Images via BitRebels
Like many New Zealanders, I am a habitual champion of the underdog. I can't help myself. I'm all for the gingery Shane Cameron over the sleek racehorse Tuaminator, Dame Malvina over Dame Kiri, Ronald Hugh Morrieson over Frank Sargeson: Colin McCahon over every other international modernist master. I'm always looking for the transcendent moment of brilliance in the face of impossible odds. Add to this national proclivity a personal cultural heritage emanating from London's East End, whence a couple of branches of my family pulled themselves out of the Thames's primeval sludge several generations ago, and in any fight I'm naturally attuned to look for the balance of power. Who's the force to be reckoned with, I'll wonder? Who's got the stuff? Who's slipped lead weights into their gloves? Where's the smart money going? And then I'll cheer for the weedy one putting up his dukes, for the slightly porky one on his make-or-break comeback special, for the one who seems almost impossibly behind the run of play but might be able to pull it off, for the one just getting out there and bravely having a go, despite the odds. (I'll have my money safely down on the other one, of course. The actual winner.)
This penchant for under-doggery may well not be peculiar to New Zealanders; I expect it's a cultural trait to be found in most small, slightly crap countries. It's a strange form of humbuggery and moral superiority rolled into one. While collectively we might be losers, there's something about the culture that breeds individual champions, innovative rough-hewn geniuses armed only with a piece of No.8 wire or a pair of sturdy legs. Or so we wish to believe. Given the impossible odds in such unequal competitions as we specialise, a loss is unremarkable and to be expected; but a win from behind is something truly to savour, something distinctive and memorable which helps to form personal and national identity. Edmund Hillary was perhaps the ultimate underdog, a beekeeper from New Zealand who bestrode the roof of the world. Given our tiny population, any time our sports teams win at pretty much anything at all it's a triumph of the underdog. Katherine Mansfield, Frances Hodgkins, D'Arcy Cresswell*: plucky colonial underdogs, one and all. And we all walked a bit taller when Colin McCahon and Laurence Aberhart showed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That was good. That was earnt.
But something I've been thinking a bit about recently is the critical importance of correctly identifying the underdog. Sometimes I've got it wrong, and have cheered for a weedy villain, or an arrogant fool. The underdog category can be quite mutable, and depend utterly on one's personal perspective. For example, having known several art critics personally, and watched them having to cross the road sharpish in order to avoid a smack to the chops by an irate subject of their criticism, I tend to think of them as underdogs, but that's not how an artist may think of them. The artist may well have quite a different view of the critic as a wannabe jackbooted overlord which is quite at variance to the way he or she (actually, it's almost always he) might see himself: a humble worker in the art mines, sweating over copy at 10 cents a word, fighting the good fight for quality and saying what needs to be said. Underpaid, brave, plucky, and only very occasionally funded by Creative New Zealand.
Being an underdog is not the same as being the probable loser or just not very good at whatever you're doing. It takes a certain kind of indominitable spirit as well, a kind of dogged goodwill towards one's opponents, even -- perhaps especially -- when one is being trampled in the mud. Discussing this post with the big guy last night, he put it thus: NZ's cricket team, The Black Caps, are not plucky underdogs, even though they almost always lose, because they are an arrogant bunch of swines and as such, are not worth cheering for. To be an underdog worthy of the name, one needs humility, a sense of humour, and a show of public respect towards one's opponents. Arrogance, or mean-spiritedness, is an instant disqualifier from glorious underdog status.
I've often thought that the artworld, pound for pound, has more than its fair share of mean-spirited people. (I hasten to add that I'm not talking about artists here, very few of whom could be described in this way.) I've put this characteristically snappy arts personality down to the fact that a) there are a lot of very intelligent people attracted to working in the arts; and b) there is not a lot of financial recompense for their work. The result: dogs fighting over scraps. As a status-based industry, gossip and slander inevitably become its everyday currency: the artworld, perhaps surprisingly, is no place for the faint-hearted and not really a very comfortable home for the underdog. But I think this is probably true of various other worlds too, including -- possibly particularly including -- academia.
One of the rules I adopted when I started blogging -- apart from the classic never drinking and blogging -- is no mean-spiritedness. (It's similar to the one I assumed when I stopped working in the public sector: only do business with someone you like.) Many's the blog post I've started writing and had to delete, thinking, no, actually that's just mean. Funny, perhaps, but unkind. I've commented a few times lately on art review site EyeCONTACT when I think John Hurrell is being a bit unfair or hasn't given the subject proper credit for something they've attempted: but actually I only bother doing this because I know Hurrell to be a fundamentally good-hearted person, if a tiger for an argument. If I thought he was just being mean-spirited I wouldn't go near it. (But as the big guy said to me, if the underdog gets too yappy, sometimes a quick kick to the flank will sort things out nicely.)
I'm far too soft-hearted to be an art critic; even as a book reviewer critiquing truly terrible books I've tried to scrape up something nice to say for the sake of balance, knowing how hard it is simply to get a project up. And how comparatively easy it is for someone else to score unkind points off it. Of course, I will take considerable pleasure in being rude about it privately later; and I am occasionally horribly (and rather hypocritically) partial to the meanness of others. Vis: my recent obsession (via the excellent Artandmylife) with the entirely mean-spirited blog Regretsy, which takes the very worst and most ill-advised hand-made items from the crafting site Etsy and reposts them with appropriate comments. Here you can window shop for pendants in the shape of your own vulva; gigantic reusable sanitary pads with pictures of sexy vampires; ponchos for chickens (can also be a wrist cuff); hand-knitted tampon covers made from recycled wool for your key chain; or mispelled lines from Proust written in gold pen on an old pair of jeans made into a hideous skirt. And the art: the art on Regretsy is a thing of great wonder and aching ribs.
A painting by Heather Buchanan via Regretsy. Actually, I really like this painting.
By laughing at Regretsy I am of course, swimming against the tide of my own cultural heritage: the hapless crafters who are the subject of the blog's derision are most definitely underdogs. But it is extremely funny.
Of course, one might legitimately argue that reducing social relations to a knockdown contest between the underdog and the favourite is ridiculously simplistic. And in the case of Dargaville Museum vs. Reading the Maps, you'd be right. On a recent visit to the Museum, blogger Scott Hamilton was appalled at the incorrect attribution and inappropriate display of a carved pou. In particular, he took exception to the label which suggested that the pou belonged to an ancient pre-Maori 'Waitaha' civilisation, commenting that he was dismayed that 'pseudo-history has gained a foothold in one of New Zealand's larger provincial museums'. He wrote a series of sternly-worded emails to the museum critiquing their treatment and attribution of the pou, which he also posted on the Reading the Maps blog. Many prominent and scholarly people left comments on the blog in support of Hamilton's actions, and wrote their own complaints to the museum. Dargaville Museum then replied to Hamilton, explaining the circumstances which led to the carving being attributed in this manner, and saying that they had subsequently removed the label and were planning to seek help regarding the attribution from National Services Te Paerangi Te Papa.
Scott Hamilton's point of view, of course, is entirely correct. Reputable scholars concur there was no technologically advanced pre-Maori civilisation: there's no evidence for it whatsoever, and it's a notion which only exists in the mind of conspiracy theorists, and, as Hamilton suggests, pseudo-historians. Hamilton was right to point out this egregious error of judgment to the museum: what's out there for perusal in the public sector should conform with the accepted historical facts of the contemporary world. But somehow in the midst of all this I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for Dargaville Museum, which is a place run by volunteers and whose collections are largely based on the donations of generous private individuals. In such circumstances, a little bit of the whacky factor is inevitable (and indeed, is sometimes to be encouraged, or those museums wouldn't exist in the first place). In taking on Dargaville Museum, it wasn't Denis Dutton or Theodore Dalrymple giving the massive monolith of Te Papa a serve after its opening: the power in this fight seemed to be largely with Scott Hamilton, though I utterly respect him for standing up for an important principle. But after reading his emails (Whack! Whack! More information has come to my attention! Whack!) it felt a little bit like fish in a barrel to me. Dargaville Museum, though clearly in the wrong in its promotion of dubious pseudo-history in relation to this exhibit, seemed for a weak moment or two like the underdog, a bantam-weight fighter bloodied and out for the count under the sheer force of heavyweight blows landed by Hamilton.
While they may have had the unexpected effect of engendering a momentary sympathy (in me, at least) for the beleaguered museum, Scott Hamilton's emails represent a quite brilliant expose of a not-uncommon situation for small provincial museums. He makes some significant points about scholarship and the display of artefacts from a living culture which deserve to be widely heard. In the face of such a barrage, Dargaville Museum has done a sensible thing by turning to Te Papa's National Services for help. And here National Services could be a great deal of use to small museums by showing them how to distinguish between reputable scholarship and pseudo-history: strikes me that Scott Hamilton would be a great guest lecturer for such a workshop. I'd like to see this one resolved not by a smackdown but in a sit-down.
*Actually, D'Arcy Cresswell might be disqualified from true underdoggery on grounds of terminal arrogance. But he was very funny.