It should be no surprise to New Zealanders to discover their Parliament has an art collection. Valued at a modest $12 million, it is unlikely to attract much in the way of political avarice and end up any time soon under the hammer in one of the country’s numerous art auctioneers. Nor would it be any surprise to discover not many of the country’s 121 members of Parliament give much thought to the art on their walls – politics and art are a notoriously poor fit.
What is a surprise, though, is to be treated in the New Zealand Herald to a superficial and flippant guided tour by the one parliamentarian who should have a special care for the art on Parliament’s walls: Arts Minister Christopher Finlayson. Like any other MP, Finlayson is entitled to his opinion, but it is distasteful to say the least to be treated to this minister publicly dissing a substantial chunk of his ministerial constituency. Much of the art in this collection might be dodgy, but some is by artists among the country’s best.
Wherever it lies on the critical scale, none of it deserves to be described as “shit” or “boring” or “bleak”. The minister’s personal taste might run to “colour, flippancy and frivolity … humour and a bit of cynicism”, but that is his personal taste, not a prescription for the nation’s art. From his mouth, it could too easily be mistaken for the latter.
What is most disturbing about this exercise in cultural shallowness is nobody has thought to object to it. Several individuals in the arts – some of them prominent – have expressed their outrage to me personally, but have felt unable to speak publicly for fear of jeopardising their relationship with the arts bureaucracy on which they rely. That fear may be freakishly unreal, but the fact it exists should be worry enough.
Never mind, I have no expectations and am happy to toss another curmudgeon on the fire – after all, that is what curmudgeons are for. It is outrageous to have any minister of the Crown publicly walloping those for whom he or she has particular responsibility. The chap who invented arts councils – British economist John Maynard Keynes – was staunch in insisting they be at arm’s length from politics, probably with this very situation in mind. When confronted with culture, we know the first political instinct is to denigrate and mock. To take the arts seriously among the hoi polloi is to run the risk of wearing the wrong coloured shirt.
I have spent my adult life working in the arts. I have seen them mocked and vilified by experts, but I do not expect one mocker to be the very minster who is charged with devoting his energy and talent to nurturing respect for them. This might have been just a thoughtless day for the minister, but it was an ugly day for New Zealand art and artists.