The first time I met Garth Cartwright, he was 21, tousle-haired and almost blue with cold. It was the mid-80s and he had turned up at the Kapiti Coast cottage of painter Debra Bustin (where I was also visiting) to interview her. He had ridden all the way from his home in Auckland on a 90cc Japanese motorcycle, and his thin parka and Palestinian scarf had provided scant protection against the scolding southerly, yet his enthusiasm was undampened. As the interview dissolved into a noisy three-way debate about painting and rock’n’roll, it became clear that here was a guy who would travel any lengths in the pursuit of art and argument.
That impression has been borne out over the subsequent 25 years, as Cartwright has travelled the world, feeding an insatiable appetite for the arts in all their dimensions – sculpture, painting, literature, film and especially music – recounting his adventures, discoveries and opinions in such publications as the Guardian, the Sunday Times and the one you are reading now. Since 1990, he has been based in London, where he lives in recently riot-torn Peckham.
His first book, Princes Amongst Men, was published in 2005 and chronicles his travels among the Gypsy musicians of Eastern Europe. As a primer for a little-documented area of world music, it is an invaluable resource. It is also highly entertaining, as Cartwright attempts to penetrate the sometimes-inscrutable ways of the Romany virtuosi. He isn’t shy about placing himself in the tale, a combination of restless romantic and rugged researcher: Jack Kerouac meets Alan Lomax.
For 2009’s More Miles than Money, Cartwright took a road more travelled, through the blues bars and soul lounges of the United States. Yet even on those legendary highways, he managed to find fresh detours, leading to the doors of such little-heralded veterans as Jimmy Castor, Mable John and Sam the Sham, whom he depicted in vivid portraits.
For his latest book, the road Cartwright hit was a far more familiar one. Sweet As is the journal of a visit to New Zealand in the summer of 2010, during which he travelled the length of the land, comparing the country today with the one he left two decades ago. In the best passages, he superimposes past and present as a way of examining the changes, the present dissolving into poetic memoirs of past journeys.
Some of Cartwright’s observations merely replicate those of local commentators: we’ve got fatter and more consumption-obsessed, the roads are busier and scarier, and money doesn’t buy what it used to. Others are intensified by long absence: the beauty of the Buller Gorge, the splendour of our fish and chips.
A series of visits along the way allow him to draw attention to a variety of notable Kiwis, their achievements and philosophies, and the way this land has shaped them. In Northland, he visits sculptor Chris Booth, a friend since the 80s. On Auckland’s Dominion Rd, he pays his respects to veteran rocker Graham Brazier in the bookshop Brazier inherited from his mother. In Wellington, he hits the Beehive with old friend, current MP and (if Cartwright has his way) future PM Phil Twyford. And he goes bush on Banks Peninsula with artist Llew Summers.
He recalls others whose journeys have reached an end, like Tony Fomison, who Cartwright calls “the most remarkable painter this nation has produced”.
But Cartwright has less respect for some of New Zealand’s other icons. A visit to the Colin McCahon house in Titirangi leads him to ruminate: “McCahon, more often than not, proved to be a poor painter.” Ralph Hotere’s work is summarised even more bluntly: “Uniformly ugly,” he calls it.
On the phone from Peckham, with police sirens howling in the background, Cartwright is unrepentant. “McCahon and Hotere have been pushed into positions of greatness by certain critic-dealer-curators who were looking for the Great New Zealand Modernist. Their work simply doesn’t merit it, and if held up internationally, in the way that Kiwi sport and film and music is forced to compete, they would quickly be dismissed. They simply don’t make the grade.”
Others who don’t make the grade in Cartwright’s book include Tim Finn, Patricia Grace and the later paintings of Len Lye.
Cartwright’s scorching assessments remind me he has always refused to be a cheerleader for Kiwi culture, whatever the consequences of speaking his mind. I recall blood on the floor of Clare’s Cabaret in Wellington one night when a well-known curator, offended by a review, walked up and punched him in the head.
“When I began writing art criticism in the mid-1980s, I was looked at as a veritable Momus. No one else dared point out how bad, how incestuous and how corrupt our complacent Kiwi art scene was. It wasn’t that New Zealand lacked a Robert Hughes, it was that we lacked any good art critics – so many were involved in dealer galleries or were collectors of certain artists, so interested in keeping their investments high, or just plain bad writers. Same for music criticism. It was so gutless and complacent and aimed at getting advertising and being mates.
“But it did a disservice to the fans and to the artists. It created this false sense of security – the same kind of thing that happens in totalitarian states where criticism is not tolerated and the arts are state-sanctioned. And we are a shy people, so being willing to challenge the orthodox view is not encouraged. It’s easier to say ‘she’ll be right’ and avoid rocking the boat.”
That said, the artists for whom Cartwright has the most praise in Sweet As are often friends. “A big part of it was what suited the story,” he confesses. “All my books start in one place and end in another. The fact that Chris Booth is the only person I knew in Northland was perfect. Llew Summers was the one person I have had a close grounding with in Christchurch over the years.
“So I guess you’d say the artists in the book fit the narrative. But I’d never praise a friend just because they are a friend. I’m famously forthright. I try to tell it like it is, and sometimes it has upset friends when I’ve given them a negative review.”
One friend he didn’t catch up with was Fran Walsh, partner of Sir Peter Jackson and co-writer of most of the director’s films. In the book, Cartwright recalls her fondly from her days as lead singer of a Wellington post-punk band, a pale beauty drinking tea. But it is hard to imagine the friendship surviving his scathing assessment of Jackson’s oeuvre.
“We are brought up with that notion of New Zealand being a little nation that has proved to be a world beater at sport and this permeates our arts. I clearly remember in the late 70s the belief that the biggest bands in Australia were all Kiwi, so proving our superiority over the Aussies. A mature public should look and listen harder, not let the nationalist line of ‘go Kiwi’ get in the way.” In spite of this, Cartwright insists Sweet As is his “love song to Aotearoa …
“Tough love, maybe, but I really do love New Zealand. It is the nation that shaped who I am, how I approach the world, and I want to share this with my readers, in New Zealand and around the world.
“I really hope people engage with Sweet As, argue with it, feel inspired to check out some or all of those I champion in it. New Zealand is a land full of amazing energies and often it’s those who are overlooked, not the most famous, who make the most interesting art and music, film and books. And if any teens read it – and I don’t know if teens do read books these days – I hope it makes them want to get on Highway 1, put their thumb out, see what magic and mayhem they can find out there. You know, just go!”
SWEET AS, by Garth Cartwright (Allen & Unwin, $39.99), released October 3.