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Story: Criticism and the arts

It wasn’t until the 1890s that critics began to look closely at New Zealand art and literature and wonder what characteristics might make it unique.

Story by Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams
Main image: Poet and academic Bill Manhire, 1986

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Arts criticism is writing that evaluates and examines literature and visual arts such as painting.

Colonial criticism

The first serious criticism about New Zealand art and writing appeared in books and journals such as the Triad in the 1890s. It examined what made New Zealand works different from those of other countries.

In the early 1900s the first anthologies of New Zealand poetry were published. Art criticism mainly appeared in newspapers.

Nationalism

In the 1930s and 1940s critics E. H. McCormick, Allen Curnow and others dismissed early New Zealand literature as bad and lacking in any connection to real life. A. R. D. Fairburn suggested that earlier New Zealand art had merely followed British models, rather than recording what New Zealand was really like. These critics wanted New Zealand writers and artists to be more conscious of what it meant to be a New Zealander.

Critical approaches

From the 1930s to the 1960s some critics such as poet R. A. K. Mason looked at art from a left-wing perspective. The journal Landfall was founded in 1947 by Charles Brasch. As well as creative writing it published influential criticism about art and literature.

In the 1970s Wystan Curnow complained that middle-brow culture dominated in New Zealand, and argued for greater seriousness in art criticism.

Issues of identity, 1960s onwards

From the 1960s to the 1980s little magazines such as Freed and AND appeared, in which younger critics attacked older writers and critics. Feminist and Māori perspectives emerged in art and literary criticism.

Modernism in art and literature was analysed and explained by critics such as Hamish Keith and C. K. Stead. In the 1990s and 2000s Bill Manhire, also a poet and critic, argued in favour of a plurality of voices in literature.

Critical approaches, 1980s onwards

By the 1990s most criticism of art and especially literature was written by academics in universities.

From the 1980s looking at the life of a writer or artist became a common way of interpreting their work, and many biographies were written.

A survey of New Zealand’s literature, the Oxford history of New Zealand literature in English, was published in the 1990s, giving a historical perspective on New Zealand writing.

In the 2000s the magazine Art New Zealand, founded in 1976, was still a major forum for art criticism. However, some of the most alert discussions of art were appearing online.

How to cite this page:

Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, 'Criticism and the arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/criticism-and-the-arts (accessed 27 May 2017)

Story by Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, published 22 Oct 2014