‘The Critic in New Zealand’ by Rosabel Tan
“The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there’s a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.”
— David Attenborough, BBC Interview
Early in his career, Wystan Curnow was invited to give a lecture on what it meant to be a critic. “But that presented certain difficulties,” he later wrote in the Bulletin of New Zealand Art History. “For instance, I was not sure I was one.”
It was 1974 and Curnow was working at the University of Auckland’s English department. He was, by definition of his employment, regularly engaged in the business of literary criticism, but he had avoided being a critic of books by New Zealand writers. As for his other interests, he conceded he might be considered an art critic. “At least,” he wrote, “if a dozen or so notes and brief essays published over a period of fifteen years in magazines all but one of which are now defunct makes one an art critic in New Zealand.” Ruefully, he concluded, it seemed it did.
Like many others before and after him, Curnow’s hesitation stemmed from the occupational versatility our country demands from its creative practitioners. Because of how small our population is, the market for any art form is prematurely capped and its growth is precariously stunted, economically and artistically. Industries have to be propped up by public funding and philanthropy, and being able to specialise as a writer or an artist or a musician becomes either a unique luxury or a financially risky lifestyle choice.
Because of this risk, artists often end up expanding their talents horizontally, whether they want to or not. It’s remarkably and sometimes advantageously easy to do in a country with so many shoes to fill. We see musicians who are also teachers who are also music writers who are also promoters. We see actors who are also publicists who are also producers who are also casting agents. We see the rise of the cultural ambassador: people who – rather than honing a specific craft – hone the skills of an entire industry. Like plants, we grow in the direction of the sun, but here the sun shines with a hazy, erratic glow.
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