazines and journals

Magazines such as New Zealand Listener and Landfall remained important vehicles for reviewing. From the 1980s they were joined by newer magazines such as Metro, which included Michael King among its reviewers. A range of specialist magazines and journals also emerged from the 1960s onwards. The quarterly New Zealand Books, founded in 1993, was devoted to reviewing the full range of New Zealand literature. Journals such as Poetry NZ and JAAM included poetry reviews. The New Zealand Journal of History had a regular section devoted to the review of history in books and (more recently) other media. The magazines Art New Zealand and Art News New Zealand provided a wide range of art reviews. DANZ Quarterly reviewed dance performances.

Māori reviewers

Apirana Ngata’s 1928 introduction to the traditional song collection Ngā moteatea provided a critical overview of Māori song and poetry. The Department of Māori Affairs magazine Te Ao Hou (1952–75) published reviews of books and music. Book reviewers included J. C. Sturm, Kīngi Īhaka, Kāterina Mataira and Koro Dewes. Music critic Alan Armstrong reviewed a wide range of Māori music, much of which received no coverage in other media.

In the 2000s Mana magazine had regular reviews of Māori-related books and music, while Paul Diamond was a noted reviewer in the New Zealand Listener and other publications. The journal Te Pouhere Kōrero reviewed a range of publications and productions on Māori history.


Websites have become an increasingly important platform for criticism and reviews. In the early 2010s book-review sites included the Scoop Review of Books, Beattie’s Book Blog and Landfall Review Online. Film-review sites included ViewAuckland’s cinema page and Letterboxd (an international site), on which filmgoers provided their own reviews. The Rip It Up website reviewed music, and Theatreview was partly dedicated to reviewing live performances.

EyeContact discussed art and visual culture; 13th Floor reviewed music, film and art; and the online journal Lumière Reader reviewed films, books, the arts and drama. Fairfax Media’s Stuff news website included reviews of a range of art forms.


How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Arts reviewing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 October 2014, updated 1 April 2020