The 74th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Mark Broatch is his Pop Vox column from the March 1996 issue. The occasion is his appointment as the Listener’s new books and arts editor, replacing Guy Somerset.
“Mark who?” I hear you ask. “Where does he come from? Is he sound?”
Perhaps I can help here. In the 90s when he was an IT journalist he contributed to Quote Unquote as book reviewer and columnist. Later he was at the Sunday Star-Times for five years, as Culture editor among other roles, and has been with the Listener for many years on and off, as chief sub-editor, then deputy editor and more recently, since new owner Bauer downsized it, writing freelance articles. He lives in Auckland.
Apart from journalism: in 2002 he and I co-wrote Get the Net: the Internet and email made easy for New Zealanders (Hodder Moa Beckett); in 2009 he published here and overseas In a Word: the essential tool for finding the perfect word (New Holland), and in 2011 he shared the Buddle Findlay Sargeson fellowship. He is, I think, the first published author to be appointed books editor of the Listener since Vincent O’Sullivan.
So yes, he’s sound. Here he is in 1996 on the perennial vexed question of how we fund our culture.
State of the Art
As I swanned around Paris over the Christmas break, attending concerts and frequenting as many museums in a week as one might carpark buildings at home, I couldn’t fail to appreciate that, whatever else the French might do badly, they certainly know how to do culture. Sure, they spend fabulous sums on it every day out of suffering taxpayers’ pockets. And, sure, there are artistic faux pas best forgotten. But the successes are spectacular.
And they are enjoyed by everyone. There seems no firm line between popular and high culture. Anyone who has been to Paris knows that the depth of its culture – from its remarkable monuments and galleries to its parks and cafes – is wow-material.
As if you hadn’t already noticed, this column is intended to swing round popular culture, those aspects of our social and artistic life in which we, the great unwashed, the people-meter button-pushers, bathe ourselves – as compared to the eau-de-cologne of high culture we dab behind our ears. Isn’t that the difference?
Well, perhaps vive la difference. But the French might also say, what difference does it make? Because cultural life at the fag-end of the 20th century is such a melange of aesthetic interchange, cross-dressing and lost luggage, parting the waters like that might not, in the end, be very useful.
Popular culture, like post-modernism and political responsibility, is indefinable. Oh sure, we all have ideas about what it means: the Top 40, Shortland Street, Jackie Collins. . . Some would say, in a John Banks voice, that it’s not even culture at all. The term has certainly been tarnished a little by its political cousin “populist”. All we can really say is that it’s recognisable as cultural or artistic activity aimed at a broad audience. But even that’s not quite right, since pockets of popular culture – say, performance art or jungle rap – are highly esoteric in their aims and pretty narrow in appeal.
If high culture is art, music, film and performance that is enjoyed by an elite few with the time and wealth to devote to its appreciation, what makes it so different from model-aeroplane racing or body piercing? How did the concept arise?
Certainly, it has to do with social attitudes and class links; history, development and longevity of the art form; and patterns of associated behaviour. It’s to do with aesthetic values. It’s also to do with money.
Royal and private patronage of the arts over the centuries was provided for the aristocrats’ own aesthetic appreciation and peer-to-peer exultation, but their results were also performed and exhibited before the masses. Classical music, opera and Shakespeare’s plays were enjoyed in their day by very mixed audiences. Verdi’s and Rossini’s arias were whistled in the streets.
Modern capitalism saw the rise of a commercial culture which was willing to support the arts for a financial return. A new kind of culture arose in response from which both art and business benefited. The old culture got left behind to fend for itself.
Today, of course, most people enjoy many types of culture, at different times, for different reasons. Much popular culture is now inextricably linked with commerce through forms of advertising, and is thus usually cheap enough for the masses, while most forms of high culture are funded by state grants, licence fees, corporate sponsorship or high ticket prices.
We may believe that events like Opera in The Park are reversing the separation of cultures, but perhaps corporate sponsorship has simply replaced the patronage of the aristocracy, allowing 300,000 middle-class Aucklanders to get a dose of culture from companies selling mass-market products. And if not sponsors, then lottery money to replace ever-dwindling government (ie taxpayer or ratepayer) support.
Perhaps this is genuinely democratic art in that it funds itself and appeals to a broad audience. On the other hand, if an art form, say opera, is slowly regaining its former position as a truly popular art form, couldn’t state support be justified to help it get on its feet? For a while, perhaps, but not indefinitely.
On a third hand, are some forms of art which are regarded as an essential component of our culture, but can’t support themselves commercially, ever worth keeping alive?
The question of state funding of art has always been a minefield of criticism, because it involves cultural commissars deciding what constitutes art and who misses out. Everyone becomes an art critic.
Creative New Zealand (formerly the Arts Council) was criticised in February’s North and South for handing out money to various projects, ranging from the Royal New Zealand Ballet ($1.63 million) and Auckland Philharmonia ($995,000) to Quote Unquote ($20,000) and Tangata Records ($10,000).
Culture Minister Doug Graham defended board members by saying they were good people. I’m sure they are, but they are also easy targets. Because New Zealand has such a small population, such niggardly (in comparison to many other countries) state funding of the arts, and the consequent relentless commercial pressures on artistic activity, means that audiences miss out on quality.
Quantity is not choice. Quality is what should strive for in whatever type of culture we fund through our taxes.
It doesn’t matter if an opera is soap or seria, as long as it’s good. We shouldn’t fund bad anything, however high or low is on our personal cultural scale. But the good deserves whatever support we can give. Then we might, once again, show the French a thing or two.