Story: Criticism and the arts

Page 5. Critical approaches, 1980s onwards

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Contemporary art and literary criticism broadened from the high seriousness of Landfall from 1947 to 1971 or the opacity of the theoretically driven little magazines of the 1980s: AND and Antic (1986–90). Since the 1990s scholarly criticism of New Zealand art and literature has become securely established in universities. In the 2000s academics and critics, including Leonard Bell and Roger Blackley for visual arts, and Mark Williams, Jane Stafford, Alex Calder and Lydia Wevers for literature, paid new attention to the long-neglected colonial period. Beyond the universities Ian Wedde and Martin Edmond have continued to push the range of contemporary art and literary criticism.

Biographical criticism

The tradition of literary and artistic biography, exemplified by Anthony Alpers’ Life of Katherine Mansfield (1954) and E. H. McCormick’s work on painter Frances Hodgkins, led to a rich critical outpouring from the 1980s. Biographies of Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Colin McCahon, C. F. Goldie, Bill Pearson, R. A. K. Mason and Robin Hyde shaped the arguments about art and literary movements.

Historical and international comparisons

Terry Sturm’s Oxford history of New Zealand literature in English (first published in 1991, with a second edition in 1998) redressed the neglect of local literature in the universities. It allowed New Zealanders to see the full historical range and development of their literature, including the colonial period and popular writing.

Conversely, through the efforts of Petar Vuletic, Michael Dunn and Tony Green, the work of abstract New Zealand artists was, without embarrassment, examined in relation to their international influences.

At the centre

In an influential 1992 essay ‘Maori: at the centre, on the margins’, Rangihiroa Panoho acknowledged past cultural ‘borrowings’ by both Māori and Pākehā, but asserted ‘In the cultural sphere – the arts – it is now essential for Maori to resume control, re-establish boundaries for appropriation and move taha Maori (things Maori) back to the centre.’1

Māori perspectives

Māori perspectives have become influential in art criticism. Rangihiroa Panoho’s critique of Pākehā artists’ use and misuse of Māori motifs, ‘Maori: at the centre, on the margins’, (1992), ignited an appropriation debate that resonates still.

Art criticism in print

Notable for its longevity is the well-illustrated Art New Zealand (founded in 1976). Although rarely edgy or radical, it provides accessible insights into the art world, and it was there that critics such as William McAloon and Ed Hanfling cut their teeth.

Numerous lavishly illustrated guides to traditional and contemporary art are published, and there is a substantial market for intelligent critical and explanatory books on art, such as those by of Justin Paton, Gregory O’Brien and Damian Skinner. Exhibitions remain a key driver of publications and art criticism.

Online art criticism

At the beginning of the 2000s the internet became a significant medium for visual arts criticism, a space to voice opinions that did not otherwise find a place in ‘official’ channels. Artbash had its moment (albeit as much for venting and ranting as for considered criticism). John Hurrell's EyeContact, Natural Selection and The Lumière Reader provided forums for new and diverse writers to emerge. On The Lumière Reader in 2013 Thomasin Sleigh considered how the ‘stuttering conversation of art criticism in New Zealand’ should proceed, concluding that it might best do so by actively and critically continuing to disagree with itself.2

  1. Rangihiroa Panoho, ‘Maori: at the centre, on the margins.’ In Headlands: thinking through New Zealand art, edited by Mary Barr. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, p. 124. Back
  2. Thomasin Sleigh, ‘The stuttering conversation: Art New Zealand in 2013.’ The Lumière Reader, (last accessed 8 November 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, 'Criticism and the arts - Critical approaches, 1980s onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

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