Letter to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

REGARDING ARTS AND CULTURAL POLICY

Dear Helen Clark,

A brief introduction:
I have tried writing this letter a number of times, in divers modes, with little success: as a formal submission on policy – if unsolicited; as an open letter – hopeful of the enthusiasm of others to sign it; as a research or discussion paper – in formal academic mode; as a polemic or battlecry, a litany of slogans – again, too hopeful others would take up the cry. I attempt it now, informally, as a simple letter, one that unfortunately bears the scars, grafts and shortcomings of its vexatious beginnings – for which faults, I ask your indulgence. It has not quite arrived at being any of these things but I ask that you grant it serious consideration if only for the reason of its most serious flaw, its urgency.

From the age of four, at the old NZBC, I have been involved directly, but chiefly indirectly, through my father, Anthony Taylor, in the arts, in New Zealand’s cultural institutions. I have probably been writing this letter since the awakening of my own political conscience, in the early 1980s, at the time of the Actors Equity strike, and in the Muldoon era, that threatened the Community Theatres, Downstage, Centrepoint, Theatre Corporate, the Mercury, the Court and the Fortune (I was at Downstage), with their premature closure. (Premature, that is, as these things now appear historically.) The six years my father spent at Downstage are now regarded as the – all too recent – Golden Days of New Zealand theatre. As the promise or curse of the Equity strike, with its wider ramifications on funding policy and organisational remodelling, bit and continued to bite theatre to the bone – specifically impoverishing its industrial infrastructure – through the ’80s and into the ’90s, in 1992, having completed my MA, I took the expedient of forming my own small theatre company, Stronghold Theatre. This was not quite a mistake but a clear political expedient, given that we formed with a commitment to professionalism and hence reliance on the subvention of the Arts Council, against whose minimal and professionally demeaning policies it could be said we waged theatre for about two years. Thereafter, I’ve been principally an observer of the arts and culture in this country and an artistic amateur – my peripheral and inactive membership of the Artists Roundtable notwithstanding. (This last, I saw as an opportunity to some time sit down and write this letter.)

I offer this potted history to point to my own preoccupations, which are also the themes of my letter. These are:
1) Changes in political circumstance as they are related to the history of arts and cultural entities and to that history’s deformation, devaluation, demolition;
2) The complicity of peers and artists in, often, arbitrary shifts in the political landscape, i.e. the lack of clear policy direction in the arts and cultural sector as a cause of confusion in artists’ loyalties, of ideological confusion and compromise;
3) The consequences of these last two themes as they can historically be seen to have eroded faith in the sector per se and as they are reflected in the political constitution of New Zealand society – at the level of organisations, institutions and other groupings – which is the level of entry of arts’ and cultural questions into the public domain of civil society (and therefore within the government purview).

In reality, we don’t ask for anything…
“If politics is about power, and art about freedom, then art in a totalitarian state comes to stand not only as a challenge – as it does for every authority – it comes to stand for nothing less than the enemy.” [my stress] Norman Manea is writing about Romania, the worst of the worst of recent repressive regimes, brought to an end ’89-’90, when New Zealand was still in the throes of its own contradictory revolution.

We don’t live in a totalitarian state but in a state, the last two consecutive governments never tired of reminding us, that is not ideal, in a less than ideal world, of which our expectations should not be too great, as artists or civilians, should in fact never be anything other than realistic – a realism defined by the criteria of post-‘revolutionary’ economic policy and defined against the criteria of the pre-Rogernomical polity. Government spending is, of course, the principal criterion for this new ‘realism’.

In an ideological shift not dissimilar in its duplicitous idealism to a revolutionary movement or moment, civil society in New Zealand has been – and is – repeatedly ordered to awaken from its pre-Lange era, pre-Rogernomical dreamlike irresponsibility and irrealism: society must awaken to share the burden of our collective guilt for national indebtedness. And like a revolutionary moment, this order has a mythic quality, societally, civically pervasive; personally compelling and invasive – I must tighten my belt / watch my spending / budget. This myth has almost succeeded in turning all of New Zealand into one giant model matriarchal household – an exact translation and yet also a puppet-like parody of oikonomia.

The consequences of this myth have been borne out by government policy particularly in the area of social spending, in health, education and the arts and culture, where applications for increased funding or subsidy are generally met with non-approval, that is, with an unapproving rejection – a surreal and stoney-faced refusal – couched in terms of economic realism or ‘rationalisation’; as if the applicant – the enemy of Manea’s quote – should know better; and, as if the qualification of non-approval as realistic and economically rational – where the application had been unrealistic and, by implication, irrational (or from an organisation not yet ‘rationalised’) – were sufficient argument, bestowing legitimacy as finally the last word on the matter.

The rationalisation of the arts and cultural applicant-organisation translates as its willingness to show commercial profitability, which, in turn translates as “accountability”. Rationalisation itself signifies ‘corporate makeover’. (One of the most perfidious aspects to the myth is its language.)

The pervasiveness of this myth is, however, more forcefully evinced when we encounter the complicit taciturnity with which such a rejection, refusal or even complete demolition (as with Jenny Shipley’s declared intent to “demolish the welfare state”) is routinely greeted. The Wanganui Computer Centre suicide may come to mind, “We have long maintained a silence bordering on stupidity.” Norman Manea, again: “There was an intent to involve everyone in this complicity so that blame was shared by all in varying degrees.” I see this mentality in New Zealand as the perverted legacy or flipside of the inchoate socialism, with which previously and historically – by Labour government – we were said to have been blessed.

…except freedom…
“If politics is about power, and art about freedom”… I am not concerned here with realistic or unrealistic requests for higher levels of subsidy and actual subvention for the arts and culture – with your government’s responsibility therefor or its abdication of responsibility. My concern is the direction of arts and cultural policy towards vouchsafing the freedom of the artist as its first and guiding principle. A principle I believe to be of much greater significance in a democracy than its economics.

…from…?
Norman Manea writes of the liberalisation that occurred at the outset of the Ceausescu regime whereby centralised censorship was replaced by “self-censorship and mutual surveillance”. [All Manea citations are from his On Clowns, Faber and Faber, Great Britain, 1994. His discussion of decentralised repression is found on p. 65 and following.] Decision making by peer-group committees, a Creative New Zealand initiative, bears an uncanny resemblance to the “new democracy” Manea describes. This is not accidental. I believe it to be part of a much larger conspiracy of silence and system of enforced complicity – albeit one enforced dollarifically, by economic disenfranchisement, rather than horrifically, by political force and threat. Its goals are nevertheless consistent with a new colonialism, operating along the lines of a policy of division and conquest.

In the peer-group committee we witness the atomisation of individual ‘peers’. They are extracted from their milieux – in a political sense, from their power-bases – and reconstituted as participants in a decision-making process that exists upon the prerogative and alien power-base of the funding agency, e.g. CNZ. We see, therefore, their homogenisation. Their right to consort freely is absent; they are brought together with others with whom they share only the task at hand, a task before which they are all equal. Their professional codes of merit are absent – although the naive and mediocre are more likely to comply. They are answerable only to the organiser or perpetrator of the committee. They are, as atomised and homogenised co-workers in the funding bureaucracy, recruited into the ranks of the complicit.

Complicity achieved by such means is the rule rather than the exception in this sector of society. Any honour, however dubious, is gratefully accepted, calling into question the personal and political, if not the artistic integrity of those who work within it. In my experience of theatre, divide and conquer has been the strategy employed by the Arts Council to secure its own ascendancy as the only fully funded-supported infrastructure on the artistic and cultural horizon and the supremacy of its own brand of neo-colonialism. The proprietary right to national artistic output it claims by way of kitsch sentimentality – national pride, national identity, etc. – is in the nature of an assumed sovereignty and nostalgia for the revoked patronage of the British monarchy.

The economic myth that engenders national guilt is now an essential ally in the programme of surrogating cultural sovereignty. Since it supports the subservience and complicity of civil society. Since it reifies a single ideological discourse – money matters, nothing other -, placing it beyond critique as a sovereign discourse where its powers may readily be invoked, through employ of its arguments and structures of thought. However, the nexus between the structures of thought embodied in free-market economics, with its drive towards increasing fluidity and speed, and the neo-colonial programme, with its interest in conquest and securing territory under the sovereign, exposes a vulnerability for critique and to a critique that each, in its own way, tries to repress in our culture. The former censors critique via economic means, the latter via political means. But there is a rift and one which may have propitious implications.

…the New Zealand Arts Council…
Previous governments have acted out of expediency in the arts and not out of principle. If this government is to know how to steer the arts sector it should know the history, a history that has seen the vessel of the cultural affairs of state shored up piecemeal following the storm of our cultural disenfranchisement from the Empire and Commonwealth. (The latter now resembles more a proto-capitalist confederation of Crusoes than a fund or weal held in common. As a cultural fund it is still one to which we remain indebted, but owing not allegiance.) The legacy of this shoring up finds its exemplary expression in the history of one institution – the Arts Council of New Zealand.

Originally a gift from the Crown, the Arts Council persists in memory as the QEII. More than anything, it is this persistence I want to call attention to as the mark of expediency. Since successive governments have done little to nothing in the cultural sphere to repair the hole, or fill the aporia, caused by the removal of the royal patron.

The statutory designation of the agency of government primarily responsible for the arts and culture in New Zealand is – despite its rationalisation and ‘reinvention’ as Creative New Zealand – the Arts Council of New Zealand. Under statute, its obligations are broad and general, and hardly the stuff of which corporate-styled missions are made, a fact readily confirmed by the recent CNZ Briefing Paper to your ministry. The majority of the Act forming this body describes a specifically bureaucratic deployment of relative powers, which in no way resembles either a corporate structure or chain of command.

What lies behind the exactly bureaucratic formation of the Arts Council – a formation to which principles of accountability and transparency are alien (cf. CNZ Briefing Paper) – is the idea of a Patron. (Although, this idea is doubly hidden under the ideologically-driven rhetoric of economic realism and the self-aggrandising bureaucratic rhetoric of CNZ itself.)

Patronage, especially Royal patronage, has a clear political function, one that escapes purely economic considerations and one that resists both bureaucratic formulation and corporate rationalisation or devolution. Namely, the Patron offers the Artist her political protection.

The persistence of the idea of British patronage of New Zealand arts and culture is another absurdity of our colonial inheritance (cf. Helen Clark, Sunday Star-Times, 6/2/2000) but it is functionally relevant to my argument and centrally relevant to the issue of cultural identity. Since the New Zealand State, even as government serves to represent it, has never declared itself Patron. This goes some way towards explaining the ambivalence surrounding arts and cultural policy-making – or its impotence – in our country. The State surely cannot define for itself, nor define itself in, a role it does not possess – except by proxy: CNZ remains the institutional definition of the British Crown’s prerogative.

The precise nature of the patron’s power is the question I now wish to address. Suffice it here to say, the complete reworking of the Act constituting the New Zealand Arts Council is a necessary step before any claims to a post-colonial cultural identity can be made – let alone a multi- or bi- cultural democracy.

Advocating State Patronage…
I would like to suggest that the idea of patronage should be salvaged – both from its obscurity and from its colonial past and neo-colonial present – in specific regard to the political function peculiar to it: the protection proffered. Any claim of existing agencies to the role of patron as they express that role in economic terms must be considered hollow. Patronage acts by way of covenant and not by way of financial or funding arrangement.

The direct funding of arts organisations is an expedient – and an expedient only – your ministry has already encountered. To bypass or bury and obscure the Arts Council’s (CNZ’s) ‘patronage’ are equally ambiguous directions for policy-making.

Arts and cultural agendas must be integrated in and present funding bodies must be replaced by an agency established under statute within the Ministry of Arts and Culture to foster, support, promote, and to uphold and strengthen, the principle of the political freedom, independence and autonomy of artistic organisations and cultural institutions.

In order to advocate State Patronage, patronage itself must first be extricated, from contextual misapprehension and these accidents of history, to be examined in the light of a democratic setting. It requires definition against its vestigially surviving cultural connotations, in opposition to a necessary causal link between:
cultural identity and the creativity of New Zealand artists;
national identity and cultural productivity;
national security and a complicit, uncritical arts sector;
sovereign patronage and the embellishment or honouring of the sovereign person or state;
economic investment in the arts and culture and numbers in attendance, community access or entertainment quotient.
Patronage should be opposed to any results-based programme within a democracy. If the artist is free, the only honours the patron – especially a State-patron – can expect to have conferred upon them will come from sources other than the artist.

Arts and Cultural Apparati…
Freedom of expression is a basic principle of democracy. Arts organisations and cultural institutions exist as the political apparati representing this principle, as its representation in the discourse of power. In choosing which institutions and organisations are supported, subtended and patronised by government, the State decides how and in what form freedom of expression manifests at a political level. It chooses whose expression is going to be free within the discourse of power at the level of the State.

All funding as patronage discriminates. State funding is always a partial decision of suppression, since power renders to power that which belongs to power. However, all patronage as funding endorses – an endorsement economically expressed – the democratic principle of the freedom of expression. It is no accident that Germany has had one of the best records of State and Federal funding and subvention for arts and culture as an historical reaction against Nazism’s suppression of free speech and intellectual or artistic dissent.

The political health of the various organisations and institutions patronised and covenanted by the State for their contributions to artistic and cultural life serves as an index and standard against which the degree of freedom of expression, civilisation and humanity in a democracy can be measured.

Dissent…
Art that contests the authority of the State lies in a special relation to democratic sponsorship and patronage. Since it wilfully expresses unpopular sentiment, its place at the level of the State is easily contestable and its survival too easily threatened. That survival is, precisely, critical – if not crucial – in a democratic State: primarily as critique but also as an inoculation safeguarding the health of the State and as an outlet for naturally arising rebellious sentiment. (Popular culture seems to promise a transgression of responsible ‘adult’ codes, yet its models for transgression are largely impotent, imported, and, if not cynically, then passively received as modes of individual sacrifice and self-destruction.)

Cultural dissent, discontent, disease translate as critique within the discourse of power. They are not metaphors, they are the critique itself. The most effective way to silence that critique is – again, not economic but political – to compromise, undermine and eventually curtail the contextual freedom of the artistic organisation or cultural institution whence it issues. The apparatus of power as the basis of professional legitimacy within society is only later re-engineered by economic means as a hole or grave from which criticism cannot escape. [Cf. Brian Easton on the political restructuring of the university, “Philosopher-Kings and Public Intellectuals”, Uni. of Auckland Winter Lecture Series, 1996.]

And Inclusion…
Artistic organisations and cultural institutions should be patronised, not individuals. (Although, individuals at the height of their professional reputation may be regarded as institutions worthy of patronage.) The reason has a theoretical and a practical component.

Practically, an inclusive system of State patronage – for State patronage to work it must be inclusive – would necessitate the inclusion of all individuals within the State as potential artists and cultural workers, an impossibility.

Theoretically, funding agencies within the State are currently treated to the autonomy and independence which should be the preserve of the galleries, fellowships, theatres, museums and so on. According to the downward flow of legislative authority, artistic and cultural labour takes second place, behind bureaucratic and committee goal-setting for the sector. This also means that the committees and bureaucracies of the government funding agencies decide who does and who doesn’t receive funds and grants, thereby promoting expediency over exigency and profiting from the deal.

The Covenant…
I have referred to the existence of a covenant informing patronage, a protectorship. The traditional patronage relationship has, historically, not always extended to an economic relationship but has always intended a political one. The covenant is the law informing patronage. The covenant opens up a political space for freedom. In both its legal and political aspects the covenant should be the intensive and shaping cause of arts management and governance.

Arts organisations and cultural institutions represent – as apparati within the discourse of power – the principle of freedom of expression and, in a way that is not merely relative, the freedom of the individual artist. The arts’ and cultural apparati allow for individual representation at the level of State power, since, under the covenant of patronage, and via the agency of these apparati, the individual is positioned on the same discursive plane as official pronouncements on ‘national identity’ and New Zealand Culture.

and money and power…
The covenant provides for the intersecting interests of money and power.

For example, where the State is the patron of a particular artistic apparatus – let us say, a theatre – its first act as patron is to covenant the political autonomy and independence of the theatre. Because the State’s responsibility resides ultimately and only therein that it must ensure the theatre’s political viability as an autonomous formation, it protects its investment of power through a complementary economic or financial endowment; by endowing the theatre with the appropriate economic means and resources to sustain that (and only that) political function: in order that the freedom of the formation maintains.

Where fiscal realities threaten the artistic apparatus with loss of its political integrity, artistic independence and critical autonomy, it inheres in the nature of the covenant as the patron’s prerogative to invoke the higher principle of the artist’s freedom (over and above the economic interests of, let us say, the marketplace).

and artists…
The covenant obliges the State-patron to vouchsafe the continuance of an artistic organisation or a cultural institution insofar (and only insofar) as the latter actively realises the principle of the artist’s freedom.

In view of the foregoing, the structural, organisational and institutional, context in which the individual artist lives and works serves as an index to and a safeguard of his or her actual and lived artistic freedom.

The arts organisations and cultural institutions to which I have been referring are galleries, theatres, museums, archives, fellowships, groupings, the management structures and infrastructures of writers, dancers, painters, actors, in short, artists, and all those formations that have potential for patronage as they struggle to realise the principle of individual freedom through cultural and artistic labour.

Property and Commerce…
Cultural property, national identity, cultural “treasures”, the New Zealand “personality”, State patronage, cultural ambassadorship, imply rules of cultural inclusion articulated in political terms: who’s in, who’s out and who can play. NZ on Air, for example, do not regard it as within their brief to fund projects designed to showcase New Zealand artists internationally. Assisting artists to gain access for their work to the world art market displays a clearly commercial initiative. But the commercial aspect features neither in their argument, nor in the arguments of other funding agencies, when they reject applications for assistance to gain international recognition for our arts and culture. The appropriate use for government funds in the arts seems generally to entail that work is shown here, to other New Zealanders – as our own.

Ownership is – as they say – nine-tenths of what present government allocations of resources in the arts and culture is all about, whether it be the proprietary rights of an ethnic, political or erotic minority, or that of New Zealand as a whole. As that seminal statement of nationalistic kitsch and puerility puts it – “To tell our own stories in our own words.”

This pious proprietaryness obviously counterindicates the complete pervasion of the commercial agenda in the cultural sphere, yet, strangely, it manifests the same ideological pietism with which the issue and problem of free-market economics is currently handled in the arts. The implications of the latter includes the evaporation into the market miasma of cultural as distinct from commercial value, along with the deliquescence, thinning and final evaporation of cultural identity, in general, and national identity, in particular. As a faith followed without an understanding of its motives, meaning or implications, the ideology being practised while free-market policy is being mouthed results in banality and hypocrisy.

As long as this activity does not contradict or impugn the central covenant of State patronage, to market New Zealand arts and culture internationally and to seek commercial initiatives for this sector in the wider art world serves as a celebration of the role of patron. It is not an assertion of the right of ownership.

(Unfortunately, the more I look at New Zealand’s presence in the world, the more missed opportunities for commercial enhancement and development of the arts I see, and the more it seems the true motivation behind present policy is to entrench and foster parochialism, colonialism, provincialism and finally, still, a guilt-ridden dependence on government and its agencies.)

Our Currency…
We have in New Zealand reached a cultural impasse in exactly political terms but one for which justification is sought in economic terms and by recourse to the shibboleths of ideology. But there is no outright denial. And, as I have indicated, complicity is encouraged and the burden of our national and collective guilt increased.

In this state of impasse, any initiative from government will be welcomed. The Artists Wage will be favourably received, as a hand up, a hand up to the State garret of institutionalised poverty. We will be grateful for tax breaks for artists. No matter that, if not nothing, then very little comes from very little. No matter that, without a history of entrepreneurial activity and of private patronage – as is the case in those countries founded on Puritanist altruism – free-market capitalism and New Zealand arts and culture are not so much strange bedfellows as explicit scenes of degradation. We will welcome the Knowledge Economy, despite its ignorance of our basic humanity, because the former Irish Minister for the Arts made some encouraging remarks about its consonance with the elevation of his portfolio. We will embrace the Republic, because the “next step in the evolution of our national identity” [Chris Laidlaw, in the Auckland Herald, 10/2/2000] might entail an attribution of “national identity” to its sources in cultural and artistic endeavour and might reasonably lead to a reappraisal of the value of that endeavour to our Republic.

Because of the hopelessness of the situation, because anything is better than nothing but, more than this, because we will be grateful and because of what this gratitude will actually humanly cost, in contrast to both cynicism and the complicity of entertainment – or fiddling while Rome burns – I have attempted to describe one gold standard. So that, when whatever comes comes we might know whether it is gold or crumbs.

In the system of patronage I am advocating:
1) the government legislates for the State as patron;
2) the law of patronage is the covenant protecting and maintaining the political freedom of the artist;
3) State patronage is inclusive in its extension of a covenanted political autonomy to artistic organisations and cultural institutions;
4) artistic apparati are patronised by the State only insofar as they struggle to realise the freedom of the artist;
5) democratic patronage includes the principle of valuing critique, even when it is unpopular sentiment that is expressed;
6) the economic obligations of the patron apply as and where the political integrity of a patronised artistic organisation or cultural institution is threatened and to maintain the covenant;
7) product, output or results from the national artistic and cultural apparatus are outside the domain of the patron’s covenanted interest as a matter of internal policy (see Property and Commerce, above).

A lover’s complaint…
Without outward dependable forms – structures and infrastructures – the concrete politic of a whole and nationally envisaged artistic-cultural apparatus, operating in a time-frame larger than the term of office of any one government;
Without a feeling for the composition of these forms – pluralistic, divergent, multi-ethnic, erotically polymorphous – diverse yet all sharing the commonplace of a vouchsafed artistic freedom;
Without Arts and Cultural Policy able to translate such a big picture into “our own words” – which was already and is always the discourse of power:
Measures like the Artists Wage are postcards from the ‘free world’:
and we remain, not as in a totalitarian state,
but in a colony of the mind,
The European mind.

A personal note…
I love the theatre but I value my life in this country more. Life “in” theatre here meant a constant pounding from commercial ideologues (among them, the worst, the subjective critic), new-right economic cultural officials, peers – who saw no other way but their complicity and getting on -, co-workers envious of our peers – practical people and impractical, who knew, as I did not, a calling for theatre does not necessarily co-entail a vocation for misery.

Maybe I was stupid but that stupidity remains with me as I write this letter on the ideals for – and the ideas against which – we waged theatre.

It still has me make recourse to – perhaps most foolhardy of all – the higher principle of the Artist’s Freedom.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Taylor
(Amateur)

[This letter was sent in May 2000 to the office of the Right Honourable Helen Clark and circulated to Judith Tizard, Marion Hobbs, Bill Ralston, Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton, Luit Beiringa, Uri Khein, Roger Horrocks]