Re-inventing New Zealand: Essays on the Arts and the Media by Roger Horrocks - book review

by Nicholas Reid / 01 July, 2016
A selection of critical writings on the arts and media gives the cultural long view.
Roger Horrocks: advocating a major shake-up by an embrace of the avant-garde. Photo/Tony Heim
Roger Horrocks: advocating a major shake-up by an embrace of the avant-garde. Photo/Tony Heim

In his review of a book about music critic Frederick Page, Roger Horrocks writes: “A good critic is not necessarily someone you agree with, but someone with an interesting taste and the ability to develop it verbally.”

These words could apply more to Horrocks himself than to just about anyone else on the New Zealand scene. The biographer of Len Lye; the man who fought a good fight to get film and media studies accepted as University of Auckland programmes; the poet who was recently short-listed in our major book awards; the long-time arts administrator; and the prolific critic and reviewer – Professor Emeritus Roger Horrocks is a good critic but also a controversial one. His advocacy of both popular media and the artistic avant-garde has ruffled a few feathers in academe and elsewhere.

Re-inventing New Zealand is a generous selection of Horrocks’ critical writings over more than three decades. At more than 400 pages, it gives us 21 essays and a long introduction, which has some autobiographical elements. Horrocks sets out for us where his theoretical roots lie. His outlook was much shaped by his decision to attend livelier American universities in the 1960s, with their brash and provocative literary cultures, rather than the more staid English ones, which a scholarship would have allowed him to attend.

The essays are arranged thematically rather than chronologically in order of first publication. First is a section giving an overview of New Zealand literary and artistic culture; then come the essays on television and other media; and finally appreciations of specific artists and writers.

At least some of the essays on film and television show their age. Horrocks sometimes discusses administrative matters that were specific to the 1980s and 1990s and makes tentative predictions that have already been overtaken by events. How you respond to the appreciations of specific artists will depend on how well you are acquainted with their works – the painters John Reynolds, Julian Dashper and Tom Kreisler; the poet Leigh Davis and others.

LS2516_b&c_Reinventing-NZBut the polemical element is clear and robust. Horrocks believes New Zealand high culture is still too beholden to the “realist” and nationalist traditions bequeathed to us from the writers of the 1930s and 40s: Curnow, Fairburn, Sargeson et al. He advocates a major shake-up by experimentalism and an embrace of the avant-garde. He lauds the big cultural transformation New Zealand has seen in the past 40-odd years: feminism, Maori renaissance, Pasifika presence, gay and lesbian visibility. But over this hangs the shadow of neo-liberalism, first inaugurated here as “Rogernomics”. In the new social and economic climate, anti-intellectualism still flourishes as much as it did in the old days. Some of Horrocks’ most pungent passages are where he takes on the new-style media demagogues. But this isn’t crude editorialising. Horrocks always comments in the context of the cultural long view.

The biggest plus of this collection is the clean, clear prose Horrocks deploys, even when he is discussing abstruse topics. Nice cover too – designed by Horrocks’ son, graphic artist Dylan.


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