Story: Criticism and the arts

Page 4. Issues of identity, 1960s onwards

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Questioning the old order

The most extravagant contrast to the cultural nationalists’ seriousness of purpose and rigorous ranking in criticism arrived noisily at the close of the 1960s with the surrealist and dada excesses of Alan Brunton and Freed.

In the 1980s Leigh Davis appeared in the little magazine AND in the guise of the Parisian dandy loose in contemporary Auckland, with disruptive essays on Allen Curnow, whom he irreverently described in a 1985 Landfall interview as ‘a 1957 Chrysler’ in good condition.1 Yet there was also seriousness to his work, especially in its reflections on identity, both personal and national.

Hamish Keith and Gordon Brown were the art critics who interpreted the shocking modernism of painter Colin McCahon to a generation of middle-class New Zealanders who, by the late 1960s, were receptive to a more daring nationalism. Their popularity as explainers, and the nationalism their criticism rested on, provoked a reaction in Francis Pound’s counter-criticism of the 1980s. Pound’s key critical text, The invention of New Zealand: art and national identity, 1930–1970 (2009), updated and extended his 1980s critique, but in more measured terms, revisiting as well as repudiating cultural nationalism.

Feminist perspectives

In the 1970s the women’s art movement challenged the status quo, supported by a journal, Spiral, first published in 1976. This approach was sharply attacked by Lita Barrie, who drew heavily on French feminist theory to dismiss the ‘Chicago–Lippard school of “shared imagery” art which emphasises vaginal forms and menstruation.’2 Barrie thus echoed A. R. D. Fairburn’s dismissal of women poets of the interwar period as ‘the menstrual school’.3

New Zealand literature in the world

In literature, C. K. Stead acted as mediator between high culture and a broader readership. He also saw Allen Curnow’s cultural nationalism as connected with an emerging modernism in the 1970s, repositioning the older poet at the centre of the new poetry ‘mainstream’. Stead’s 1979 essay, ‘“From Wystan to Carlos”: modern and modernism in New Zealand poetry’, provided a map of New Zealand literature, isolating what he considered the main movers and movements. In the process he relegated to redundancy those who lay too far in advance of the mainstream, or the lagging conservatives of ‘closed form’.4

Open form

Critic and writer C. K. Stead defined ‘open form’ in poetry: ‘Far from being an aesthete who wants to separate literature from life, the Modernist poet, the “open form” poet, wants literature to invade, to absorb life, almost to become indistinguishable from it.’5

Stead managed to act as a New Zealand-focused critic while also maintaining a reputation as a critic of international modernism. Other distinguished New Zealand scholars on international writing and the arts included D. F. McKenzie (bibliography and textual criticism), Brian Boyd (the life and writings of Vladimir Nabokov) and Michael Neill (Shakespeare and 16th- and 17th-century drama). 

Plurality of voices

Bill Manhire was a marginal figure in Stead’s confident roadmap – deemed insufficiently ‘modernist’. Yet Manhire’s poetry was extremely influential in the 1990s and early 2000s. His criticism, too, was highly important. In it he shifted away both from James K. Baxter’s romanticism, prophetic pronouncements and use of the personal voice, and from Allen Curnow’s serious tone and nationalist insistences. In a 1991 essay ‘Dirty silence: impure sounds in New Zealand poetry’ Manhire argued for a plurality of voices participating in a ‘conversation’. In his poetry and criticism alike he championed mixture over a single voice, irony over self-disclosure, and indirection over bullying certainty.

  1. Quoted in Hugh Lauder, ‘Interview – debate with Leigh Davis.’ Landfall 155 (September 1985), p. 314. Back
  2. Lita Barrie, ‘Remissions: toward a deconstruction of phallic unequivocality: deferrals.’ Antic 1 (June 1986), pp. 94–95. Back
  3. The letters of A. R. D. Fairburn. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 95. Back
  4. C. K. Stead, ‘“From Wystan to Carlos”: modern and modernism in New Zealand poetry’, Islands 5, no. 7 (November 1979), p. 475. Back
  5. ‘From Wystan to Carlos’, p. 476. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, 'Criticism and the arts - Issues of identity, 1960s onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

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