Friday, October 23, 2009

Smells like mean spirit

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.


Anonymous said...

Great post. My thoughts were the same on the Scott Hamilton/Museum issue.

(And thanks for the mention!)

Amanda said...

Wow! This is a brilliant post. I nearly cheered a few times while I was reading it. I love the description of New Zealand as a small, slightly crap country-so very true but I love it anyway as I am nearly always on the side of the underdog too. Humility, generosity and good manners are qualities that go a long way with me. I don't like bullies and I don't like mobs even when they are motivated by high minded good intention.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Lovely post. I confess feeling a little bit of cringe at the last round of the Hamilton vs. Dargaville Museum - Scott's response did seem like a bit of an overkill at that point. And it's ironic because I fully share in his outrage, and in the feeling that some of the excuses deserved a little scrutiny.

Tantengially: I wonder if the artwork at the top is meant to elicit the following exchange:

"That's not how you spell obscenities!"
"Oh yeah? You're an arsehole."

Anonymous said...

Are you saying there was a pre-Maori civilisation, but that it wasn't technologically advanced, or that there was no pre-Maori civilisation at all? Just wonderin' - the wording is not clear.

maps said...

Kia ora Cheryl,

I'm not inclined to agree with your criticism of me in this post because I have a different explanation for the display and interpretation at Dargaville museum.

You argue that blunders like the one at Dargy are the result of museums running on volunteer labour and relying on generous private donors. That doesn't explain, though, the source of the bizarre information which Dargy museum has been giving out for years. Why is it that this musuem is the only one, out of scores in the country, to be promoting the Waitaha myth? Why haven't any of the other museums which rely on volunteer labour made similar blunders?

The fact is, as visitors to my blog have pointed out, that Dargaville museum was co-founded and for some time led by a man with very close ties to organised racist groups.

Noel Hilliam is, at the very least, a friend of the One New Zealand Foundation, which is the closest Kiwi equivalent of the British National Party, and of the Celtic New Zealand, which is run by a Holocaust-denying consiracy theorist. Hilliam is also, by his own admission, responsible for looting Maori grave sites in the Kaipara.

Hilliam is not some benign volunteer and private donor who has made an innocent mistake. He appropriated an artefact which should have belonged to DOC and Te Uri o Hau and he used his positions as head of the museum and senior curator there to place an ideologically-motivated interpretation of that artefact on display.

Although the museum's present administrators claim to be free of Hilliam's influence, it is only a couple of years, according to Herald reports reproduced at the Celtic NZ site, since he gave a guest lecture on the bones he had pillaged from urupa in the Kaipara to forty volunteers at the museum.

This issue is not a clash between the big city bullies and the small town underdogs. For years now, the Maori community in the northern Kaipara has been trying, without much success, to stop the misuse of their pou. I find it hard to understand why you completely ignore this fact in this post. To do so is to ignore the mana whenua of Te Uri o Hau in their rohe, and to attribute the origins of the controversy at Dargaville to a bunch of Pakeha and Kai Tahu outsiders.

The tangata whenua of the North Kaipara suffered dispossession in the nineteenth century, and desecration of their urupa and various forms of legal discrimination in the twentieth century; now, in the twenty-first century, they are still having to contend with the misrepresentation of their history and the desecration of their taonga at the hands of a museum which purports to serve the Dargaville community. You might disagree, but I'd suggest that it is Te Uri o Hau which is the underdog here.

It is not Pakeha scholars like me, but the tangata whenua of the northern Kaipara who must be in charge of transforming Dargaville museum.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Cheers Giovanni (and artandmylife and Amanda). Just to make it really clear, I utterly agree with what Scott Hamilton said to Dargaville Museum, and firmly believe it needed to be said, but was slightly perturbed by the way the forceful style of his correspondence put the museum -- although clearly they were in the wrong in regards to the presentation of that exhibit -- into the underdog position.

Ms or Mr Anonymous: I think there was no pre-Maori civilisation in New Zealand, technologically advanced or not. Apologies for the ambiguous wording. But NZ's ancient history's not my area, so what I have to say on the matter is of little interest. I'd suggest you read what Scott Hamilton has to say about it in his excellent blog, and follow up some of his references. Cheers!

Edward said...

Hi Cheryl,

Nice blog. I wrote a quick comment over at Reading The Maps with regards to your post which I thought i'd better post here seeing as it's really a reply to you in some ways. Suffice to say I think you've gotten it slightly wrong - I don't think an innocent blunder can describe what that museum has been up to.

"I don't think [your] post is too bad, though i'm not the one being called a bully. It seems the post is calling for a more softly softly approach, though when it comes to pseudo-history in New Zealand, to be honest I agree 100% with what the above anon is saying.

It isn't simply always a matter of holding a pseudo's hand and leading them back to the side of reason - if it was I would make more of an effort more of the time to take such an approach myself - instead, what one usually finds is a wall of paranoia, racism, and anti-intellectualism that simply isn't open to reason. You find this when you try again and again to reach out to people who believe this garbage. Granted that some members of the museum seem to be genuinly concerned about the issue here, but I am suspect of the notion that it was an innocent blunder.

It seems more than apparent from the email correspondance that the museum council has been stonewalling and ignoring what the local Maori have been saying. I think Maps has done the right thing in how he has approached this - if he had tried a softly softly approach it would have fallen on deaf ears. They needed enough of a movement to poke their rather resistant buts into action.

The thing with pseudo's is that a polite "excuse me sir/ma'am, why don't you read these articles, perhaps they will clarify things" is a complete and utter waste of time unfortunately because they are actively promoting these ideas rather than just passively absorbing them. I personally think they more than deserved a good info bludgeoning to be honest.

The next step is where to go from here. All we can do is wait and see. I have a ton of references I could give them if need be, though i'm a little resentful they couldn't muster the common sense to read some basic history texts themselves - we shouldn't have to spoon feed museum workers. Hopefully a resolution will be worked through soon and they can seek aid from the necessary institutions and iwi. Then, as Marty says, they can celebrate moving into the 21st century as a celebrated museum."

I would like the chance to reiterate just how suspect I am of the notion of inncoent bumbling townsfolk against the irate academic. As someone who grew up in Dargaville, i'm well aware of the underlying racism which runs rampant through certain sectors in the area. The museum and its staff are hardly the victims of poor education or training (even if this is true), but rather the result of a climate in which Pakeha in the area actively seek to undermine all things Maori. Hilliam, a long term pseudo-historian and racist in sheeps clothing, has alot of sway with the locals in the area. In other words, the Museum is (or has been) a bastion for this kind of thinking rather than merely the unfortunate recipient of info from someone on 'the fringe'.

I think a little more contextualisation of the issue and the realisation of just how serious it is for the region would go a long way.

Anyway, I can genuinely appreciate yours and the people who have commented's views. But perhaps if you were to walk in the shoes of one of us who has to get up each and every morning to face this sort of rubbish as part and parcell of our careers, you might realise this stuff is often more tied up with politics and racism than misunderstandings.


Cheryl Bernstein said...

Tena korua Edward and Maps. Thanks for stopping by and commenting and also for your nice words about my blog, here and at Reading the Maps. I like your blog and read it often.

The point I wanted to make in my blog post was that although Dargaville Museum is very clearly in the wrong by exhibiting the pou in the way you describe with the kind of nutty pseudo-historical attribution you reproduced, the tone of your public criticism of them made me feel a little uneasy, and dare I say it again, just momentarily sorry for the museum workers. (I've no sympathy for anyone else who may have been associated with the place at any other time: my feeling was for the current museum staff only, the recipients of your correspondence.)

I may well be guilty of having too soft a heart, or too fanciful an imagination. I imagined the museum staff receiving your emails and trembling in their boots. It seemed like a shark bearing down on a guppy. In the teeth of your critique the museum seemed suddenly like the underdog when, as you both point out with superior knowledge of the local situation, perhaps it shouldn't have at all. Thanks Edward for your contextualisation: the situation you describe sounds very tiresome indeed, and I admire you both for taking it on.

I'll say again that I entirely agree with everything you had to say to the museum, Maps. I also agree that it needed to be said, to them and to others. I agree with you that all museums must have a close working relationship with the people whose taonga they hold: obviously anything else is abhorrent and ludicrous. More power to Te Uri o Hau's arm in sorting out the situation to their own satisfaction: as you indicate, that's what matters.

All I'm saying is that for me, an outsider, whose only knowledge of museology in Dargaville is from reading your blog, the force of your argument and eloquence was such that while agreeing with what you said, I nevertheless felt a sneaking sympathy for the anonymous museum person on the end of the knockout punch, whether or not they deserved it. And you've both clearly outlined why you think they do. But as I said, I retain a sneaking empathy for the underdog, for any rabbit in the headlights, a reflex reaction which is initiated even when the right is clearly on the other side.

I imagine the correspondence ensuing from your blog has had some effect in helping to change the situation, and that sounds like a very good outcome.

maps said...

Kia ora Cheryl,

thanks for the response, and sorry if my original comment was a little intemperate in tone. As Edward notes, racism is an emotive issue.

The question of how to deal with people who have fascist or racist ideas is a complex one which deserves a blog post or two of its own.

The method I favour involves distinguishing between the hardcore, irredeemable bigots - the ideologues who found groups and set up websites and incite violence - and the fellow travellers who have often been sucked in by some of the bigots' marketing pitches but have not yet assimilated the whole ideology.

The hardcore bigots have to be confronted and hounded continually. The way that left-wing activists treat Nick Griffin, the Holocaust-denying, race-baiting leader of the British National Party, is a good example of the way to treat the fascist ideologues. Activists from groups like Unite Against Fascism follow Griffin about and continually try to undermine his attempts to stir up hatred and incite violence against minorities.

In my experience, the fellow travellers of the far right often don't realise the full extent of the ideology toward which they have been drawn.

Many BNP members, for example, have been attracted by the party's anti-Muslin rhetoric, but don't realise that the leaders of the party have a history or running about in Nazi costumes and fantasising about putting Jews in ovens. Some of them run a mile when this sort of fact is made apparent to them. Others retreat from an engagement with fascist politics when they realise that many other people in their community find these politics repugnant. They're cowards, and they lose their bottle when they realise they are in a minority, rather than a majority.

When I've written and spoken against the far right and their attempts to spread racist and anti-semitic ideas in this country, I've tended to try to make the full extent of the bigotry of the leaders of the movement apparent to the fellow travellers. By doing this, I hope to put the heat on these people. I want them to realise that either have to line up with the Holocaust-denying conspiracy theorists, or with the Kiwis who reject these ideas. I don't want them to feel they can have a bob each way.

I think that a lot of people who were inclined to talk out of the corners of their mouths in favour of the Celtic New Zealand theory have found it very difficult to do so, since they have had the facts of Martin Doutre's Holocaust denial, 9/11 'Troofing', association with local neo-Nazis, and admiration for David Irving thrust in front of their noses. If these people feel worried about being associated with such a man, then that's all for the best!

Likewise, if the woman who recycled Doutre's toxic conspiracy theories to me at Dargy 'shook in her boots', as you put it, when she saw the source of the nonsense she was spouting, then I'm delighted!

Amanda disapproves of 'high-minded mobs' with 'good intentions', and says that we should always communicate with 'humility, generosity, and good manners'.

The history of anti-fascism, though, is the history of high-minded mobs confronting fascists in a distintcly unfriendly way, both in text and on the street. Perhaps Amanda ought to read about the Battle of Cable Street, which ended the progress of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in Britain, or the Anti-Nazi League, which saw off the threat of the National Front in Britain during the late
'70s and early '80s. Thank goodness for high-minded bullying mobs, I say...


Edward said...

No worries Cheryl,

I can sympathise with your sympathy if that makes sense? While I do indeed think they deserved everything they recieved (I would have been even more harsh to be honest, but then i'm not well known for tact with people like this), I can understand how, at first glance, such criticisms can seem hard - especially if we think of the staff as ignorant but innocent. I'm not sure the underdog narrative is overly useful in situations like these, as it is a card that pseudo-scholars all like to try and pull on, but I can appreciate the call for constructive criticism and tact.
Anyway, thanks for replying. I enjoy reading your thoughts. I'd best get back to writing my own now - trying to finish a thesis the end of which seems to keep running away :)

Anonymous said...

great piece of writing - even if I'm disqualified from the underdog status by my arrogance &.c - and what a shit storm! better than artbash and I also love that phrase 'small, slightly crap country' too!

Amanda said...

>Amanda disapproves of 'high-minded mobs' with 'good intentions', and says that we should always communicate with 'humility, generosity, and good manners'.

Good grief.

I did not say "always." Do you really put your ...let us say... over the top response to some misinformed but conciliatory hapless museum volunteer who conceded you were correct and thanked for your input on a par with the battles others have fought against fascism, Nazism, racism etc? I guess you do.

Giovanni Tiso said...

That in a nutshell is why I thought the last piece of Scott's correspondence was overkill.

John Hurrell said...

This post is entirely unacceptable. It is bollocks to sentimentally worry about underdogs versus favourites, or to consider incidental knowledge you might have about an art critic's personality. The reader should be focussing on the issues set out in the writer's discussion of the exhibition, and how well the argument is presented. Thinking about the writer's personality is just as stupid as worrying about the artist. The writing, and the art it is examining, are outside all that stuff.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thinking about the writer's personality is just as stupid as worrying about the artist. The writing, and the art it is examining, are outside all that stuff.

Yes, I agree. And of course there are no cliques, no critics advancing artists with whom they are politically aligned, no artists seeking the protection of friendly critics and institutions. The critic has no baggage, is not implicated with players in the art world, from which institutions and publications he or she derives no income. Furthermore, there is no groupthink of any kind in the New Zealand art world, there are no socially constructed preconceived notions, therefore no broad psychological traits in art writing that might interfere with the purity of the critics' judgment and deserve the occasional consideration and critique.

In a possibly related development: there is no depression in New Zealand, there are no sheep on our farms.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Giovanni: thanks for the comment. I agree, of course, and would add that the artworld would be a much less interesting place were it to be hermetically sealed. (At the same time, there's something quite majestic about 100 kilos of prime high modernism charging on the hoof.)

John: An 'unacceptable' post? Aw. Watch out or you'll make me look like an underdog.

John Hurrell said...

Chuck the baby out with the bathwater if you wish, Giovanni, but the points you raise in sarcasm can be used to critique the writing if needed. My initial comment is accurate. I'm not denying the importance of context, but a certain commonsense is needed to limit its parameters. Or are you going to decide a critic is 'nice ' or 'not mean' and biased to 'the underdog' before you take their arguments seriously?

Of course I was attempting to rattle Cheryl's cage a little, but,sign...oh well. So easily amused.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm not denying the importance of context, but a certain commonsense is needed to limit its parameters. Or are you going to decide a critic is 'nice ' or 'not mean' and biased to 'the underdog' before you take their arguments seriously?

You're making a willful caricature of Cheryl's post, which was a great deal more thoughtful than that. And just to be clear, I'm a pretty strict postmodernist myself, you won't hear me pontificate about authorial intentions as something separate from a text either. But that's not really what Cheryl was doing here either, was it?