For the love of arts: The politics of art and arts education

by Mandy Hager / 13 August, 2017

The tomb of Heloise d’Argenteuil at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

For Art’s Sake

Mandy Hager on the power of creativity.

Mandy Hager’s essay “For the Love of Arts” is the latest resulting from the D’Arcy Writers Grants to be published in North & South. The grants, sponsored by Mark and Deborah D’Arcy, expatriate Kiwis living in New York, are designed to encourage the writing of essays of 10,000 to 12,000 words on New Zealand life and culture.

Mandy Hager is best known as a writer for young adults – although her published work includes novels for adults, non-fiction resources for youth, scripts and short stories. She has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award in the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

In 2014, she was the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. She spent her time in France researching the life of 12th-century Benedictine nun Heloise d’Argenteuil, known since the 15th century for her passionate letters to her tutor and illicit lover, the religious philosopher Peter Abelard, who she married secretly. Hager’s new novel Heloise (Penguin) was published in May.

In the following essay, she explores the historical context of arts education – beginning in Heloise’s time when “the church fought tooth and claw to control what was being taught, who was teaching it and who had access”. Hager then argues how today, New Zealand’s ideologically driven neo-liberal climate encourages similar restrictions of access to the diversity of thinking and personal expression explored through the arts.

Busts of Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil decorate a house in Paris at 9 Quai aux Fleurs, where the couple are said to have lived.

For the Love of Arts: The Politics of Art and Arts Education

For the past three years, I’ve immersed myself in the politics, theology, art and social complexities of 12th-century France, centred around Paris’s famed school Notre-Dame de Paris. I’ve been researching and writing a novel based on the life of Heloise d’Argenteuil, lover of philosopher and teacher Peter Abelard.

As one of France’s first “celebrity” masters, Abelard drew eager students from across Europe. His teaching was based on Socratic and Aristotelian logic and his catch-cry was: “Assiduous and frequent questioning is indeed the first key to wisdom... for by doubting we come to inquiry; through inquiring we perceive the truth...”

Given that the cathedral school where Abelard taught demanded fidelity to both the Catholic church and French monarchy, it’s little wonder his persistent ferreting out of theological contradictions put him at odds with those in power. They conspired against him, Bernard of Clairvaux (later Saint Bernard) pulling the strings, and twice Abelard was accused of heresy. The first time he survived by the skin of his teeth; the second time a sentence of perpetual silence was imposed upon him, along with the burning of his books, his life’s work.

While untangling the politics surrounding the dramas that took place then, it started to grow increasingly apparent that the issues of power and control steering behaviour in Abelard’s world, 900 years ago, were not so very different from our own. Within the span of Heloise’s lifetime (c. 1093-1164) came the bloody and vicious First and Second Crusades between Christian and Muslim forces, and there was a concerted consolidation of wealth and power to benefit a few elite at the very top. Then, as now, the middle class were steadily stripped of wealth and assets, and the poor exploited even more. Teachers saw greater controls imposed on what was taught, and women underwent a systematic silencing and further degradation of their meagre rights and choices. Corruption was rife, positions bought and sold, with resources and money funnelled into the same few private pockets. To top it off, willful blindness enabled rampant abuse within the church. Does any of this sound familiar?

Paris’s school was one of the first precursors of our modern universities, extending young men’s education beyond the ancient Greek’s trivium of liberal arts (Latin grammar, rhetoric and dialectic). They also explored theology and philosophy, along with arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s (and other classic) works around this time fuelled a new spirit of inquiry into natural processes. Some 3000 of Aristotle’s pages were eventually translated, one scholar describing this re-emergence of his writing as “a turning point in the history of Western thought”.

With this rededication to education’s classical roots, medieval scholars set about to reconcile the beliefs of Greek philosophers with those embedded in the church. By applying logic and new ideas, they tried to distil the true essence of biblical passages through the rigorous filter of reason. It was a risky business; such investigations were conducted under the suspicious eye of an increasingly powerful church elite.

When Abelard’s followers gathered strength (young men with the kind of passion some devote to gurus), he grew more vocal in the questioning of religious texts, exposing those that didn’t survive his thorough philosophical and semantic investigations. When the church stepped in to stomp on such audacious probing, it came as no surprise. His actions were a threat to their power, an undermining of the rigid rules imposed upon their faithful flock.

Scholars, the church believed, should exist to patrol faith’s boundaries, not push beyond them. Those like Abelard and his fellow teacher, Arnold of Brescia, were viewed as dangerously subversive. Under attack, Abelard’s career and mental health were bit by bit destroyed, and Arnold was hanged then burned, silenced like Seneca the Younger and Socrates in the centuries before. No one likes a genius, especially an outspoken one; they show up the rest of us. Power and greed gone mad.

The upside of this torrid time was that it sparked a debate that finally settled on the persisting notion that to be truly educated, it wasn’t enough to regurgitate facts or recite in the language of the scholars. One had to think, to analyse, to question, to re-interpret, to pursue the truth with utmost dedication, nothing less. The mind’s capabilities and understanding had to be pushed forward, while, at the same time, unpicking the lessons expressed through the arts of old to better illuminate current issues. Thinking was valued for thinking’s sake, and the broader and deeper the range of viewpoints and knowledge acquired, the greater one’s perceived achievements – and the state of one’s soul.

Socrates believed that learning’s aim was the development of critical and autonomous human beings. This idea, also, has been passed down through the ages – if less desired by those in power. The first universities were designed to steep their students in the traditions of human thought and feeling. They focused on the natural sciences, along with arts and humanities. Students were prepared for life in all its richness: not merely as workers but also good parents and spouses, neighbours, community members and engaged citizens.

I’d hazard a guess that my generation, the baby boomers, have benefitted more from this inherited ideal than any other. We had virtually free access to an education as broad as it was deep. More equitable, open entry removed the barriers of class and wealth. We took advantage of it, as did those government ministers now steadily dismantling our world-class education system. They, too, were handed their training or degrees for free and were able to study whatever they wanted, without fear of debt. Some of us even received modest stipends.

Back in Heloise and Abelard’s time, the church fought tooth and claw to control what was being taught, who was teaching it and who had access. They actively worked to suppress the questioning of holy texts and laws – and the fact that most people were illiterate worked in their favour; they could control the narrative. Entry was barred to women, without exception, and attendance was further restricted by way of fees, admitting only those who could afford their inflated prices.

All scholastic work was undertaken in Latin, again reducing access to only those with suitable preparatory education. It set the highly educated above the hoi polloi and cloaked contentious truths such as the true extent of the elites’ control. Sadly, one only has to read an academic paper to be confronted by near-impenetrable terminology and subject-specific jargon in our own 21st-century adaptation of this. What this does is create suspicion, evident in the anti-intellectual bad-mouthing our academics are frequently subjected to today. They are mistrusted; accused of living outside the “real” world, not truly one of “the people”. Take [British Conservative MP] Michael Gove’s pre-Brexit rhetoric, for instance, “People in this country have had enough of experts,” or Auckland University’s Emeritus Professor Roger Horrocks, describing how puritanism and egalitarianism created a “fear of difference” and how he, and others, routinely disguised their intellectual shame. “Like many local writers I have learned to live it, striving to avoid big words and never associating myself with the problematic term ‘intellectual’.”

For Heloise, lauded as one of the most erudite women of her day, even her obvious intellect and hunger for education still excluded her from entering this elitist male club. We’re lucky to have her voice and prodigious mind chime on through letters, remnants of poetry and plays. Her continued loyalty and love for Abelard (a self-absorbed neurotic genius) can perhaps be explained by his open respect for her mind and willingness to collaborate, almost unheard of at the time. To find an equal, and one who so persuasively expressed complex ideas that stretched her thinking, must have been utterly seductive.

Imagine how it would feel to know your mind was so much sharper than the men who controlled every aspect of your life? I wish it was hard to conjure. Such mental captivity is still the reality for millions of girls and women today; a form of torture. It illustrates her strength of will that Heloise used her love of words to give voice to her frustration and pain.

We are expelled from the new world because our concern is writing.

Clio, faithful companion, we are driven out, leave!

Though new reading once pleased our leaders,

Under new leaders a new law rules.

Formerly fierce hearts used to be softened by poetry,

But now weak hearts are enraged by our poems . . .

I am indicted, but in fact for what foregoing misdeed?

If you want to know: art is my crime…

Envy seeks its place under the guise of correctness,

It is not for holy women to compose verses,

Nor for us to ask who Aristotle might be…

This was written shortly after she and her fellow nuns were evicted from Argenteuil, accused of sexual deviancy. These trumped-up charges were the work of Catholic fundamentalists whose dogma was taking hold; evictions of women were ever more commonplace. Their royal abbey was handed over to monks, along with a substantial haul of other chattels and income.

What really struck me, as I mulled all this, is how control of thought and access to education has been deployed as a political tool time and time again. I think we’re in the middle of another shift in values, this time away from egalitarian principles and back to a more feudal mindset. We parrot the adage that history teaches us lessons from the past, yet we refuse to heed them with any real conviction or sincerity. It’s as incongruous to me as our familiar Anzac cry “Lest we forget”, while we support illegal foreign wars and torture, host weapon-mongers, and ignore a frightening build-up of divisive racist and fascist rhetoric. It seems that after centuries of encouraging inventive creativity, education’s enlightened origins are being abandoned to create an unquestioning made-to-measure workforce, with no time or energy for imagination. Imagination’s dangerous, right? If people can picture a better world, then they might also summon up the daring to demand it.

I love Aristotle’s belief that to know oneself is the beginning of all wisdom… and that educating the mind without the heart is no education at all. I like to think he viewed “heart” as the philosophical, spiritual and moral values that should drive us – compassion, generosity, kindness, fairness – and the need to gain command over our animal instincts: jealousy, hatred, anger, and the most corrosive of all, unrestrained greed. I see the arts as integral to Aristotle’s world view. They provide the crucial expression of our personal and cultural values and our identity. Robert Hughes, the late Australian art critic, said the art he most liked dealt with the questions why am I here and what am I doing. I believe these are the questions all artists, all people, must consider to find personal fulfilment. It is the stuff of our shared humanity, while at the same time deeply personal. Realisation of purpose makes each of us identifiably unique and, ultimately (or not), content. Having a finite life, and a mind that knows it, forces us to consider what will give our short existence meaning. Art, as the junction between head and heart, provides the perfect vehicle for exploration.

It’s hard to shake off the feelings of injustice and unfairness Heloise’s story wrought in me – and the sense of déjà vu. I came to her life and times with little prior knowledge and spent two years researching the relevant history, philosophy and theology, as well as the classical texts she read and quoted in her writing. I’d not studied any of these great masters in more than a glancing way before and, though I’d seen medieval churches and their artworks, until I embarked on my research I hadn’t walked among them while considering their effects on the predominantly illiterate medieval mind, one deeply saturated in religious symbolism.

At that time, art and architecture were very much the instruments of choice to control the narrative. The majesty and enormity of religious buildings were a means to express the majesty and enormity of God – and, therefore, the Church. The paintings and icons supplied a visual representation of Bible stories and moral parables for those who could not read the texts. These kinds of visual metaphors used art’s ability to affect people at an emotional level to heighten the shock and awe – and to prompt obedience.

Given this evident acceptance of art’s power, it isn’t surprising that through the ages thinkers and artists have come under attack. Like Abelard and his Greek role models, they sought to use their unique gifts as conduits between ideas and emotion, with each person’s spiritual and political beliefs also entangled in this. “Any art is propaganda… at the end of the day you’re trying to get people to respond to your thoughts, to what you believe and what you want the piece to say,” artist Kishan Munroe claimed.

In John Bagnell Bury’s 1913 treatise A History of Freedom of Thought, his introductory chapter states: 

If a man’s thinking leads him to question ideas and customs which regulate the behaviour of those about him, to reject beliefs which they hold, to see better ways of life than those they follow, it is almost impossible for him, if he is convinced of the truth of his own reasoning, not to betray by silence, chance words, or general attitude that he is different from them and does not share their opinions. Some have preferred, like Socrates, some would prefer today, to face death rather than conceal their thoughts. Thus, freedom of thought, in any valuable sense, includes freedom of speech… But this right has been acquired only in quite recent times, and the way to its attainment has lain through lakes of blood…

The psychological motives which produce a conservative spirit hostile to new ideas are reinforced by the active opposition of certain powerful sections of the community, such as a class, a caste or a priesthood, whose interests are bound up with the maintenance of the established order and the ideas on which it rests.

The first censorship law in China was introduced in 300AD. After a history already laden with oppression and upheaval, the so-called Chinese “Cultural Revolution” saw more than 2600 people in the field of arts and literature persecuted and at least 200 well-known writers and artists killed. Censorship continues today, not only via limited access to information, but also through harassment of those who dare speak out. World-renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei, openly critical of his government’s record on democracy and human rights, required brain surgery after being beaten by police in 2009, and was held for 81 days in 2011 without any official charges being filed.

Russia, too, has historically seen its intellectuals and “dissident” artists stifled. For instance, Lenin ordered mass arrests of professors and scientists in 1919, and three years later another 160-plus Russian intellectuals and their families were exiled, a further 228 detained, 32 students among them. Moscow’s state library holds Russia’s largest collection of banned publications, beginning with mainly religious, anti-Bolshevist or anti-Leninist publications until, post-World War II, they added foreign books and periodicals, social-economic and military publications, and all of Russia’s emigrant authors, no matter their subject. Russia can lay claim to the longest-lasting and most comprehensive censorship in the 20th century.

In 1935, Adolf Hitler told one of his rallies: “It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth’s sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.” These words were reproduced on the wall of a Munich art gallery two years later, where the Nazis displayed hundreds of seized artworks declared entartet (degenerate). Jews and communists, abstract and expressionist painters, all were condemned as sick and poisonous in the Degenerate Art show of 1937. Who does not still shudder at the millions of lives lost due to this truly degenerate man?

Obviously, there are numerous other competitors for this poisoned crown: Pol Pot’s Killing Fields; the total suppression of press in apartheid South Africa until the 1990s; the Serbian government’s order to destroy all the Albanian-language collections in Kosovo’s libraries in an act of cultural ethnic cleansing. Prior to WWII, the press in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal suffered under rigid fascist censorship; and, in Algeria, 52 editors, journalists and media workers were systematically executed by the Armed Islamic Group, an act of terror designed to warn off others from supporting the authorities. They boasted: “Those that live by the pen shall die by the sword.” I’ve only skimmed over a few examples from the past 100-odd years but, quite honestly, this list could go on and on and it’s too depressing.

All those terrified people must have feared for their families and wondered what the hell they’d done to deserve such persecution. They’d toiled to get a decent education and, then, through deep concern, spoke out on behalf of their fellow citizens. Some probably didn’t even do that, deemed “collateral damage” (how I hate that phrase) merely for possessing an education and a job. But even if they did speak out or create an artistic statement to express their thoughts, did they deserve that fate? We all pay lip-service to human rights but if the fundamental right to freedom of speech (or the right to hear or read others’ words) is denied to the general populace, then the claims that we cherish this ideal (which in the West we equate with democracy) are clearly a farce.

The international writers organisation PEN has supported writers since 1921, and today still fights for freedom of expression in literature and journalism; in fact, they’re overrun with cases. Given that artists and thinkers are wired to observe the world in minute detail and ponder human behaviour, it’s little wonder we use our chosen craft to process what we see. Ovid claimed that writing a poem without another to hear it was like dancing in the dark. Those of us who toe-tap around the issues daily feel compelled to communicate what most moves us; we fear that if we end up dancing solely in the dark, we have squandered the opportunity to shine a light on what we feel is of importance to us all. Many believe that not to engage in public debate is an act of cowardice; a failing of our civic duty. We bolster ourselves with the likes of Margaret Mead’s famous words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The unifying factor in all these horrifying stories is the desire by those at the top to impose some kind of authoritarian control in order to maintain their comfortable positions. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia stepping up arrests of writers or America’s orange demagogue discrediting top-notch journalists, there’s an ongoing secret (or not so secret) war to suppress all those who dare to call their leaders out. Writer Ben Okri hypothesised that if one wanted to poison a nation, poison its stories: “A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.” It’s even more sickening when they consciously skew the narrative in their own or their masters’ favour, like those cynical back-room PR boys or Fox News “reporters” who take the big bucks without a care for who their spin might hurt.

If we think this only happens in other countries, our collective sense of smugness is uncalled for; we own far too many examples of purposeful stifling of opinion and debate, including attacks on those in the arts and academia. It goes a long way back, one of the tools in a coloniser’s handbook to suppress local resistance. In the mid-1920s, Jean Devanny’s novel The Butcher Shop was banned here, deemed obscene and charged with portraying farming conditions “detrimental to the Dominion’s immigration policy”. Her novels probed the economic and sexual relationships between women and men, and she dared to write of female sexuality and a woman’s right to freely express her own sexual feelings. Jane Mander’s 1920 book The Story of a New Zealand River had critics in an uproar over her character’s desire to plot her own destiny. On its publication in 1959, James Courage’s A Way of Love was banned for its exploration of a young man’s sexual relationship with an older man, censorship of a gay relationship now something most of us find intolerable. Yet, only four years ago, we saw Ted Dawe’s prize-winning book for young adults, Into the River, temporarily banned after pressure from conservative lobby group Family First. New Zealand came scarily close to allowing a small but vocal faction to override free speech, and to deny young people the opportunity to consider issues vital to their lives. In a twist of fate, the hullabaloo attracted attention overseas and the book has now been published in the States, with a film deal in the pipeline.

Susan Sontag: “The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth... and refuse to be an accomplice to lies and misinformation.”

Another of the positive outcomes of the Into the River furore was the unintentional reconfirmation of the power of books. Books contain not only words, but potent ideas. And an idea able to drive someone to call for its banning must be very powerful – whether it incites something vile or divisive, or questions the status quo. As a writer, I find this energising. Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Words are events, they do things, change things.” Susan Sontag, in her 2001 speech The Conscience of Words, expanded on this:

We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth… and refuse to be an accomplice to lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification…

These examples are merely a taste, a reminder that, even here, those who step outside the “acceptable” narrative of the day may feel the full force of the clobbering machine as it tries to gag them. There have been plenty who’ve risked it. Blogger Scott Hamilton wrote:

New Zealand’s writers have long been critical of their society and its various governments. James K. Baxter called New Zealand a “sick society”, and Auckland a “great arsehole”; RAK Mason denounced this country as a “far-pitched place” where poets had a “perilous existence”; Frank Sargeson compared his studies of Kiwi life to reports composed for a sewage board. When they scrutinise and criticise their own society, our writers show loyalty to the critical values nurtured thousands of years ago by scribblers like Aristophanes, and their disloyalty to political elites and their shibboleths.

These comments were made in response to the attack on Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, who had the temerity to answer a question honestly. For daring to call out our government for their punishing economic ideology, she was called everything from “traitor” and “ungrateful hua”, to “a stuck-up liberal elite bludger”. My pick of all the responses, however, had to be that of our then-PM, John Key, who referred to her as a “fictional writer”.

Not only did Eleanor Catton come under attack for presuming to have an opinion at odds with our current government, but it quickly transformed into an attack on intellectualism and public support of the arts. The Taxpayers Union, the love-child of Dirty Politics’ Jordan Williams, rushed to publish a press statement that laid out all the arts grants and fellowships she had been awarded since 2007, ending with: “Some might question why Ms Catton would have a go at New Zealand when it’s Kiwi taxpayers who have largely funded her education and career.”

Stop here a moment and think about this. What Williams was saying, and what his team of trolls disseminated, is that anyone who receives taxpayer money, via either state education (every citizen’s right) or Creative New Zealand grants (paid into by all taxpayers, including Catton), must therefore not criticise in any way the government of the day. If what can be inferred from this doesn’t make you feel deeply uncomfortable, you might need to be reminded of the underlying principles for why we all pay tax: We collect taxes on behalf of the government, who use the money to benefit the New Zealand community. I put it to you that the national pride felt when we first embraced Eleanor Catton’s win easily falls into this category.

The Taxpayer Union’s attack both horrifies and offends me. As Dr Brian Edwards said in his piece on this subject:

More insidious… is the implication in all of this that if the state has assisted you in your endeavours and contributed to your success, you forfeit the right to publicly criticise the country, its people, policies or leadership. Loss of freedom of speech is apparently the interest you have to pay on your debt to New Zealand.

Surely Eleanor Catton’s personal opinion on the country she lives in deserves respect, regardless of our own? I’m pretty sure those who stomped on her so heavily would fight for the right to hold their own views and express them.

Not only did Eleanor Catton come under attack for presuming to have an opinion at odds with our current government, but it quickly transformed into an attack on intellectualism and public support of the arts.

If the argument is that Catton and others are traitors for taking advantage of state funding to advance their careers, implying they bite the hand that feeds them, then perhaps this criticism should be more fairly meted out. What of John Key, who exploited his mother’s assistance with state housing in nearly every speech to distract from his hedge-fund millions? Shouldn’t he, therefore, have been morally obliged to protect said state houses rather than so nonchalantly selling them off? Or Paula Bennett, who owes her upward mobility and tertiary education to taxpayer support, a state-supplied ladder for solo mothers she has now pulled up?

The public funding of the arts through Creative New Zealand (CNZ) was first established in 1994, swallowing up a range of arts bodies. Its goal is to “encourage, promote and support the arts in New Zealand for the benefit of all New Zealanders”. It’s a wonderful goal, recognising that “the arts not only help us define and express ourselves and engage with each other in our communities – they are also powerful levers for promoting positive social and economic outcomes”. I strongly believe this to be true and it would seem I’m not alone.

In its triennial survey, New Zealanders and the Arts: Attitudes, Attendance and Participation in 2014, CNZ reported that others, too, think being involved in the arts makes their lives better and their communities stronger. The findings show that nearly nine out of 10 New Zealand adults (88 per cent) agree the arts are good for them, and eight out of 10 (82 per cent) think arts help to improve New Zealand society. An encouraging 89 per cent said they had either attended or participated in at least one arts event in the previous 12 months, 86 per cent agreeing they learned about different cultures through arts, 85 per cent that New Zealand arts are of high quality, and 78 per cent that arts help us define who we are as Kiwis. Over half (64 per cent) said that the arts improved how they felt about life in general. Our young people aged 10-14 said they love being involved in the arts because they like being creative; it makes them happy and gives them self-confidence. They rate being creative as a favourite pastime (83 per cent), rivalling playing computer or video games (76 per cent) and watching TV or DVDs (83 per cent).

Given this endorsement, perhaps it will surprise you to know that around two-thirds of CNZ’s funding doesn’t come from the government purse at all. It comes from the profits of Lotto NZ, paid into by people taking a punt to better their lives, often those with the least to spare, desperate for a shot at an easier future. That said, times are tough: an Arts Foundation press release early in 2016 stated that CNZ was set to receive $11 million less than in 2013-14
due to a fall in Lotto earnings. They warned the arts community to expect major reductions in funding. Quite a moral conundrum then: better funding of the arts reliant on more excessive gambling. Our government, meanwhile, shows no interest in trying to bridge the gap, CNZ confirming in its 2013-16
Statement of Intent that “income from Vote [i.e. the government] is not expected to grow over the next three to five years”. What a shame that $26 million wasn’t funnelled into CNZ instead of a spurious flag debate.

If you go online and read CNZ’s annual reports, it’s amazing just how much they do to support the arts. I, for one, am hugely grateful for the assistance I’ve received. I’ve had a long relationship with them, most of it spent writing applications and brooding over regular refusals. If you have the perception it’s easy to call yourself an artist and live off the pig’s back due to state support, think again. In my 22 years of serious writing endeavour, I have applied for grants on a regular basis, often year on year, and been successful only twice (once, early on, for $5000, and just recently for $7500). I have also been a recipient of fellowships three times, one of these privately funded by the wonderful Peter and Diane Beatson, and the other two jointly funded by sources other than CNZ, and both these awarded over 18 years after I first started writing. Throughout that time, I’ve spent roughly $25,000 on courses and assessments to improve my craft, and have juggled several other jobs and many short contracts to contribute to my family’s support – and, yes, paid taxes back into the pool. If not for my husband’s frequent 14-hour workdays, we would’ve struggled to put food on the table – and even then, there were many times we did.

When I was researching this essay, I put a request out through my networks for other writers and artists to send me their thoughts, and the most common response was frustration at the amount of time it takes to prepare a funding application and the very low rate of success. A repeated complaint is that a small group of “favourites” or those deemed “commercially viable” scoop up most of the grants and opportunities. This is the result, they believe, of our current government’s wholly economic focus. As one visual artist put it: 

… prevailing economic thinking has changed the visual arts in several major ways in New Zealand. Conformity is the order of the day, feedback loops see lazy curation selecting the same artists found in the most obvious high street galleries, who in turn have artists chosen from the top art institutions. These same artists are taking the major art prizes, not necessarily by merit but seemingly on “whose turn is it this time?” A small elite of winners over and above the bulk of losers is another stamp of the new establishment.

 I had similar responses from those in the fields of writing, dance and drama, and it’s little wonder so many feel frustrated when seeking funding respite. My own experience is mirrored in the results of a 2016 survey of New Zealand writers’ earnings, commissioned by the NZ Society of Authors, and reflects a situation where most in the arts do so with little monetary compensation. Of the 380 writers nationwide who responded, the average length writers had been working at their craft was 18 years, almost half had a post-graduate MA or PhD, and yet their writing earned them an average of 24 per cent of their personal income, or around $13,500 per annum. Female writers had total personal incomes 10 per cent below male writers, and the largest part of a writer’s week was spent in working at another occupation that was unrelated to authorship or any other creative field; on average, 23 hours per week or 31 per cent of their reported time. Including their writing activity, respondents reported an average of 73.5 hours per week, with writers of young adult literature, journalists, playwrights and television screenwriters reporting average hours above the overall result. Append to this childcare and household duties, and the diminishing accessibility to publishers here, and it’s hardly a recipe for financial success or security. Not surprisingly, when asked what they needed in the future to help them succeed as an author, the most commonly mentioned factor was increased income.

This should be viewed in light of the overall economic benefits flowing from the creative sector. As Joan Rosier-Jones, NZSA’s President of Honour, pointed out in her Janet Frame Memorial Lecture:

Creative industries employ a total of over 40,000 people, and their contribution to the New Zealand economy is nearly four billion dollars. In fact, they produce more overseas funds for the country than the wine industry, and yet wine producers get much more support for their endeavours than creatives do.

Thankfully, the Arts Foundation was set up specifically to encourage philanthropy in the arts, to help pick up the shortfall, and I applaud them for it. I’m extremely grateful there are people out there who value the arts enough to contribute to its making. But private and corporate sponsorship often comes with invisible strings attached and this can work to control who is chosen and what is expressed. Depending on whose money is backing any given project, the views of the funder can cause a “chilling effect”, the same blunt instrument that sees people too frightened to whistle-blow despite their possible disclosures being on the side of public good. Voicing concerns can see them black-listed – or worse.

When my brother, Nicky Hager, was asked by artist Simon Denny to accompany him to Italy to act as a specialist advisor, CNZ managed the travel arrangements. Denny’s work, Secret Power, chosen to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale, was based on the findings in Nicky’s seminal book of the same name. But the overall Venice “campaign” was partly sponsored by private and corporate backers and one withdrew her financial support and reallocated it elsewhere, citing Nicky’s inclusion as the reason. That’s fine, it’s certainly her prerogative, and I am thankful for her ongoing generous support of the arts. My point is less about her and more about how, with this type of sponsorship, comes added complications and potential restrictions, especially when the donors with the biggest private purses are often those who benefit the most from maintaining the economic and political status quo.

Corporate sponsorship can also be used as a PR exercise, much like “green-washing”. For instance, in the UK an alliance of autonomous organisations united around the aim of ending oil sponsorship of the arts, calling themselves the Art Not Oil Coalition. In a joint statement of purpose, which draws comparisons to the funding of public institutions by tobacco companies, they say:

Oil companies cultivate arts and culture sponsorship relationships to help create a “social licence to operate”. This contributes to the veneer of legitimacy that enables them to keep expanding operations at a time of climate crisis and to stifle the demands for justice of those communities who live on the frontline of their destructive, polluting operations.

Diane Ragsdale, a keynote speaker at the 2016 The Big Conversation symposium, spoke of these funding dilemmas, both in terms of the arts and public institutions. She talked of how the economic downturn changed the playing field from art for culture’s sake, to culture for the economy’s sake. She quotes John Holden’s Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy, which said: “Somehow, over a period of decades, politics [has] mislaid the essence of culture, and policy [has] lost sight of the real meaning of culture in people’s lives and in the formation of their identities.” Ragsdale continues:

Of course the arts are not alone in this crisis. We have witnessed this retooling in almost every area of social life… Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel argues in his book What Money Can’t Buy that we have shifted from “having a market economy to becoming a market society” – in which, as he puts it, market relations and market incentives and market values come to dominate all aspects of life.

Others also share this concern for market-driven ideology being imposed on arts and culture. In Craig Medvecky’s paper Art on the (Supply) Side, he contends that:

The neoliberal approach to public arts has led to funding rationales that construct art as a commodity subordinate to the principles of supply and demand, while limiting, if not denying, the constitutive role of art as political speech in the life of a democracy.

And he adds:

One of the most sinister aspects… is the sanguine nature of the marketplace that eschews the voices and controversies that connect our communities with their democratic origins. Complex issues and “inconvenient truths” are out of place in the sanitised world of marketing and entertainment, just as they are in [politics]…

It’s easy to get distracted by differing definitions of neoliberalism and arguments of just how far along the spectrum our own current government sits. For a symposium in New Orleans, in 2000, an abstract written by the NZ Association for Research in Education stated:

In New Zealand a distinctive strand of neoliberalism has emerged as the dominant paradigm of public policy: citizens have been redefined as individual consumers of newly competitive public services, and citizen rights have been redefined as consumer rights; the public sector itself has undergone considerable downsizing as successive governments have pursued the privatisation agenda; management has been delegated or devolved while executive power has been concentrated even more at the centre.

Academic Stephanie Lee Mudge adds:

[Neoliberalism’s] unadulterated emphasis [is] on the market as the source and arbiter of rights, rewards and freedoms – and, by extension, [it has a] marked disdain for politics, bureaucracies and the welfarist state. 

Whatever your view on it, perhaps we can at least agree that the current government puts business and finance foremost at the centre of all things. An interesting comparison between Helen Clark’s commitment to the arts and John Key’s goes some way to illustrating just how the focus of the arts has shifted over the current government’s term. In a 2000 announcement of major investment in the arts, Clark said:

A nation can be rich in every material sense, but, if it fails to provide for and nurture creative expression, it is impoverished in immeasurable ways. Our arts, our culture and our heritage define and strengthen us as a country, as communities and as individuals. This sector expresses our unique national identity. Our government has a vision of a vibrant arts, cultural and creative sector which all New Zealanders can enjoy.

Contrast this with John Key’s en-dorsement of a Literary Heritage Trail in 2012:

I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us.

Key’s approach (and presumably that of his successor) is a shift away from the arts and humanities viewed as a cultural resource with inherent community value, and impacts on the way arts and humanities are thought about and taught.

In Jyotsna Kapur’s article Capital Limits on Creativity, she explores how this ideological shift has undermined the arts’ true function. She suggests that by turning the arts into a purely commercial enterprise, neoliberalism has attacked the very core of artistic expression – they get a new lease on life commercially but lose their soul. “Art relies on a sense of imagination, resistance, and community that underlies it and exceeds the rules of the market.” She goes on:

The role of artists within these deepening capitalist relations is to serve as humble servants – set up studios, cafes and late-night bars, create art to enliven the walls of corporate offices and banks – for a class that treats its hometown as a tourist destination and life as a series of adventures in shopping. For the wealthy, who can afford to wait out the slump, collecting art will remain a matter of speculative investment, and such opportunism, if it works, will be validated as a forward-looking, smart, and go-getting entrepreneurialism… At the same time, work in the creative industries has become increasingly precarious – that is, temporary, project-based, and competitive, putting artists and media people in a constant search for work… From being considered an imaginative and critical outsider or a participant in social transformation, the artist is now presented as the model worker of the new economy.

Art critic Robert Hughes in front of Picasso’s “Guernica”. “Art should make us feel more clearly and more intelligently. It should give us coherent sensations which otherwise we would not have had… that is what market culture is killing.”

In New Zealand, perhaps nowhere has this shift been more evident than in the film industry. It could be argued that the deal done between Warner Bros, Peter Jackson and the government was never about securing the filming of The Hobbit here, but about undermining crew protections via zero hour contracts. The late Helen Kelly described it this way: “The government made it very clear to working people that when push comes to shove, they’re going to back business. And what we saw in The Hobbit was a law passed which effectively removed all employment rights for anybody who works in the film industry by making them contractors.”

Jonathan Handel, LA entertainment attorney and author of The Hobbit Crisis: How Warner Bros Bent a Government to Its Will and Crushed an Attempt to Unionize The Hobbit, was quoted as saying he believes there was never a real threat that Warner Bros would move production from New Zealand because of a union boycott, and that the extra concessions offered to them by the Key government in 2010 amounted to a capitulation.

Warners flew down and extracted additional funds above what they were going to receive anyway from tax incentive programme, funds that amount to almost $8 for every man, woman and child in New Zealand. And on the other aspect, getting the government to pass a law under urgency, basically emergency procedures – 24 hours and the deed is done – at the behest of a foreign corporation really is quite extraordinary. It’s not something one sees every day.

Robert Hughes, in his searing documentary critique of the entanglement of big money with art, The Mona Lisa Curse, talks about the rise of art as a commodity in the 1980s and how this has produced a situation where “auction houses [became] the new arbiters of taste”. He pours scorn on the likes of British artist Damien Hirst, and calls Hirst’s artwork The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a 4.3m tiger shark immersed in formaldehyde) an Emperor’s New Clothes moment. His description of the artwork made me smile; I share it here for your amusement:

This poor sad wrinkled former shark doesn’t fill me with the sensation of amazement that it’s supposed to fill museum-goers with – it’s just an inert bit of inedible fish disappearing into its primal liquid… It’s a comedy, but it’s a kind of petty comedy…

Hughes claimed that the price of an artwork has now “become part of its function. It has redefined the art, whose new job is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.” He feared that “art treated merely as a spectacle becomes disconnected from any real context and loses its meaning”, and said that a lot of art “has just become a kind of cruddy game of the self-aggrandisement of the rich and the ignorant”. He added:

All good art is dense with meaning – it’s not some vacuous exercise in picture-making meant to sustain the boys at Sotheby’s or Christies… The art world beautifully copies our money-driven celebrity-obsessed entertainment culture – the same fixation on fame, the same obedience to mass media that jostles for our attention with its noise and wow and flutter… Art should make us feel more clearly and more intelligently. It should give us coherent sensations which otherwise we would not have had… that is what market culture is killing.

This sentiment would seem to tie in with the concerns my visual artist respondent raised earlier, that when art is transformed to a commodity, decisions are made not solely on merit, but on what is going to sell and achieve the greatest bang for buck. Market-driven ideology, then, may make a few art-creators very rich but plays to its rich audience, who control both the market and the narrative, effectively stifling alternative creative voices, left to huddle on the bread-line. As New Zealand dancer Oliver Connew put it in a post titled “Art is an industry. Fuck it”:

There is a disconnect between the idealised artist, whose goal it is to proliferate an artistic idea as a contribution to culture, possibly in spite of herself, and a reality of the artist who is required to engage in the promotion of the self as an industry [of artistic production]. The art is a means to end, in the same way that producing toilet paper (or slaughtering cows, or dealing in home loans or harvesting data or buying low and selling high) is a means to make money for the business man – he cares little for toilet paper, but rather what it can do for his wallet. In the artist’s instance, she has to ask how can my toilet-paper art and my behaviour around it increase my social and cultural capital in order to allow me to make more art? The answer of course is to imitate the practices found in the commercial world. In this way, art becomes as complicit in or even as enabling for capitalism as much as Design and Fashion have, and dilutes its own power in the same way that street demonstrations and protests have now been reduced to simply expressions of “free-speech”.

Such commodification has had a huge impact on education as well. Having worked in education at all levels, as well as being a parent, adult student of both community and post-graduate university education, and a school trustee, I’ve seen how the decimation of community education, the introduction of fees, standardised testing and contestable funding have impacted on the arts and those who teach them.

In an article that collated teacher perspectives on primary-school visual arts education, author Juliette Laird cites a host of sources supporting the notion that making art provides a range of personal, social and developmental benefits, including the Ministry of Education’s own Curriculum Online website, which states: “Learning in, through, and about the arts stimulates creative action and response by engaging and connecting thinking, imagination, senses and feelings. By participating in the arts, students’ personal wellbeing is enhanced. As students express and interpret ideas within creative, aesthetic and technological frameworks, their confidence to take risks is increased.” Yet Laird argues that visual arts education in the primary school classroom now has only “marginal status”, and says:

The Education Review Office found that less than half of New Zealand’s primary school classroom teachers are able to provide good visual arts programmes and, although art is often children’s favourite subject, the National Education Monitoring Project found that their art-making skills are generally not well developed… [and] content and purpose of art curricula have changed to fit prevailing values and social and economic aims for the nation.

This marginal status is partly due, Laird says, to poor-quality preservice preparation. “Over the past two decades, reductions of ‘epic’ proportions [in teacher training]… has been ascribed to the changed priorities that resulted from the ‘economic rationalism’ imposed as a result of the shift towards neoliberal economic and educational policies. These changes suggest that many teachers may have little or no idea of visual arts content or pedagogy.”

She finishes with a plea that teachers must be engaged in the debate instead of having decisions imposed upon them. Educator Diana Clement, writing in the NZEI’s magazine, adds: “The arts are being squeezed, in part, by the tentacles of National Standards… Think of it this way: it’s not okay not to teach maths, even if you’re not good at it. The same should be said for the arts.”

This brings us back to the purpose of education. Professor Ivan Snook, long-time educationalist, is another who worries that the “business” model imposed on our schools and universities works against the creation of a healthy and vibrant society.

There is a fixation on narrow and immediate outcomes from schooling, but the true outcomes of education are manifest only in later life when people live more critically, more creatively, more ethically. True education opens minds – sometimes dangerously so – that is why it is so often feared.

True education is critical, especially of grand claims advanced by people in power. True education poses questions of value: Not “will this work?” but “will this lead to the welfare of people?” This vision of education is totally absent from the narrow, skills-based, and utilitarian model of education which drives our politicians and those who support them in business and the media. How has this come about?

For one thing, those who spearheaded the political and social revolution of the past 20 years were determined to change teachers from educated professionals to skilled technicians. Teacher education came to focus on “curriculum” and classroom procedures and to omit not only critical studies (such as philosophy, history and sociology) but also subject studies so that teacher education has been systematically dumbed down.

The teachers’ unions, the NZEI and PPTA, have initiated a campaign to lobby for “Better Funding, Better Learning”. With school operation grants currently frozen, analysis shows that some schools will be out of pocket this year by more than $20,000, with 60 per cent of schools net losers. Some principals respond that the only way they can balance the books is by cutting their curriculum budget and support staff. I don’t think it’s too great a leap to assume that out the door could go itinerant specialist teachers and visits from writers and artists, or access to musical and dramatic performances; out the door could go dedicated librarians, school libraries or new book purchases. What does this kind of financial starvation (in addition to bigger sticks being wielded over those who do not meet their assessment targets) tell us about our government’s commitment to an excellent all-round education? What does it say when they support private charter schools but don’t require them to employ trained teachers? Does this speak to you of a government that respects its educators and values their skills? Why do we allow this attitude that our teaching professionals don’t know what’s best for their pupils?

Clearly, it works in the government’s favour to discredit teachers who criticise their ideologically driven cuts and changes, and general prejudice against teachers amplifies this. I’ve tried to make sense of the hostility to the teaching profession, given that education is one of the most enduring gifts we can be given (and those overseas who don’t have it would give their eye teeth for it). Yes, some people have horror stories of their treatment at the hands of sadistic teachers, but for the vast majority of us this isn’t true – and equal numbers can name a teacher they found compassionate or inspiring. There is a resentment about teacher holidays, for sure, although those in the profession know holidays are often spent in planning, marking or stuck in bed, ill as the stress comes off and the body relaxes its defences. Certainly, anyone who spends a day or two in a classroom discovers the enormous juggling act teachers manage, from planning and curriculum delivery, to assessment, to discipline, pastoral care, and the added support required for those with special needs or intergenerational damage.

I can only think we move into adult life resenting teachers as the symbols of authority we railed against in our teenage years, and that this adolescent lens continues to blur our judgment. What saddens me is how this knee-jerk reaction is manipulated by the “dog whistles” of politicians. Recently Act’s David Seymour blamed teachers for the lack of skilled workers and unemployment levels, calling for schools with consistently underperforming students to be closed. He ignored those teachers’ concerns over lack of support and the impacts of increasing poverty, hunger and homelessness, and chronic underfunding.

Secondary schools, too, are suffering. In the December 2016 issue of PPTA News, Trevor Williams writes of the effects when “trickle-down” principles are applied to education:

Neoliberalism has marketed its moves in terms of “local autonomy, freedom, diversity, choice, flexibility, innovation”. Positive language sells while it disguises… What’s not so obvious is that NCEA, and the new curriculum, employ similar terms and that has given me pause to reflect that NCEA, as practised in the revelations from the New Zealand Herald (“NCEA: the Only Brown Kid in the Room”, September 26, 2016), is actually the handmaid of the neoliberal agenda… We see a fragmentation of the unity of subjects into a number of standards, so that curricula can be reassembled to fit local needs and relevance (“autonomy”, “flexibility”). What was once unified in our national syllabus statements is now “diversified” from school to school, so that, for example, a Level 2 or 3 English course in one school bears no relation to a course in another school… The reality, as the Herald has shown, is that the disadvantaged are disempowered because they do not study the subjects that allow access to higher levels of learning. Educationally, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, compounded by the fact that the “rich“ know what they need to study and the “poor” don’t.

Given the government’s constant calls for a “knowledge-based” economy, it’s surprising how their policies work against this. A Department of Labour immigration research programme carried out in 2000 stated: “A knowledge-based economy is one in which the generation and use of knowledge is the predominant force in wealth generation and comparative national advantage. Knowledge is now regarded by many as being at least as important as physical capital, financial capital and natural resources as a source of economic growth.”

This paper focuses on the need to recruit and retain skilled workers from overseas, claiming that “a common theme about skill shortages is the scarcity of people with specialist skills”. It beggars belief, then, why the government thought it wise to dis-incentivise post-graduate education by removing any funding or student loan options to those who wish to further pursue their area of expertise or who are over 50 years of age. It simply makes no sense. You cannot claim on the one hand that you want skilled practitioners, while on the other you steal away the opportunities to upskill.

The other utter contradiction between government rhetoric on this and the reality is the way our current experts and academics are, like teachers, abused and disrespected for their inputs into public debates. A professor of law at Auckland University, Jane Kelsey, graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge universities, has taken the brunt of criticism over her well-informed stand against the Trans Pacific Partnership, accused of being a Marxist by Rodney Hide, a “wrecker“ by Helen Clark, and of not knowing what she’s talking about by many in our pro-TPP government. Dr Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in ecology and zoology at Massey University, has also taken a hiding for championing clean water and swimmable rivers – and most especially for his stance on the impacts of dairy farming. Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist who undertook the two largest studies on gangs this country has ever seen, was blocked by police in accessing basic information, in a political move to shut down his criticisms of the criminal justice system. Even Dame Anne Salmond, distinguished historian, writer and professor, and New Zealander of the Year in 2013, has been slighted by those at the top for voicing her concerns over the erosion of our democratic rights.

Responding to Gilbert’s case, David Fisher, a senior reporter for the NZ Herald, revealed:

Academics sourcing crime data from police are forced to sign a contract giving officers the power to “improve” research which shows “negative results” and then “veto” its publication. A copy of the police-drawn contract given to academics wanting to access the publicly owned data shows those who do not comply will be placed on a blacklist which could extend to shutting off access to an entire university. Conditions in the contract have been described as an attack on academic freedom and an affront to the Education Act’s legal obligation on academic institutions to be a “critic and conscience of society”.

Several other academics I have spoken with confirm that they are now required to sign gagging clauses that prevent them from criticising current government policy, as do many public servants. When we hear of this happening in Trump’s America (i.e. the gagging of their EPA), we are horrified at this insult to truth, freedom and free speech, yet where is the outrage when it happens here? Many argue it comes on top of a long history in New Zealand of pouring scorn on public intellectuals. As acclaimed journalist and author the late Bruce Jesson wrote, in 1991:

Anti-intellectualism runs deep in NZ society and we are losing the few forums of discussion that we used to have. Current affairs television has been reduced to entertainment. Talkback radio caters for bigots. The universities don’t fulfil a critical function in New Zealand society.

Bruce Jesson: “Anti-intellectualism runs deep in NZ society and we are losing the few forums of discussion that we used to have.”

Indeed, one could argue (and many did) that the vitriolic attacks on Eleanor Catton reflected this same anti-intellectualism. Roger Horrocks, mentioned earlier, suggests in the 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power: “Public attitudes tend to create a double bind: intellectuals are chided for being ‘ivory tower’, yet when they attempt to get involved in the public arena they are told to go away.” Horrocks added:

There have always been some public intellectuals working in television… but in the late 1990s most gave up the struggle as the National government destroyed all remaining vestiges of public service broadcasting in order to make TVNZ a more attractive package for potential buyers. Some directors went overseas, some looked for new careers. Programmers and commissioning editors functioned as a listener over the shoulder, making sure that every aspect of a programme was viewer-friendly. They referred frequently to generic viewers (“Mr and Mrs Smith”) who should never be allowed to feel intimidated. To avoid that possibility, programme-makers were advised to stop interviewing experts, particularly academics. Documentaries needed to be personalised (to be structured around individuals rather than ideas), to be as emotional as possible, and to move along briskly. They had to avoid being complicated, “pointy-headed” (intellectual), or overtly educational.

This “dumbing down” of our media, institutions and information services should be cause for great alarm. Just as the church in Heloise’s day controlled the narrative and benefited from their congregations’ lack of education and information, now we see “news” that is little more than regurgitated press releases, celebrity gossip and light entertainment.

We lost the excellent campaigning journalism of John Campbell from television (no doubt because his campaigns were so effective) and TV7, the one place viewers could rely on for in-depth debate, was arbitrarily taken off air despite concerted protest. The funding for Radio New Zealand, our public broadcaster, has been frozen since 2010, and although it received a boost in the 2017 Budget of an extra $2.85m per year – a move the Coalition for Better Broadcasting director Peter Thompson called a “small step in the right direction” – Thompson said it was not a permanent funding increase and, at present, was only budgeted for the next five years. He estimates that, even with this boost, RNZ will still be underfunded by an estimated $14m per year. “Consequently it is inadequate for the purpose of addressing the long-standing inflationary problems that Radio NZ has been managing since 2007.”

Meanwhile, RNZ’s drama department budget (often the go-to place for new writers to sell their work) has been cut by 60 per cent. One insider told me earlier this year the whole area of creative imaginative listening has been really hit and she doubts RNZ will ever get it back. It is as yet unclear if the latest budget increase will help remediate this situation, although Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry stated that the recent budget increase was to help RNZ invest in new technology and “improved capability”, with no mention of the drama department per se. Why should we care about Radio New Zealand? Brian Edwards puts it well: 

Not least because democracy requires an informed populace that has access to disinterested news reporting and the discursive and probing analysis of social and political issues and is beholden to no-one other than its listeners – not to government, not to political parties, not to power elites, not to commerce, not to the hawkers of goods and services.

At the time of John Campbell’s unceremonious dumping from television, many who mourned his loss interpreted the action as politically motivated. Political studies lecturer Bryce Edwards, collating the different media and social media reactions, said: 

Some have suggested the threats to Campbell Live are related to the politics of the programme – in particular, its role in “speaking truth to power”. By being a thorn in the side of the current government, it has been argued that the programme may have made itself vulnerable to political interference.

Some of these allegations are coming from the political right. When the news of the Campbell Live review was made public, Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) tweeted to say: “I understand that MediaWorks CEO Mark Weldon thinks @CampbellLiveNZ & @JohnJCampbell are too anti-government.” He followed this up with: “Perhaps only urban myth but widely circulating: Mark Weldon wanted a desk in @3NewsNZ newsroom to provide greater ‘supervision of content’.”

At the time of John Campbell’s unceremonious dumping from television, many who mourned his loss interpreted the action as politically motivated.

If claims such as this are true, one can only posit that the government and their corporate friends don’t like good old investigative journalism, presumably for fear that it shows them up or reveals their policy holes. But if they’ve got nothing to hide, then they’ve got nothing to fear, right? After all, isn’t this the very argument they wheel out when we object to mass surveillance? And, even more troubling, what does this say about the state of our democracy and its transparency? In a searing opinion piece by Grant McLachlan titled NZ Should Raise the Bar on Corruption, he questions Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, which puts us top of the list of the least corrupt, and explains: 

Transparency requires consistency and clarity of processes. The public must have confidence that decisions aren’t biased, that conflicts of interests are declared, and abuses are punished… In New Zealand, our apolitical civil service is increasingly peppered with cronies. Leaders of government and support parties on the cabinet appointments and honours committee appoint cronies to boards of Crown entities and hand out knighthoods. There is a difference between ambassadors, who implement government policy, and [those in] obscure board positions who don’t. The Lottery Commission’s board looks like a political lifeboat…

While Trump struggles to get his nominees approved, our select committees don’t vet. Parliament’s privileges committee hasn’t scrutinised false declarations to the register of pecuniary and other specified interests. Our processes to deal with corruption are flawed. Politicians wavered over Taito Phillip Field and Donna Awatere Huata’s conduct for months until the police were involved. Louise Nicholas exposed police internal discipline inadequacies which continue to be a problem. When a judge in our highest court doesn’t declare a conflict of interest, the Attorney-General shouldn’t offer the judge a golden handshake to save the taxpayer the cost of an inquiry. When a dodgy mine explodes killing 29, out-of-court payments should not influence the dropping of a prosecution. The Protected Disclosures Act was meant to protect good faith whistle-blowers when reporting “serious wrongdoing”. Poor internal processes, however, have resulted in witch-hunts and whitewashes.

Add to this assault the undermining of student unions, another means to silence dissent, and the recent spate of department closures and restrictions in the field of humanities, and one really has to wonder at the motives. Otago, Victoria and Waikato universities have all seen cuts in these departments, spurring an outpouring of anger at the reductionist thinking behind the measures.

Reforms in the tertiary sector have not been driven by need but an ideological shift. Even the government’s own Productivity Commission’s 2016 report New Models of Tertiary Education slams our current model:

The system stymies or prohibits innovations, punishes risk-takers, and reinforces existing practices… Government control is pervasive… [and has] extended over time as a result of various financial, quality and political risks. Quality assurance… inhibits innovation… government regulations bestow market power, grant local monopolies, and require cartel structures… Participation rates in tertiary education have been steadily falling over the last decade, with more than 20 per cent fewer domestic enrolments in 2015 than in 2005… and continues to serve some population groups poorly [Maori and Pasifika]… tertiary education subsidies are inequitable… students are disempowered… providers respond to government, not students…

But rather than reforming the system to serve the needs of students, staff and local communities, the Tertiary Education Union says in its response, “The report recommends the minister introduces more of the same market-driven approaches it concludes have failed… The report’s vision for tertiary education is one of market-based competition and profit, rather than the delivery of broad-based, publicly funded programmes that meet community, iwi and hapu, business, industry and service provider needs.”

Our government makes it plain that it is only interested in “vocational” courses, not those that might breed a new generation of free thinkers. And while it’s possible that some humanities departments are suffering drops in student numbers, this is hardly surprising given young people must now weigh up pursuit of knowledge for passion’s sake against outrageously high student loans.

As a teacher of creative writing, I’ve seen the drive to justify every course by vocational outputs and potential workplace skills. But the simplistic interpretation of “vocational skills” (i.e. the skills that will help you get a job and do it well) is at odds with reality. A post on Victoria University’s Career and Employment blog clearly elucidates this:

Last week The Dominion Post carried yet another one of these articles, “Not all learning helps earning.” Despite research proving time and again that a well-educated society is a happier, healthier and more productive society, we are obsessed with which subjects appear to give the most “value for money”… [Yet] research tells us that the future of work is dependent upon creative problem-solvers and communicators who can think outside the box. Even IT companies are forecasting that due to the complexity of issues arising from rapidly advancing technology, skills commonly found in arts subjects such as philosophy will be in demand… The 2015 Student and Graduate Employability Skills Survey reports on the top 10 skills sought by 346 organisations. These include: work ethic, verbal communication skills, energy and enthusiasm, analytical and critical thinking, problem solving, team work, interpersonal skills, written communication skills, self-management and initiative and enterprise. Skills which can be found in all university qualifications.

What’s particularly troubling about the Waikato University cuts, is that the university is intending to flog off its Pathway College to a multinational, meaning the most vulnerable of our learners, who use this course as a bridge to move on to higher education, will now be at the mercy of a commercial enterprise (whose sole fidelity is to profit). Surely a government that wants its people to up-skill and join its “knowledge economy” would support non-threatening pathways back into education? Any teacher knows the best way to entice someone into further learning is to help them gain success one small step at a time. For many, community education (be it for cooking classes, choirs or creative writing) is the first step in an opening up that sees them change and grow, and slowly accommodate the idea that they can reach for more. Pursuing one’s creative passion is a life-changing journey; I have seen it with novel-writing students again and again. It is quite simply transformative, people’s achievements boosting self-esteem and enabling dreams; positively changing lives.

The last effect of our current economic ideology I’d like to touch on is that of competition, capitalism’s underpinning spine. So brainwashed are we by the belief that competition is good, it now dominates everything from school league tables to cooking shows. Yet at the heart of competition lies the assertion that in order to have winners, there must be losers. An acclaimed drama teacher and playwright noted in an email: “Observing the way Stage Challenge has year by year morphed into a more elaborate, expensive and competitive beast is a fine example… often the arts in schools are valued in terms of the wins, recognition and kudos they can bring, and the purer and more valuable notion of arts participation for its own sake has suffered.”

Even worse, perhaps, is how this winner/loser narrative is used to blame the victim (i.e. the unemployed are all on drugs; the shortness of a woman’s dress invites abuse; the homeless choose to live on the streets) and the resultant change in a society manifests as a distinct lessening of empathy and compassion. This culture of meanness is further cemented through the pap served up as entertainment, ritual humiliation and pranks designed solely for laughs at some poor innocent’s expense. I call it the “Jono and Ben Syndrome”, where grown men are empowered to make fools of their peers for puerile laughs – or someone’s terrible accident is replayed as comedy. Reality TV is rife with it, pure undiluted cruelty and narcissism not only encouraged but celebrated. With billions of people living lives of real misery on a melting planet, is this really the kind of subliminal moral messaging you want our young ones to receive? We Kiwis used to be accused of being a passionless society; nowadays I think we run the risk of being labelled “compassionless” – and deserving it. Project this out a further generation or two and that’s a pretty scary thought.

Why are we so resistant to the idea of open-hearted kindness? What have we got to lose by giving it a go? The life we’ve all taken for granted is quickly disappearing and if we don’t find new ways to think and live, any hope of positive outcomes will vanish too. I find myself grieving for my grandson’s future, teetering between extremes of sadness and incandescent fury.

So, what can be done? I think this falls into two halves, the first related to government policy and commitment to the arts and education, the second to a broader realignment of values.

We need a return to proper, in-depth teacher training that includes how to entrench the arts into all subject areas and to encourage creative thinking and questioning as the basis of a healthy society and democracy (as already espoused by our education ministry). We need proper funding of state schools that is teacher-driven, based on student needs, and policy to reduce class sizes so discussion and exploration of ideas and concepts has time to be nurtured. If we are serious about a “knowledge economy”, then tertiary education should be free and post-graduate study (and study by those above age 50) also fully funded. Why not aim to be the most educated and creative country in the world? Surely this “brand” would pay huge dividends and justify the increased spending? In the past, many professions bonded and supervised their graduates for several years to safeguard their employment, giving them support through on-the-job experience that ensured quality outputs. It’s an excellent idea, and would thereby provide enough local applicants to fill the required roles. This also seems like a sensible option if we wish to stem the current flow of graduates heading overseas to pay off mortgage-sized student debt.

We need to turn away from our anti-intellectual/anti-teacher suspicion and rhetoric, and to embrace our home-grown experts and academics. They should be free to question government policy and provide expert advice on policy efficacy without political interference or rebuke. The same should go for those concerned enough to whistle-blow or speak out against the government of the day. Rather than treat these people as criminals, we should allow thorough investigations, in order to change anything that is not in everyone’s best interests. This is the true nature of a social democracy – the system most New Zealanders support when push comes to shove. Freedom of speech, and the rooting out of corruption, are fundamental principles we should not have to constantly fight for; they should be our bottom line.

The arts, and those who participate in their creation, should be better supported, in line with most New Zealanders’ belief that they enrich our culture and help to express our unique identity. This could take the form of more guaranteed and dedicated funding through Creative NZ, but could also be linked to a more equitable living wage for those who can prove active arts engagement that benefits and cultivates healthy, functioning communities. Sportspeople are not our only national treasures worthy of respect and public support.

Community education of all kinds should be immediately revived, funded and encouraged. It not only improves the lives of those who participate, but often works to empower people back into more formal education, thus increasing our cultural and economic capital.

To further enhance an open, equitable and honest democracy (where questioning is seen as a positive in order to hold the powerful to account), sufficient dedicated and guaranteed funding needs to be set aside for public broadcasting. Radio NZ needs comprehensive, sustainable funding, adjusted annually for inflation, enough to ensure that, as well as its role as news provider, its arts and cultural programming is made accessible to all. They should also be given free rein to report whatever they think is in the public’s interest, without political interference or threat of funding cuts. So, too, our free-to-air public TV broadcaster should be untangled from any requirement to meet market demands or provide commercial returns, and a charter that preferences proper investigative journalism, culturally enriching programmes, and which promotes diversity, should be re-established and respected by those in power.

New Zealand on Air should be better funded to help create programmes that reflect issues of public importance – rather than being solely ratings driven – and to encourage community buy-in to political discussions, democratic process and decision-making. The Film Commission should have a requirement to fund projects that display greater diversity and gender balance as well as box-office outcomes; they are the window to our collective soul.

Concerted work also needs to be undertaken to entrench ethics, civics and values education across all sectors of society, and to encourage our young people to take an active role in improving the world in which they live. They need to feel empowered and given proper agency – to be given a voice – and to be made aware of their personal obligation when living in a social democracy. To do this will require that they see their law-makers and representatives actively working on their behalf, to better secure their lives and futures. A citizen-led constitution would be helpful, as well as greater checks and balances on policy-making, and better funding of those employed to keep our civic institutions honest and working for the benefit of all New Zealanders. And, of course, none of this matters unless we clean up our environment and do whatever it takes to mitigate the impact of climate change; without this, nothing else survives. For a democratically elected government not to do everything it can to limit climate change effects for its population (and to reverse environmental degradation) should be viewed as criminal negligence. They are supposed to be there to serve us and not the other way around.

I’d like to end with a plea to re-evaluate our core values; to use the riches of creative thinking, in all its varied and radical manifestations, to extract ourselves from this overarching economic mindset in search of something more equitable, sustainable and universally fulfilling. This is a plea to think with the heart, to shed the strictures of ideology and, instead, seek out our compassionate side for the betterment of all; to vote for the “politics of love” and generosity, not divisiveness and hate. There is no need for winners and losers in the expression of our “humanness”; what we desperately need right now is a return to more creative, critical thinking that can transcend the mess and horrors manufactured by our animal greed.

Alexander the Great listens to his tutor, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), in ancient Greece. Aristotle taught that business or toil is merely utilitarian; it may be necessary but does not enrich or ennoble a human life. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, not the external manner and detail, is true reality.

Art provides a way to locate the best of ourselves, either through creating or receiving it; it is the most positive and powerful expression of our true visionary nature. But there are far too many deprived of its richness and beauty; art’s benefits hoovered up by those who have the means to pay. We currently suffer from a poverty that goes far beyond the economic practicalities. We suffer poverty of aspiration, poverty of compassion, of kindness. Poverty of hope.

Since human beings first scratched symbols onto walls, it is the brain’s gift of creativity and imagination that has set us apart from our primate ancestors. It is a capacity in all of us, from the dullest to the sharpest. Creativity needs no entry exam, no race or class distinctions; it is universally inherent and every artistic act expresses and empowers the unique qualities of its maker. I’ve seen first-hand the arts’ enriching, restorative power. I’ve seen how finding a voice to express one’s hopes and fears can lift and change a life. From hip-hop and graffiti through to fine arts and opera, and everything in between, art can take people away from their hardships and preoccupations, and allow a natural healing process to unfold. And it has the capacity to enhance all lives, not just those struggling or broken.

Aristotle taught that business or toil is merely utilitarian; it may be necessary but does not enrich or ennoble a human life. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, not the external manner and detail, is true reality. How about we end the cycle that sees the injustices wrought in Heloise’s world repeated in our own? We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.

The D’Arcy Writers Grants are administered by the following committee: writer Gordon McLauchlan (chairman); Jackie Dennis, chief executive of New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN Inc); Virginia Larson, editor of North & South; and writers Hamish Keith and Bruce Ansley. For information on the grants, contact Gordon McLauchlan at journo@clear.net.nz.

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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