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Tall Poppies, Cultural Cringe, Catton and Culture

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I'm really not sure how strongly the Tall Poppy thing asserts itself that much these days, but Catton is specific: “One example is that the New Zealand Book Award that follows the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, in the year The Luminaries won it, there was this kind of thing that now you've won this prize from overseas, we're not going to celebrate it here, we're going to give the award to somebody else. If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you.”


One thing the Eleanor Catton debate has done is to raise a spectre I had thought long dead; that of the Bashing Machine a.k.a. Tall Poppy Syndrome. She says, “We [New Zealand] have this strange cultural phenomenon called “tall poppy syndrome”; if you stand out, you will be cut down.” The classicist will recognise the august heritage of the trope from the Greek historian Herodotus.

I’m really not sure how strongly the Tall Poppy thing asserts itself that much these days - we’re far more likely to laud the Peter Jacksons, Margaret Mahys, Taika Waititis and so on. But Catton is specific: “One example is that the New Zealand Book Award that follows the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, in the year The Luminaries won it, there was this kind of thing that now you’ve won this prize from overseas, we’re not going to celebrate it here, we’re going to give the award to somebody else. If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you.”

This seems a most peculiar thing to say not long after also saying, “There is a lot of embarrassment, a lot of discrediting that goes on in terms of the local writers. I, for example, grew up just having a strange belief that New Zealand writers were automatically less great than writers from Britain and America, for example.” Suddenly the NZ Post Book Awards are expected to fall into lockstep with Mother England? That would have been as rich an example of Cultural Cringe as Tony Abbott’s ill-conceived gonging of the Duke of Edinburgh with an Australian knighthood.

Art Critic Robert Hughes (and he should know) gives an excellent definition of Cultural Cringe:

[T]he assumption that whatever you do in the field of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, dance, or theatre is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside of your own society. It is the reflex of the kid with the low self-esteem hoping that his work will please the implacable father but secretly despairing that it can. The essence of cultural colonialism is that you demand of yourself that your work measure up to standards that cannot be shared or debated where you live. By the manipulation of such standards almost anything can be seen to fail, no matter what sense of finesse, awareness and delight it may produce in its actual setting.” (1)

Is there any point in calling out Tall Poppy Syndrome just to swap it for Cultural Cringe? Catton won the best fiction category in the New Zealand Post awards after all, and she is ungallant to deem her rather complicated novel of greater worth than Jill Treveylan’s excellent biography of Peter McLeavey. It’s beyond ludicrous to suggest Catton’s Man Booker win wasn’t celebrated. The media was fawning, the University of Victoria gave her an honorary doctorate, and the Government of “neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture” awarded her a New Zealand Order of Merit at the remarkable age of 29 (which she accepted).

She goes on: “The other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal. So many people have talked in the media and me directly in ways of 2013 being the year that New Zealand won the Man Booker Prize. It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very, uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it.”

On the coat-tails of having just criticised neoliberal values this sounds odd, because she sounds very much like she shares their favourite self-made (wo)man motif, a sort of reverse Little Red Hen. The socialist viewpoint is that no man (or woman) is an island and that our successes are collective in the sense that we are all products of tax-funded infrastructure at the very least. That is vital in a country as small and relatively insignificant as New Zealand and the Government’s neoliberal agenda is rapidly causing us to lose social cohesion. Add on top of that the hard work of educators (the Institute of Modern Letters at the University of Victoria, for example), the largesse of state funding agencies like CNZ, and other supporters and by rights it really does belong to the country (not that Catton has been forced to wear an All Blacks jersey and hawk butter, nor spontaneous haka broken out at her international public appearances). I assume though that any keen Green Party supporter would recognise the adage that if we don’t all hang together, we hang separately.

None of this insecure Kiwi dance between popularity and success is especially new. There is a wonderful 1953 sonnet “Farewell to New Zealand” by British broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. Bill Pearson pretty much nailed it in his essay “Fretful Sleepers” when he described New Zealanders as “caught between the mountains and the sea, never far from the silence of the stars, we are the bland frightening witness to the infinite, and we haven’t created a social convention strong enough to reassure us” (2). Wystan Curnow came to a similar, if more optimistic conclusion a generation later in his essay “High Culture in a Small Province”: “It may, of course, be claimed that the richness of other cultures is freely available to us and increasingly so, that our isolation is itself a kind of psychic insulation. Some may like to toy with the idea that metropolitan fools rush in where provincial angels fear to tread. Maybe, because of our circumstances, the ‘disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world’ can be made peculiarly our own.” (3)

No doubt Curnow fils had in mind Curnow père‘s Distance looks our way in mind, but forty years later is it still true? Certainly a pragmatic culture of simple pleasures prevails, although the word “intellectual” is not usually a compliment even if no longer an insult (as it once was, on par with “homosexual” and “communist”). The arts are not as valued as they could be, but no less so than the rest of the English-speaking world. If that was the case none of the elite institutions, public funding bodies, nor residencies would exist that have brought Catton and many others to where they are today. Similar complaints can be, and have been laid at the door of CNZ as well as private sector patrons (and we know how much the Government loves the latter). One might, in the case of CNZ, pause to consider the culture of junkets surrounding the Venice Biennale or question why Wellington-based Fly My Pretties needed $33,000 from the Emergency Earthquake Fund set up for Christchurch creative affected by the quake in order to play two concerts in Christchurch charging up to $90 a ticket? The furore over Michael Parekowhai’s Auckland waterfront sculpture seems excessive when most of the money is coming from Barfoot & Thompson in the first place. But we are a democracy. If we don’t ask, the right to ask can be taken away.

Let’s look at that “neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture”.

Yes, they are neoliberal, definitely profit-obsessed and money-hungry to the detriment of the country. Calling them “shallow” is more subjective. I will be the first to say that the National Party indulges in a kind of populist, smug and knowing philistinism, and long gone are the days when Helen Clark as Prime Minister also took on the role of Minister of the Arts. Chris Finlayson was nonetheless a senior Cabinet Minister, but now we seem to have gone backwards with the appointment of Maggie Barry whose highest cultural achievement was hosting a gardening show on television.

Of greater significance, the Government notably did not hack into the Arts funding budget in the middle of the last recession. That’s hardly the behaviour of an entity that “does not care about culture”. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is less the government at fault in this particular circumstance, than the way certain groups and individuals seem to get favoured by the funding bodies (that’s where the politics happens) - not that Catton can complain about that. Of far greater concern is what the Government is getting up to in education and welfare. Paradoxically Catton concludes, “You need to remember that you are not important at all. It’s what you give to your work, not what the work gives to you.” (This raises my eyebrow: Actually the real concern is not that middle class white people may not be able to have their cake and eat it, but that people from lower economic backgrounds will get muscled out of culture entirely because they can’t afford the luxuries of an arts education.)

Catton has every right to say what she likes, as do others to speak their mind - which they did under resourced. The response was pretty lacklustre. The PM made a sort of muted tut-tutting noise followed by trite sarcasm, radio broadcaster Sean Plunket charged in like the proverbial wounded bull and enthusiastically embarrassed himself with schoolyard taunts, and the New Zealand Taxpayers Union (a right wing lobby group who hates unions and paying taxes) did the math and came to the conclusion that over the years Catton had received rather a lot of state largesse. A big yawn all round. I find it difficult to believe that Catton was at all surprised. This was hardly on the scale of what one might have expected in the Muldoon era when in 1978 the PM turned a very generous gift to the Australians of the Colin McCahon Victory Over Death 2 into an insult.

Catton responded with a statement concluding: “In future interviews with foreign media, I will of course discuss the inflammatory, vicious, and patronising things that have been broadcast and published in New Zealand this week. I will of course discuss the frightening swiftness with which the powerful Right move to discredit and silence those who question them, and the culture of fear and hysteria that prevails. But I will hope for better, and demand it.”

As far as I’m aware there has been no attempt to silence her. The “backlash” has been obnoxious, patronising, perhaps even misogynist, but it has done nothing more than garner Catton attention and popular support. This was nothing compared with the tsunami of ordure one might expect from Fox News were one to be critical in the US, for example. In Australia the media is even more repellent, as recently seen in the obituary in The Australian of Colleen McCullough in which the author of The Thorn Birds was described as “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight”.

Certainly Catton has experienced nothing like the very real harassment experienced by Nicky Hager following the publication of his book Dirty Politics, and indeed had she mentioned Hager she might have come across as less of a princess. Indeed, in the case of Simon Denny’s Secret Power installation for this year’s Venice Biennale, while the involvement of Hager (and the Banquo’s ghost of Kim Dotcom) caused private patrons of a rightish persuasion to reposition, the government didn’t say boo. The most embarrassing thing Catton can have suffered is her father calling up Plunket on the air and giving him a telling off. Predictable those looking for a martyr have latched on, some even going to the idiotic lengths of comparing Catton to Salman Rushdie, as if she had been threatened with violence.

Are New Zealand’s creatives political enough? Probably not as much as they might be, which is why I must be clear that I am not criticising Catton for the act of speaking out. Long may she, as for example she is in the case of the Government cutting the free National Library loan service to schools (something I myself benefited from). James K. Baxter was a great protestor, famously at odds with society like his pacifist father was. Musicians have often been at the forefront ranging from Blam Blam Blam to Dave Dobbyn. I greatly admire the stroppiness and sense of both old guard Keri Hulme and torch receiver Lorde. I celebrate Tao Wells for his courageous swipes at the bene-bashing government even if at times he veers off into the ridiculous. I wouldn’t call Denny‘s Dotcom work “political” per se, more opportunistic, but then events made it political.

However, if one is going to be both a political firebrand and a public figure as well as an artist, both sides of this hot mess should remember what Charlotte Brontë had to say in Jane Eyre on the matter: “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.”(4)

Andrew Paul Wood

(1) Robert Hughes, “The Decline of the City of Mahagonnay” in Hughes (1990), Nothing If Not Critical, The Harvill Press/Panther, London, p4.
(2) Bill Pearson, “Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and Its Implications for the Artist”, Landfall 23, vol6, no3, September 1952, p226.
(3) Wystan Curnow, “High Culture in a Small Province” in (ed) Curnow (1973), Essays on New Zealand Literature, Heinemann Educational Books, Auckland, p156.
(4) Author’s preface from the 1847 second edition.

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This Discussion has 1 comment.


Mark Harvey, 11:52 a.m. 10 February, 2015

Thanks for your discussion Andrew. I agree, it's really important to keep examining this issue for us in the arts.
There's something I think that needs to be added to your comments about the current government. While it has not 'cut' funds to the arts overtly it has forced significant cuts on it in a range of other ways. An example is inflationary flow-on-effects, such as what grants can pay for. Plus, Creative New Zealand itself has faced significant cuts over the last 6 years, and to me this is not helpful for their staff or us in the arts for what they can do with us. Other areas of cuts are in tertiary education where much less has gone into the arts as a result of the government not keeping its funding up with, which has meant less resources for art and arts students, overt cutting of polytechnic funding and subsequent rises in student fees throughout the arts tertiary sectors. All very bad for artists. Another example has been their change in the school curriculum with the arts being majorly sidelined in primary schools, without very little benefits being proven in kids' reading, writing and maths (as Ministry of Ed stats show). This bodes very pessimistically for future growth in the arts, arts appreciation and even commercial arts related fields and industry. So, yes, I do agree with Catton.
- Mark

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