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Arts and the nation

by Jock Phillips

Poet Ian Wedde said he wearied of ‘being a nationalist donkey, doomed to stagger under an unfair burden of “national identity”’. Some artists, such as poet Allen Curnow and others who emerged in the 1930s, wanted to create a national culture based on realism in their art. Other artists stressed the diversity of New Zealand society or rejected the idea of national identity altogether.

The 19th century

Why arts were important to the nation

From the 18th century countries across the world used arts to define themselves. In contrast to states owing their authority to hereditary dynasties, democratic states were believed to derive their coherence from their distinct cultures and peoples. Romantic nationalists viewed the arts as articulating a people’s culture. For example, writers such as William Shakespeare or painters such as John Constable were seen as expressing British identity.

Most Pākehā New Zealanders shared a pride in their British heritage; but from the mid-19th century, as New Zealand achieved greater autonomy and participated in international ventures in war and sport, people expected the creative arts to help define the young nation.

Colonial hopes

During the colonial period various newspapers proclaimed that a New Zealand literature was being born. In 1860 the Lyttelton Times predicted the country would ‘become a great literary nation’,1 but conceded that, while New Zealand supplied the raw material, most publications were written by authors who had visited and returned to Britain and wrote for a British audience. The Colonist, noting the launch of another new magazine designed to encourage local writing, admitted ‘New Zealand literature has not hitherto been of a very lasting nature’.2

Cover for a nation

The Nelson Evening Mail mocked the nationalist cover of the first issue of Zealandia in 1889. The paper noted that a Māori man stands beneath a kauri tree, which ‘looks as though it had been blasted by a volcanic eruption from a blotchy range of snow-clad mountains in the distance’. He is looking at a moa which appears to have ‘an enormous tail of the peacock type,’ which proves ‘to be no tail at all, but a fern tree’. Inside, the issue contained a poem by the local master, Thomas Bracken, entitled ‘Our pet kangaroo’!3

This did not stop other magazines claiming to represent significant moments in the nation’s culture – such as the New Zealand Magazine (1876) or Zealandia (1889), which was devoted to ‘New Zealand literature, by New Zealand authors, for New Zealand readers’ and intended ‘to foster a national spirit’ and be ‘racy of the soil’.4 Few such efforts survived long.

Alfred Domett

When local critics looked for expressions of New Zealand identity in literature they pointed to Old New Zealand by ‘a Pakeha Maori’ (a pseudonym for Frederick Maning), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or most often to Alfred Domett’s straggling epic poem Ranolf and Amohia (1872). Its use of the ‘sublime’ New Zealand landscape, and its drawing on Māori mythology to embellish the story of a Briton falling in love with a Māori ‘maiden’, gave the poem a distinctive New Zealand character. It was modelled on other epic works said to establish national literatures, such as James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian (which he claimed was a collection and translation of Scottish oral literature); or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The song of Hiawatha, which claimed similar ground in the United States. However, reviewers conceded that Domett’s work was overly long and its metaphysics ‘set the teeth on edge’.5


Paintings were included in New Zealand displays at international exhibitions that followed the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. These displays were partly intended to attract tourists to ‘beautiful New Zealand,’ so painters of picturesque scenes such as southern mountains (for example, John Gully) or of the pink and white terraces (Charles Blomfield) were praised for representing the country.

    • Lyttelton Times, 7 January 1860, p. 4. Back
    • The Colonist, 27 October 1863, p. 4. Back
    • Nelson Evening Mail, 11 July 1889, p. 2. Back
    • Quoted in Taranaki Herald, 24 May 1889, p. 2. Back
    • Otago Daily Times, 3 May 1873, p. 2. Back

Cultural nationalism, 1890 to 1910

From 1890 prosperity and a reforming government encouraged a proud New Zealand nationalism that found expression in sport and overseas military achievement, and also in culture.

Musings in Maoriland

There were three significant expressions of these aspirations.

  • In his 1890 introduction to Thomas Bracken’s volume of poems, Musings in Maoriland, published for the country’s 50th jubilee Robert Stout argued that in the past ‘the hard realities of life’ had absorbed all energies, but he now anticipated a literature that was ‘New Zealand’s own’.1
  • In 1899 a New Zealand Literary and Historical Association was set up to promote New Zealand writing. It established the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, which promoted New Zealand literature.
  • In 1906 W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie put together the first anthology of New Zealand verse. They hoped New Zealand would be recognised ‘not only on account of its export of wool and gold, or for richness and worth in horses and footballers, but also by reason of its contributions to art and science.’2


What type of culture did these aspirants expect? In neighbouring Australia, this period saw a strident cultural nationalism that found expression particularly in the Bulletin journal. In the stories of Henry Lawson, the ballads of Banjo Paterson and the paintings of the Heidelberg school, the major themes of this outpouring were a strong anti-English bias and a focus on the crude life of the outback.

Many New Zealand writers published work in the Bulletin but, apart from David McKee Wright’s poems, there were, as Alexander and Currie noted in the introduction to their anthology, few pieces that explored rural life. Instead, they pointed to a school of landscape poetry, while Stout also saw New Zealand’s ‘distinct natural features’ such as mountains, forests and volcanoes as prime inspiration. While much of the landscape poetry from this era was soon considered dreadful, a few poets, such as Blanche Baughan, responded to the landscape in her work in ways which are still considered effective.

Bronze, not marble

In the preface to Maori Life in Ao-tea, Johannes Andersen wrote: ‘A time is looked for … when the world’s art will be enriched with scenes from Maori legend; and he who will break away from old-world fetters will find in this land a mine of wealth almost, if not quite, equal to that afforded by Greek or Scandinavian mythology. The dusky skin has been urged as an objection to artistic treatment: – but if marble be unsuitable, is there not bronze?’3


Stout saw the second inspiration as ‘the Native people’; and at the Literary and Historical Association journalist F. Rollett argued that New Zealand had a rich tradition in Māori stories about the deeds of warriors and loves of chieftains. The Polynesian Society (formed in 1892) provided materials and several textbooks on Māori traditions were published to encourage artists to create works inspired by them.

The vision of Māoriland was expressed in a wide range of artforms:

  • poetry – Thomas Bracken, Jessie Mackay and Arthur Adams all published poems about Māori leader Te Rauparaha, and there were 12 poetic versions of the legend of Hinemoa
  • fiction – short stories by Alfred Grace and Māori-themed novels by H. B. Vogel, Jessie Weston and Arthur Adams appeared
  • music – Alfred Hill composed two musicals, Hinemoa and Tapu, and many songs based on Māori waiata
  • art – Charles Goldie painted portraits of Māori
  • non-fiction – James Cowan wrote travel accounts investing the landscape with Māori history, and in the 1920s he published his history of the New Zealand wars which he saw as providing a frontier myth to compete with American westerns.

Honorary whites

In the work of Māoriland artists and writers, Māori traditions were presented as equivalent to British ones. Māori were seen as an island people, daring seafarers, fine warriors and lyrical poets – a people, wrote Cowan ‘whose love of the sea and pride in deeds of battle show strangely close affinity to some of the traits of the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race’4.

Māori and their traditions provided artists and writers with an instant mythology for an unlettered land. The adoption of Māori culture was limited – legends were used but not the Māori language; Māori were painted, but Māori carving was not an influence. It could even be argued that Māori culture was acceptable precisely because Māori were expected to die out and were not a threat.

Ultimately, Maoriland culture was so artificial that it could not be the basis for a national culture. By 1910, apart from some individuals such as James Cowan or Rudall Hayward – who later translated the inspiration into film – the movement had petered out.

    • Introduction to Thomas Bracken, Musings in Maoriland. Dunedin: Arthur T. Keirle, 1890, p. 18. Back
    • W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie, eds., New Zealand verse. London: Walter Scott, 1906, p. xv. Back
    • Johannes C. Andersen, Maori life in Ao-tea. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1907, p. x. Back
    • James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910, p. 8. Back

The 1930s generation

After the First World War, many continued to note the lack of a New Zealand national culture. This was contrasted with Australia’s more robust national expression, and critics pointed to the fact that significant writers such as Katherine Mansfield had chosen to leave New Zealand. In 1931 Alan Mulgan cited the country’s small size, isolation and focus on material prosperity, and argued that beautiful scenery did not produce great art. W. A Sewell criticised the lack of a rebellious spirit.

Kowhai gold

There were some efforts to boost New Zealand’s culture. In 1929 Quentin Pope compiled an anthology of New Zealand poems, Kowhai gold, and in the introduction he bemoaned that national culture was expressed by the advertisement, ‘New Zealand – the Empire’s Dairy Farm’. He saw his anthology as the beginnings of a national literature. Others were not convinced and the anthology came to be generally regarded with scorn.

Nationalist slogans

Some characteristic quotations articulate the aims and achievements of the 1930s generation:

‘We are hungry for the words that shall show these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought.’1

‘We loved England still, but we ceased to be “for ever England”.’2

‘The thirties released – or tapped – a spring.’3

A new generation

The 1930s saw the emergence of younger writers and artists who also claimed to represent the start of a genuinely national culture.

From the 1930s to the 1960s this cultural nationalism found expression in many ways.


In literature there were lively student periodicals, Phoenix (1932–33) in Auckland and Oriflamme and Sirocco (both 1933) in Christchurch, which were associated with new printing ventures such as Denis Glover’s Caxton Press and Robert Lowry’s Unicorn Press. From 1934 to 1940 there was the left-wing Tomorrow magazine. From 1947 Charles Brasch’s Landfall journal was a serious cultural forum.

In art, The Group, an association of artists, held an annual show in Christchurch. From 1956 the Auckland Art Gallery became a promoter of a national art under director Peter Tomory.


Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Charles Brasch, A. R. D. Fairburn and R. A. K. Mason were seen as important New Zealand voices. Curnow’s two anthologies, A book of New Zealand verse 192345 (1945) and the Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1960) represented the generation’s work.


Frank Sargeson’s short stories, particularly those collected in Speaking for ourselves (1945), and John Mulgan’s novel Man alone (1939) were the key texts. Robin Hyde’s novels, especially The godwits fly (1938), were given more significance by later critics than by contemporaries.


Curnow’s introductions to his poetry anthologies, E. H. McCormick’s survey Letters and art in New Zealand (1940) and M. H. Holcroft’s trilogy, published together as Discovered isles (1940), were primary manifestos. An important text of art criticism was Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith’s Introduction to New Zealand painting (first published in 1969).


J. C. Beaglehole’s New Zealand: a short history (1936) and his lifetime’s work on James Cook, followed in the 1950s by the work of another poet-historian Keith Sinclair, were the most important nationalist contributions.


The paintings of Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston have been regarded as the pre-eminent works of this generation. McCormick and A. H. McLintock, in his catalogue for the centennial art exhibition in 1940, also rediscovered earlier topographical artists such as John Buchanan, John Kinder and Charles Heaphy.


Douglas Lilburn, who worked with Allen Curnow in a famous work, Landfall in unknown seas, was a significant composer.

    • Eric Cook, Canta, 9 May 1932. Back
    • Robin Hyde, Check to your king. Wellington: Reed Publishing, 1960, p. x. Back
    • Allen Curnow, The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 50. Back

Major themes of cultural nationalism, 1930 to 1970


The heart of the 1930s generation’s cultural nationalism was, in Allen Curnow’s words, ‘an uncompromising fidelity to experience’.1 He insisted that the reality expressed in culture had to be local and particular, and he criticised the ‘lack of any vital relationship to experience’ in the rival Kowhai gold anthology of New Zealand poetry.

For some, especially A. R. D. Fairburn, this meant an explicit rejection of England: ‘The umbilical cord of butter-fat has held us in strict dependence on the motherland, culturally no less than economically.’2 Like Frank Sargeson, he suggested the models should be American, not English.

In art, the realist impulse led to an emphasis on the hard, clear light of New Zealand and a view that New Zealand paintings should have sharp outlines revealing the form of hills and burnt-out trees.

Men only

The 1930s generation’s values led them towards a male chauvinism which dismissed women writers. They saw poets such as Jessie Mackay and Eileen Duggan as engaged in effeminate sentimental posturing. Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn regularly attacked the ‘menstrual’ or the ‘feminine-mimsy’ school of poets; and after receiving a letter from Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) Glover wrote: ‘Our women writers – a bunch of bores in stuffy drawers!’3


A rigorous realism did not imply what nationalists saw as the ‘pseudo-nationalism’ of the Maoriland generation, which was regarded as simply scattering in Māori words like kōwhai, tūī or rātā. There should be no ‘little New-Zealandism’ or dishonest romanticism about the country. Curnow had no time for the Maoriland school or any poetry that did not face ‘hard’ reality.


As writers who believed they were starting something new, the cultural nationalists were fascinated by origins and beginnings. They were interested in moments of European discovery of New Zealand – ‘landfall in unknown seas’, to quote the title of Curnow’s well-known poem about Abel Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand. Their two literary journals were Landfall and Islands; and an island people surrounded by encircling seas was a favourite metaphor.

The land, not society

The 1930s generation found solace in the land. They challenged the gospel of material progress that saw bush turned into ‘English’ farms. They pointed to an estrangement between people and the land. New Zealand was, in the words of painter Colin McCahon, ‘a landscape with too few lovers’, or, as Curnow said, ‘a land of settlers with never a soul at home’.4 Some such as M. H. Holcroft and McCahon saw spiritual salvation in the hills; others wrote about the misfits, the alienated, who escaped society and discovered identity in the bush – characters such as John Mulgan’s Johnson (from Man alone), and Denis Glover’s Harry and Arawata Bill, and Frank Sargeson finding meaning on his uncle’s King Country farm. The artists anointed as the Holy Trinity of New Zealand painting, Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston, made their names through post-impressionist landscape painting, rather than abstraction.

A Philistine society

Behind these sentiments was the sense that New Zealand society rejected creative artists – that it was Philistine. If the New Zealand hills were worshipped, the New Zealand city was despised. New Zealanders were seen as narrow, materialistic and conformist. In the early 1950s, in essays by Bob Chapman and Bill Pearson published in Landfall, the condemnation was extended to the repressive puritanism of New Zealanders.

Pākehā culture

Despite such attacks on Pākehā society, few of the 1930s cultural nationalists found a solution in Māori culture. Those who did explore Māori traditions, such as artists Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters, or writer Roderick Finlayson, were not admitted to the national canon. The cultural nationalist idea of New Zealand as a ‘silent land’ ignored Māori traditions of the landscape.

A people’s culture?

Despite an aspiration for a left-wing culture in which writers and artists communicated to a mass popular audience, when R. A. K. Mason took Phoenix in a left direction it was dismissed by the popular newspaper Truth as ‘sneers, jeers, bellicose blasphemies, red rantings and sex-saturated sophistries’.5 In the 1930s books of poems or short stories sold very few copies, and mostly to fellow middle class intellectuals.

Other influences

Although cultural nationalism was important for many of the 1930s writers and artists, there were two other important drivers. The first was international modernism. This generation was influenced by contemporary styles and movements in European and American high culture. The poets looked to modernists such as W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot; the painter Colin McCahon gave thanks to Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian.

The second important international influence was the 1930s aspiration for a popular left-wing culture, which provided a model for left book clubs and co-operative bookshops. Left-wing journal Tomorrow was the purest expression of this aim, but, apart from the plays of R. A. K. Mason and to some extent John Mulgan’s novel, Man alone, Marxism had little influence. There were no proletarian novels or social realist paintings as in other countries.

    • Allen Curnow, ‘New Zealand literature: the case for a working definition.’ In Look back harder: critical writings 19351984, by Allen Curnow. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987, p. 200. Back
    • A. R. D. Fairburn, ‘Some aspects of New Zealand arts and letters.’ In Art in New Zealand 6, no 4 (June 1934), p. 214. Back
    • Quoted in Stuart Murray, Never a soul at home: New Zealand literary nationalism and the 1930s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998, p. 165. Back
    • Allen Curnow, ‘House and land.’ In The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 202. Back
    • New Zealand Truth, 31 May 1933, p. 1. Back

The nation accepts the arts, 1940 onwards

The view that arts were an aspect of national identity became an important argument for state support.


Although there had been isolated public funding for writers before the 1930s, and art works had been shown at international exhibitions, this was expanded from the late 1930s under the influence of Joseph Heenan in the Department of Internal Affairs, with the support of Peter Fraser, a senior government minister and later prime minister. The nation’s centennial in 1940 spawned a substantial programme of historical publications, a centennial orchestra, literary competition and a touring exhibition designed to show off New Zealand art.

Government arts funding

In 1947 these precedents were institutionalised with the New Zealand Literary Fund, which gave grants to writers, to Landfall literary journal, and also to the National Orchestra. In 1963 support was expanded with the creation of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, which was eventually rebranded in 1994 as Creative New Zealand. From 1978 the New Zealand Film Commission gave assistance to local film-making.

Such moves reached a high point after 1999 when, as prime minister, Helen Clark took the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio. Clark argued that a flourishing arts sector encouraged a sense of national identity and belonging, presented the country as an attractive tourist and immigration destination, and reflected a ‘creative’ economy.

International promotion

From the 1960s onwards successive governments also used culture to promote New Zealand overseas. They gave support for displays of art, music and dance at international expos in Osaka (1970), Brisbane (1988), Seville (1992) and Shanghai (2010). New Zealand art was showcased at the Venice Biennale, and literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

At home, the Real New Zealand Festival presented the creativity of New Zealand to visitors at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. There was major government investment in a new national museum, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which opened in 1998 to present New Zealand culture to both local and overseas audiences.

New awards

From the 1960s annual national awards and competitions were established for different media – writing, theatre, art, film and music. These heightened publicity and raised the mana of artists. A poet laureate scheme was set up in 1996 by Te Mata Estate winery and taken over by the National Library in 2007. The Prime Minister’s Awards for poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been presented since 2003. In the late 1990s the Arts Foundation was created by philanthropists to honour creative artists and provide them with substantial financial support. Arts and literary festivals were established around the country.

International success

As in sport, international success in the arts attracted national pride. Kiri Te Kanawa’s fame as an opera singer, Peter Jackson’s success in winning Oscars for his Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and Booker (later Man Booker) prizes for novels by Keri Hulme in 1985 and Eleanor Catton in 2013 became occasions for national self-congratulation. When the Te Māori exhibition of Māori art opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to wide acclaim in 1984, it reshaped New Zealanders’ sense of the place of Māori culture in their identity.

A nation mourns

When writer Janet Frame died in 2004 her biographer, Michael King, wrote, ‘A writer died, and it seemed as if the whole country held its breath and then let out a collective sigh’.1 She became a cover story for the Listener magazine. When King himself died soon after, there was also massive newspaper, radio and television coverage and he too was featured on the cover of the Listener.


As a result of these influences, creative artists became treasured as important to the nation. In 2014 six of the 26 members of the Order of New Zealand, the nation’s highest honour, were creative artists; and those previously in the order included musician Douglas Lilburn, writers Allen Curnow, Janet Frame and Margaret Mahy, potter Doreen Blumhardt and artist Ralph Hōtere.

    • Quoted in Mark Williams, ed., Writing at the edge of the universe. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004, p. 3. Back

Artists reject nationalism

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.

    • James K. Baxter, Recent trends in New Zealand poetry. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1951, p. 7. Back
    • 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
    • Ian Wedde, How to be nowhere: essays and texts, 1971–1994. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995. p. 172. Back

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Arts and the nation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

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