Culture and Wellbeing: Towards a Humanistic Public Policy?

McCahon Elias, New Zealand Culture and Wellbeing Moore-Jones
Colin McCahon, Elias (1959). Private collection.

The search for a language of human value in public policy has been ongoing for some time, especially in New Zealand, with many shuffling towards it and trying to speak about it directly. Max Harris’ “politics of love” in his The New Zealand Project (BWB, 2016) is one attempt at this. Treasury’s Living Standards Framework is another. Robert Gregory and Kristen Maynards’ argument in Policy Quarterly that the Māori idea of wairua can enable a “more humane public service” is one more. The theme was dealt with by Minister of Finance Bill English in his social investment budgets, and it is being dealt with now by Minister of Finance Grant Robertson in his wellbeing budgets. Are we all grasping towards a humanistic public policy?

The language of policy as it has developed as a social science from Weber onwards is generally positivist to the extreme: footnotes aplenty, no first-person, and certainly no place for art, culture or literature. But if we’re looking for a “humane” public service, might these things be a way of communicating directly? Perhaps the era of positivist public policy is drawing to a close—and what we need more than ever is a new language of policy that puts human values at its very centre.

Here I want to say that culture is itself a language of humanity—something we sorely need when concerned with living standards and human wellbeing.

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The Labour Government’s Wellbeing Budget had this to say about wellbeing: “Wellbeing is when people are able to lead fulfilling lives with purpose, balance and meaning to them. Giving more New Zealanders capabilities to enjoy good wellbeing requires tackling the long-term challenges we face as a country, like the mental health crisis, child poverty and domestic violence. It means improving the state of our environment, the strength of our communities and the performance of our economy.”

The problem is that wellbeing is ephemeral, as indicated by phrases like “purpose, balance and meaning.” American political commentator David Brooks once wrote that “meaning” as it is used in public today is “flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life… Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the Nutrasweet of the inner life”—giving a sense of its ephemerality and intangibility, to put it mildly.

What is of interest is that government has mentioned “meaning” in the first place, something that indicates the search for a language of human value. The problem is it also indicates public policy’s general muteness when it comes to explaining what those human values are, or how they might be achieved.

At the same time as the “humanities” have been maligned and neglected in our universities and culture at large, they’ve never been more needed in public life. The term itself gives a sense of their significance—the humanities being those things that deal with our humanity, with what makes our societies unique. They give depth and meaning to the concept of wellbeing. One book alone won’t do it, but the collective knowledge of and education in the humanities gives a literal common language of humanity.

The most common arguments given for why nations should care about the humanities are (and I adapt these from Helen Small’s wonderful book The Value of the Humanities):

1. The argument for economic growth (national culture becomes one of the greatest tourism drawcards, and can be a significant export industry—imagine Book of Kells and James Joyce tours in Dublin)

2. The argument for intrinsic value (culture is valuable for its own sake, and to justify it is to reduce it)

3. The argument for democracy (culture teaches us empathy and allows us to see different perspectives; it also teaches skills like critical thinking, which are essential to a functioning democracy)

4. The argument for individual happiness (culture embeds us in layers of meaning and significance that are essential to happiness)

5. The argument for non-economic values (after neoliberalism, culture alone gives society a way to see values that do not have numbers before them)

Arguments one and two appear significant, and correct, but ultimately they get caught in their own logical knots—or at the very least undermine the other arguments. Instead, I think arguments 3, 4 and 5 above present an overwhelmingly strong case for why we today need culture and the humanities to re-enter the language of public policy. Culture alone teaches us about human values, and about what’s worth valuing in life; culture strengthens democracy, by teaching us about perspectives and conditions we may otherwise never understand; and culture increases happiness by embedding citizens in history and networks of meaning.

These arguments are not unique. They’re as old, in many ways, as culture itself. But what is unique is making them in this particular combination at a time when New Zealand, and many countries in the developed world, grasp for a new, human-centric way of conducting public policy. In Aotearoa, the emphasis on wellbeing seems an attempt to acknowledge that human life and happiness are at the ends of policy—things we’ve grown unaccustomed to talking about, seeing them fluffy and imprecise.

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What does this mean, practically speaking? These thoughts still need to be explored and developed, but some early suggestions:

  • Politicians and public policy practitioners must learn to be more comfortable with speaking in metaphor and cultural example—with letting go of certainty, in other words, because certainties are impossible in our age of complexity.
  • There must be increased funding of culture and of cultural education. As a language for governments and citizens to communicate with one another about the most important things, it deserves emphasis. (It is a central irony that cultural services are being cut and abolished at precisely the point that they’ve never been more urgent).
  • Businesses, too, should emphasise cultural education as a way to begin speaking about human values. Culture is a way for businesses to become truly human-centric, serving humans everywhere.
  • When politics is being fractured by a regression into unchangeable identity characteristics, emphasising human values is one way of bridging divides and creating cohesiveness.

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The painting at the top of this essay is by New Zealand’s great painter Colin McCahon. His paintings are often difficult to understand at the best of times, but his Elias series, of which this is one, are perhaps most difficult of all. Some canvases are large, others small; some dark, some light, and some nearing apocalyptic; what they share in common is the word “Elias” scrawled and etched across their surface. “ELIAS will he come, come to save him?” “Will ELIAS save him?” “ELIAS cannot save him.”

McCahon struggled his whole life with the public incomprehension and derision of his art. His Elias paintings were an attempt to communicate about human comprehension itself, to struggle through the incomprehension and find a way to mutual understanding. They abstractly depict—in words, because these paintings are about language itself—a moment when Jesus, crucified on the cross, calls out to “Eli”, his God, to come to help him. Bystanders, however, mishear him in his moment of need. They hear him calling for “Elias”. In misunderstanding they call out, again and again and again across McCahon’s many paintings. Elias, Elias, ELIAS—but it is too late. Words and communication failed to reach across the void.

At a time when the public understanding of and trust in government is at an all-time low in many nations around the world, now seems a time for us to think like McCahon. How can governments communicate with citizens to increase belief and trust? How can government departments talk about humanity itself? How can we re-think our tools, just as McCahon re-thought the nature of painting itself, to say what we need to say?

In this task, culture offers governments a language with which to make wellbeing mean something.

Colin McCahon: An Essay on the Centenary of His Birth

Here, on these isles, in tussock country, in Man Alone country, there lived a painter who decided that New Zealanders were closer to God, whatever he or that is, precisely for being further from London and New York. In the metropolis one may indeed be closer to Christie’s and Sotheby’s, MoMA and the Tate. But because of that God is a little hard to hear; our own lives, our inner selves, are somewhat harder to find amidst the bustle and din. Colin McCahon brought New Zealanders closer to the “centre”, not of culture but of life. 

Of course, “provincials” have always liked to purport such things. When your system of values, created by and imported from the metropolis, leaves you with little to boast, it makes sense to speak of what you have and what the metropolis doesn’t. Well, New Zealand has space, and hills, and mountains; Kauri reaching for the sky, Tui singing in the rain, Manuka in bloom breeding existentialism. We have a natural ruggedness that metropolitans dream of when looking at the oppressive walls of their Kafkaesque cubicle. There is something transcendent in our landscape, after all, something that speaks to the spiritual sensibility. So capture it. Twist it and wrangle it and grab it and get it on the canvas and once you’ve got it there it can’t escape; we’ll know then what we have that the metropolis doesn’t. Or, in the jingoist’s parlance, we’ll know then “who we are”. 

If it wasn’t McCahon it would have been someone else. Toss Woollaston probably would’ve stepped into the shoes. Though Rita Angus was more than talented enough, this was post-war New Zealand we are speaking of; it would be giving our forebears a little too much credit to think that in the 1940s they would have allowed a female fill those large, rugged military-esque marching boots of the title New Zealand National Painter. The point is that “Colin McCahon” was historically necessary—as necessary, I’m tempted to say, as Sidney Nolan was for Australia, and Jackson Pollock for post-war America. New Zealand needed this painter, at this particular time, just as much as it needed a flag, a national anthem and the Statute of Westminster.

The task in writing about McCahon, then, is to be transparent about whether one is speaking of McCahon or “McCahon”—McCahon the painter or “McCahon” the nationalistic idea. I am to write here of the former, of Colin McCahon, a painter who lived in a province, was limited by it, but whose Renaissance-like vision always found a way through. 

And “finding a way through” was what this born-in-Timaru son of a company manager did best. Finding a way through—from what, to what? From nothing less than ignorance to wisdom; traditionalism to modernism; from the aesthetic to the ethical, and then the ethical to the religious; muteness to eloquence; war to peace; blindness to sight. In our postmodern times we might be inclined to read such grand and sincere aims cynically, with the wry expression of Damien Hirst’s stuffed-shark. But the elementary requirement in approaching Colin McCahon’s art is to force oneself to believe once again in the mysteries of life and the grandeur of the artist’s intentions. This was a painter who believed unequivocally in art—believed in it not as someone like Hirst does, but as Giotto did, as a way to a different relationship with both the world and the sublime. To see McCahon’s ways through we must therefore find our own way through, setting aside our postmodern baggage and retrieving, as much as possible, the spirit of sincerity and determination that for so long was essential to the contemplation of religious painting.

Here I give thanks to Mondrian by Colin McCahon
Here I give thanks to Mondrian, 1961. Oil on board. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

At times during his career McCahon took such a challenge literally, and tried to find his own way through: his early 1960s Gate series—flat surfaces mediating between lightness and darkness, and playing at the edges of the canvas to give the effect of depth, of a surface to be passed through or beyond—are emblematic of his project. These 28-odd paintings glow with McCahon’s distinctive use of white paint, where the brushstrokes are discernible and so is the masterly wrist that produced them; there are glazes of luminescent white, and the brush has been twisted and swirled onto the canvas to create a glowing and tactile surface. One wants to touch McCahon’s canvases, the ragged threads, fibres and acrylic, and in the Gate series this adds a corporeal element to the recurring idea of a gate or passageway. By touching them, might we pass through them? And McCahon’s titles, too, give a sense of passage and journey—like his Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian (1961) from the same series, where this painter expresses appreciation for an earlier modernist’s conceptual  breakthroughs that made his own Gate modernism possible. Painting these works at the height of Cold War tensions while himself living in Auckland and working at the City Art Gallery, the Gates were also about the possibility of humanity finding a way through the nuclear weapons impasse that seemed to engulf the entire world. McCahon indeed lived in what still seemed then a province, but again, he was not limited by it; his painterly concerns were the world’s concerns.

Like Picasso, long-lived and prolific in style, McCahon leaves a little something for everyone. His journey through so many styles over such a long career during such a critical priod in the development of modernism leaves us everything from Cezannesque nudes (McCahon’s Bather from 1951, for instance) to white-on-black pure abstraction (his Angels and Bed series from the late ‘70s). He is difficult to pin down, beyond ‘periods’: his early religious works, his Cubist “Titirangi years”, his post-1958-America-visit colour field landscapes, his late religious work, to name just a few. And even this chronology inevitably simplifies matters, for McCahon’s development was never linear, and always he referenced his own earlier work.

Angels and bed no. 2 by Colin McCahon
Angels and bed no. 2, 1976. Acrylic on paper. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. 

With modernism we were conditioned to seek to understand an artist’s development: the teleological progression from emerging artist to mature artist to, in  McCahon’s case anyway, something of a high priest. What comes later is meant to have incorporated all that has come before; what was left was meant to have been pushed aside because there was a better way of describing things, a newer or more ‘developed’ visual vocabulary. The earlier can still be good work, and in some cases it can even be better than what came later. But this doesn’t change the fact that the artist got to where they were at the end because they saw it as a movement forwards.

McCahon disrupts these expectations. We find that at the end of his career he was still trying to say the same things as he was at the beginning. Gone were the Rinso-packet speech bubbles with religious quotations (seen in his very early religious paintings, like the 1947 Crucifixion According to St. Mark at the Christchurch Art Gallery)—and instead now we have a whole canvas filled with text. All his life he was simply trying to discover a better way of communicating with New Zealanders. It was not newness his art aspired to, for its own sake; none of the New York School avant-gardist bluster of the likes of Pollock and Rothko. What he sought was understanding, for himself and for New Zealanders—understanding of human life, of truth, and, to an extent, of what it meant to live in this country. With that aim there is no forwards nor backwards, merely different means and different effects.

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In the art of Colin McCahon we discover the gulf between the expectations of how we are ‘meant’ to interact with a painting, and how this artist wants us to interact specifically with his own. We take for granted that art offers us some form of enlightenment, but in our next act of deciphering—“But what did he mean?”—we destroy precisely the opportunity for enlightenment that McCahon offers to us so much more directly. McCahon is not like Mark Rothko, who expects his viewers to sit long enough before his paintings in a dimly-lit room to recreate the kind of magic that might have once existed in Giotto’s Arena Chapel. Instead, he is literal: he means precisely what his paintings say. 

Case in point is the “Practical Religion” series. McCahon created canvas upon canvas and scroll upon scroll quoting Biblical passages that he believed people needed to be reminded of: James 3 from the series, at Christchurch, begins with “as the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse”, scrawled on the upper half. It is black text on a luminescent white-cream background—hurriedly, excitedly, McCahon seems like a student diligently copying out passages that he thinks he should take with him throughout life. At the bottom of the same canvas, in a small box to the right where one might expect the artist’s signature to be, he has copied out, “”GOOD LUCK TO YOU, KEEP YOURSELVES WARM, HAVE PLENTY TO EAT.”” He reminds us of life’s essentials, and in the process short-circuits the need for interpretation. What is there to  interpret, if McCahon tells you—and tells you in words, in the English language!—what he has to say? What is there to decipher, if it is all written out in front of you?

McCahon James 3 Practical Religion
James 3: Practical religion, 1969. Acrylic on board. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Yet this language of religion that McCahon uses to attempt communication with us is, in these times, a double-edged sword. Those already familiar with the bible, perhaps through a religious upbringing, might be drawn immediately closer to McCahon’s work, but those like myself for whom religion was wholly absent might refuse to engage with the work out of a fear of being preached to. And yet McCahon’s religiosity is borne not from evangelism, and instead from the pursuit of wisdom. Religion, and Christianity specifically, was the only vocabulary this artist found he had to communicate deep truths about life; it is used not preachingly, but rather because the alternative was to remain mute. Mark Rothko and Colin McCahon are, after all, remarkably similar artists, both believing deeply and intensely that art might be an antidote to the ills of modernity. But where Rothko’s time and place pushed him towards a secular art, Colin McCahon’s post-Great-War New Zealand gave him in Christianity precisely a spiritual vocabulary. Rothko’s colour fields leave his viewers to place onto them and into them whatever spirituality we might have. McCahon’s leave far less to chance, speaking directly and unashamedly. In another time or place McCahon’s vocabulary might have been secular, like Rothko’s, or of a different religion entirely. For those of us not raised religiously, all that matters is that we see McCahon’s religiosity as a language of humanity where otherwise we have none, a way through (it all comes back to that) where otherwise we might remain stuck.

His paintings, including their religiosity, do something remarkable: they transform a “white cube” gallery into a church and a school. McCahon knew, always, that his were secular times, and that the location where the majority of his works were to be displayed would be secular spaces. But to give that meaningless space meaning, to inject it with some kind of significance, was what so many of his paintings attempted. His Teaching Aids of 1975, for instance—large two by three-metre “blackboards” upon which he explores numeracy, literacy and theology—consciously alter the nature of the space in which they are hung, and consciously mimic the nature of an education. McCahon surely knew that a viewer’s first encounter with one of these works of his would be likely to produce feelings of confusion and ignorance; we don’t know how to interpret the seemingly random lines separating numbers written both in Roman and Arabic numerals and their corresponding English words. But over time—time spent in a classroom—the ignorance and frustration turns into a slowly dawning awareness and knowledge. We see this student, McCahon, exploring the possibilities and limits of words and numbers. We realise that each number between one and fourteen is imbued with the significance of the stations of the cross—perhaps McCahon’s most recurring motif—which are a means of undertaking a kind of internal spiritual journey by reflecting on the life of Christ before the crucifixion. We see different numbers highlighted and then backgrounded as this student struggles  with some and comes to understand others. All the while our minds are following, in almost real-time, the mind of the artist: we are doing what McCahon spent his life doing, which is seeking greater understanding, seeking meaning and order in our turbulent lives. In these paintings Colin McCahon refutes the idea that there exists an art that is not didactic, that there could ever be such a thing as art for its own sake.

McCahon Teaching Aids
Teaching Aids 3, 1975. Acrylic on 10 sheets of paper. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Luckily McCahon, who died in 1987 after a difficult final decade defined by alcoholism and dementia, did not live to read an interview with one of our former Arts Ministers in which the public reception of his art was summed up and summarily dispatched: “”He’s a strange one, isn’t he? I just find it all a bit… bleak.” But then again, McCahon had to face the charge of bleakness during his lifetime too; “Death has been this artist’s overriding subject,” one of our most distinguished critics wrote in 1984. And one can see the tendency towards that interpretation: the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes in burnt umbers; the solitary journeys in remembrance of a friend through a landscape whose only feature is the horizon (his masterful Walk (Series C), held by Te Papa); or most  clearly, in his final paintings, discovered after his death face-down in his studio, which declare the hopelessness of life in their quotation of Ecclesiastes—“I Counted the dead happy / because they were dead…” Yet an insistence upon McCahon’s obsession with death is to reduce him, to explain him away, to note only nighttime even when summertime days in New Zealand are two-thirds daylight. Bleakness did break through in McCahon’s work at times, but it was the exception. Far more he insisted upon life. To even bother to lift a brush, to daub its fibres with luminescent white and to form human words and symbols through darkness is an insistence on affirmation. His Waterfalls of 1964—single curving, expanding, finely modulated comets of human-created light through nothingness—are McCahon’s own I AM, his statement of existence, and his refusal to be seen as concerned only with death. 

Waterfall by Colin McCahon
Waterfall, 1964. Oil on board. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

In 1942 Allen Curnow asked, “Who reaches / A future down for us from the high shelf / Of spiritual daring?” Before New Zealand had a culture of its own, who would give us one deep enough to make these islands sustain our spirits? By now most New Zealanders have their answer. Colin McCahon did. It took decades too long to realise it; it is still an idea resisted by those who have only engaged with “McCahon”, that nationalistic idea; but we can most of us now say, emphatically, that Colin McCahon was the most spiritually daring of them all. Much of the painter’s reputation rests not on his art but on our art historical nationalism. The rest, however, is pure painting—a kind as soulful and as gutsy as anyone, in any country, will ever see.


Essay completed 2018-2019 in Wellington, Oxford, Venice and Florence.

“I’ve Lived for So Many Days Now”: Rinus Van de Velde at König Gallery, Berlin

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

There are more pleasant places to spend early January than Berlin, but, finding myself there on a particularly bleak day, the thought of visiting the brutalist church that now houses König Gallery seemed to offer some respite. Perhaps only in Berlin would that be said of brutalism—nevertheless, it was palpable relief I felt to step off the wind-and-sleet blasted boulevard and into the gorgeous gallery spaces. I came for the architecture, but stayed for the art.

What I knew of König Gallery before visiting was this: in 2015 they moved into the old St. Agnes Church after renovating it, and now displayed art in two separate gallery spaces, the former chapel and the nave. I also knew that the owner and founder, Johann König, is legally blind (a childhood accident involving gunpowder). These two curious facts were enough to make me think of visiting the place when I had a free afternoon before flying back to London.

What I knew of Rinus van de Velde before visiting the gallery was, on the other hand, precisely nothing, not even his name. In retrospect, this made my unexpected encounter with his art all the more invigorating—it was the art on its own terms. Normally I would research an artist before visiting a new show, ensuring I knew at least the basics of biography and style, but here I walked into the first room figuring I would read the exhibition pamphlet after looking at the art.

The first “room” of the exhibition was more literal than normal. Van de Velde had constructed a room inside the room that is the former church nave: past the gallery reception, you walk through a threshold and into a smaller room that immediately gives the impression of some kind of gamer’s or coder’s lair. The light is dim, cigarette butts are haphazardly put out in an ashtray, computer screens give off their glare, and other contraptions let you know that the person who inhabits this room knows far more about all this technology than you do. The entire room is constructed by the artist using cardboard, wood and paint. Nothing is “real”, not the computers nor the cigarette butts, but everything is real enough that you feel you’ve entered a different space, a different frame of mind, a different world. You can walk around the room, jostle with other bodies (it’s not a large space), and some people tapped on the computer keyboards to see if anything would happen.

And who does inhabit this room? Looking for clues, I walked out the other door to this room-within-a-room, on the other side from where I entered. The brutalist architecture is back: a poured concrete floor with its stains and cracks intact, and beautiful brick walls. The floor ends a few centimetres away from the wall which gives the impression that the wall is a plane continuing through the floor, and this sense of verticality contrasts wonderfully with the horizontal brickwork. This room is one I could spend a long time in even if it lacked art on the walls—but again, I came for the architecture, and ended up staying for the art.

Three large canvases (the largest is over four metres horizontally) hang in this room, one on each wall. All are black-and-white charcoal drawings. And this is still Van de Velde’s room: because we passed through his constructed room, we enter this further gallery space in exactly the frame of mind that he wanted us to. Ahead of you is the work that gave its name to the exhibition, where we see a crowd of people, some gesticulating and yelling, others looking dejected or resigned. The jackets and name-badges that some of the figures wear give credence to my first thought that this is a scene from perhaps the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. And below the work in a horizontal strip is written, all in capital letters:

I’VE LIVED FOR SO MANY DAYS NOW. THAT’S WHY I AM ABLE TO BATHE IN A CONSTANT PERFECT REGULATED HARMONY. I CAN CALCULATE AND PREDICT WHAT IS ABOUT TO COME AND WILL HAPPEN IN FUTURE DAYS. THIS SETTLES MY THOUGHTS. IN MY BASEMENT I CONTROL THE OUTSIDE WORLD ON MY SELF-MADE COMPUTERS. CAUSING STRESS AND ANXIETY AMONG THE ONES WHO DON’T SEE THE PATTERNS.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

Is the inhabitant of the room depicted in the scene? Or is he just the mastermind of it? Maybe he has hacked into the NYSE cameras and is looking on this mass of people from the comfort of his private island somewhere. Maybe he’s like a James Bond villain. Maybe he’s just a millennial geek. Certainly he is philosophical and self-reflective, as the canvas on the left-hand wall shows us: we catch this man in flagrante, a woman on top of him, the contents of his room strewn over the floor. But here the text beneath the image (a constant in all of Van de Velde’s drawings) reads,

ONCE IN A WHILE I RETURN AND FIND MYSELF A THING THAT STRIVES TO PERVERT, CONFUSE AND OVERTHROW EVERYTHING. WHEREFOR ALL THIS NOISE, THE STRAINING AND STORMING, THE ANXIETY AND WANT? WHY SHOULD A TRIFLE PLAY SO IMPORTANT A PART, AND CONSTANTLY INTRODUCE DISTURBANCE AND CONFUSION INTO MY WELL-REGULATED LIFE.

From afar, the artist’s charcoal drawings seem perfectly rendered—almost like a black-and-white photograph on the front of a newspaper. Move closer, and the forms collapse into one another as your eyes focus on details. The canvas is so large that the figures appear life-size, and the way Van de Velde has blurred and blended the lines (he uses his hands and sometimes even his elbows) gives him the ability to hint at gestures and expressions without fully developing them. In this medium just when you think you’ve got a hold of what is depicted, you wonder if that grimace is not actually just someone with their eyes closed. The works gain energy from the ambiguity of the lines—as in the work I just described, where the man’s face looks not at the woman’s breast above him, but to the left, maybe into the distance or perhaps just into his deepest thoughts.

My favourite was the work on the right-hand wall. Ostensibly a seascape, the light shimmers and moves over the surface of the water. Of course, the “light” is made up of those parts of the canvas that the artist has not drawn on. I thought of one of Anselm Kiefer’s small seascapes I recently saw in London, and of another small seascape by Colin McCahon. But this surpassed them both, for its reserve (it is just smudged charcoal lines!), its melancholy effect, its movement as you move closer and then further away. Here, beneath the drawing:

AFTER ALMOST TEN YEARS NOW I REALISED THAT I GAINED SOME HERE AND LOST SOME THERE.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition
Rinus van de Velde Belgian artist, Konig Gallery in Berlin, Germany

Read this, and suddenly what appeared as a melancholy image (I thought of this Bitcoin bro James Bond geeky villain dangling his legs over the side of a jetty and looking down into this water) comes across as self-reflectively ironic. This coder villain seems to realise the banality of his melancholic statement, even as he says it or thinks it nonetheless. I could almost see him smirking, wryly laughing at himself. This is a step beyond the postmodern irony and cynicism we’ve come to expect. I think it’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.

We are told, in the exhibition pamphlet, that the room Van de Velde has constructed is in fact the set for a film he has been working on for over two years—and that it will screen by the end of 2019. I already look forward to seeing it. But I hope, whatever it contains, that it doesn’t give away too much of the character behind this room and these drawings. Because it is our own relationship to the questions raised by them that give the drawings so much life. That’s why I felt that the weakest part of the exhibition was the fourth drawing, back by the gallery’s reception: a self-portrait of the artist, Jackson Pollock heroic with cigarette in his mouth, with the text beneath musing on a lost love. It almost gave us too much—but only almost, because I still went back to the other room and enjoyed the drawings even more on second, third and fourth viewing.

Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford

Charles Brasch Landfall New Zealand Oxford McCahon Angus
Colin McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared (1948). Copyright Colin McCahon Estate. Collection of Hocken Library, Dunedin. Charles Brasch Bequest (1973).

Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.

It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.

“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”

And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.

His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).

Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”

The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those  tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”

Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.

Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road  is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.

Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.


 

More on Charles Brasch:

Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.

Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.

Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.

James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).

Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.