Story: Criticism and the arts

Page 3. Critical approaches, 1930s to 1980s

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Political criticism

The 1930s gave rise to a body of left-wing criticism led by R. A. K. Mason in the journal Phoenix (1932–33), followed by Tomorrow (1934–40). Mason and Winston Rhodes, editor of Tomorrow and an English lecturer at Canterbury University, were both Marxists, at the radical end of a left-wing grouping that persisted from the 1930s to the 1960s. After that it fragmented into different causes and languages: anti-war, feminism, the Māori renaissance and ecology. Criticism from a Marxist position remained an underdeveloped discourse apart from the marginal appearance of new-left theory with the magazine Dispute (1964–68). It has been argued that its ‘internationalist localism’ was a precursor to The Word Is Freed (1969–72) and AND (1983–85).1


Politically informed critical writing continued in Charles Brasch’s Landfall (1947–). This journal sought to foster the development of serious criticism attuned to local writing and its social contexts. It also contained criticism on art. Landfall has been described as ‘the most powerful site of New Zealand art criticism’ for its first two decades.2 Its criticism was, however, voiced in a tone of high seriousness and in the judgemental fashion that was characteristic of cultural nationalism.

Richness in literature

The tradition of fierce literary judgement, which ruthlessly sorted out the dire from the promising, was countered in the critical writing of Allen Curnow’s son, Wystan, who began publishing art and literary criticism from the early 1960s in Landfall. Wystan Curnow avoided simply being evaluative, focusing instead on works that appealed to him. Yet his assumptions about cultural practice were elitist and he preferred difficult work. In a 1973 essay, ‘High culture in a small province’, he argued against the dominance and ubiquity of the middle-brow in New Zealand literature. For him, the highest level of culture was marked by ‘extreme richness’, a phrase that recalled Katherine Mansfield’s views.3 But for Curnow leaving the country was not required; rather, he wanted local art and literature to be brought into alignment with contemporary international – notably American – theory and practice.

Comic criticism

Wystan Curnow’s serious approach to art criticism was echoed three decades later by Dylan Horrocks. He directed the same kind of specialised attention at a critically neglected branch of the creative arts in New Zealand – comics and the graphic novel – in a 2004 essay, ‘The perfect planet: comics, games and world-building’.

Seriousness in art criticism

Wystan Curnow was also important for bringing seriousness to art criticism at a time when there was little opportunity for what he described in a 1975 article as ‘informed, subtle, careful, and sustained’ writing.4 He suggested that art critics should be able to write solely on the visual arts instead of also covering literature, music and other creative pursuits. Art critics who were also creative writers were similarly castigated by Peter Tomory, who damned the tendency of the writer and the poet to look for illustrations to their work, meanwhile remaining ‘singularly insensitive to painting’.5

  1. Dougal McNeill, ‘Notes on Dispute as a journal of poetics.’ Ka Mate Ka Ora: a New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics 12 (March 2013), (last accessed 13 November 2013). Back
  2. Francis Pound, ‘The words and the art: New Zealand Art Criticism c.1950–c.1990.’ In Headlands: thinking through New Zealand art, edited by Mary Barr. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, p. 187. Back
  3. Wystan Curnow, ‘High culture in a small province.’ In Essays in New Zealand literature, edited by Wystan Curnow. Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973, p. 155. Back
  4. Wystan Curnow, ‘Doing art criticism in New Zealand.’ Bulletin of New Zealand Art History 3 (1975), p. 11. Back
  5. Peter Tomory, ‘Looking at art in New Zealand.’ Landfall 46, vol. 12, no. 2 (June 1958), p. 165. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, 'Criticism and the arts - Critical approaches, 1930s to 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 February 2023)

Story by Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, published 22 Oct 2014