Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Elvis replies

I’ve got a huge amount of admiration for Peter Ireland as an art critic. We used to know each other when I began reviewing in Christchurch in the mid-eighties. He used to send me irate letters then and he’s doing it now here – and I’m flattered, for his articles would come close to the top of my list of personal favourites over the last fifteen years of Art New Zealand. I like his erudite and acerbic style (though he has mellowed a little). I like it even when it is me he is roasting, for despite his sneering comments here about the ‘uncritical’ blogosphere he is demonstrating exactly why online dialogue is so good. It’s democratic in a way that hardcopy magazines can never be.

But now he seems to be acting as a spin doctor for the Bieringa film company, or as Leon Narbey’s public relations officer, writing no longer like a critic but as a human interest newspaper reporter, giving us a background story about ‘actual achievers’ instead of looking hard at the film in itself (especially its cinematography) when evaluating my review. Yet he accuses me of not attending to the film as ‘actual subject’.

Ireland, despite his seductive phrasing, entertaining wit and skilled avoidance of using McLeavey's name, is more than a little two-faced. He takes great pleasure in telling me I’m school-masterish (he who started his review with a story about Napoleon before getting round to the ‘critic’s responsibility to the subject’), that I make unsubstantiated assertions (as if his view that ‘the critic’s responsibility is to examine the actual subject’ wasn’t) or unexamined assumptions (unlike say his view that the film subject’s deep privacy compelled his considerable achievements to be kept secondary to his interest potential for the film-maker).

In my article I think I provide more constructive argument than he acknowledges, though his criticism of some of my Popelike pronouncements is correct. However Ireland is too protective of this film crew. My discussion of Narbey’s contribution was insensitively worded perhaps, but he’s not a sacred cow, and even though I could have delicately said ‘Perhaps Leon could have…. etc.’ there was a crudely expressed but valid rationale behind my thoughts. As for the three film references, I set up a scale to get the discussion started. They are not crucial elements in the argument, though I later briefly provide some justification of my negative view of Mita’s Hotere by comparing her with Bieringa in having an agenda, that both these directors are consistently following previous projects, but that his agenda doesn’t dominate over his subject.

Ireland likes to think that only this film-maker can have access to McLeavey’s personality and that the viewer’s knowledge of him is somehow irrelevant, that any personal experience they’ve had with the subject of the film doesn’t count in its evaluation. However it is a documentary we are talking about and it is reasonable to compare points of view, to see if Bieringa’s view and that of a viewer like me coincide or overlap at all. My view is not an imagined one. It is not fantasy. I’ve known McLeavey for many years, not with anything like the depth that Ireland and Bieringa have for sure, but enough to have some clear notions about his personal qualities. My list of questions was not a check list of essential topics but a demonstration of how broad his interests are, and how much richer the film might have been.

That is why Ireland’s repeated view that only the ‘actual subject’ be reviewed is unrealistic. It assumes such a thing is easy to determine, that the filmic experience has clearly definable parameters controlled by the director, and ignores the outside appraisal that any viewer informed about the subject might provide.

I don’t want to get into repeating what I’ve already said in my review about McLeavey’s complexity, his art historical importance or the film’s odd branding, but if Bieringa has the material to make three more films, The Man in The Hat shows he was thinking like a timid Kiwi and not the adventurous Dutchman he could have been. It is true we have a small population base here for such a film’s audience, but the current crowds at the touring Rita Angus exhibition (her second survey) show that audiences do change with skilled marketing, that interest in NZ culture does snowball and people do become educated. It is not a view that this horse ‘was bound to come in second’ that I have argued. It is that track conditions are changing and a better trained nag could have anticipated them.


John Hurrell said...


In the end it's about what we believe - need to believe, want to believe - and ultimately agreeing to disagree is what makes continuing debate possible.

A few points though. My smart-alec reference to Elvis was not directed at you, although, hey, you could look cute in a white satin suit boogying the night away! Nor was my general reference to the blogosphere directed at eyecontact. I wouldn't be wasting my time with this if it had been. My "sneering" reference you say. Given the evidence I think a case could be made that it was a simple observation. Sites such as Eyecontact are few and far between, and as to the rest I'd need convincing that gossip from a few gallery openings has much value in the critical sphere. I'm happy to leave that to the likes of pointlessandabsurd.

I'm appalled that I may be mellowing. Like Matisse, I'll just have to try harder!

As to my being a "spin doctor" for those associated with the film I make the following points. I'm in nobody's pocket. I've always made a point of distancing myself from any interest group for the sole reason that critical writing can be only done freely. This is a small country, and I've worked for both the film's subject and its director. But neither needs any defence from me: their actual achievement is immune from anything I might write. Neither diminished nor enhanced.

Let me give an example. Jill Trevelyan and I have been friends for 20 years. I recently wrote a review for Landfall of her Rita Angus biography. I think it's a great achievement, a view shared by the recent book awards. I also expressed some reservations about aspects of it. But I also used the review to voice some pretty severe criticisms about the subsequent Te Papa touring Angus exhibition, co-curated by Trevelyan and William McAloon. No spin doctoring there. Trooper that she is, Jill took it on the chin.

In acknowledging Narbey's skill and experience there was no suggestion that he was somehow a "sacred cow". It is, after all, one of the functions of criticism to round up the sacred cows and slaughter them. Deference to someone's demonstrated skills doesn't imply critical resignation - but it may imply an open-mindedness receptive to learning something new, adopting a new way of seeing even familiar subjects.

One of the points I hoped to make in my earlier response was that because of McLeavey's commitment to privacy Bieringa is probably the only person who could have talked him into having the film made, given the mutual respect I alluded to. Yes, ideally, perhaps a film could've have been made about McLeavey the public figure, involving all the hoopla of Hammond pricing, Merylyn's paintjob, et al. But the film made was about the private figure, and that's the only film gonna be made. Get used to the idea.

Talking of realism, you claim that my insistence on "the actual subject" is unrealistic. Well, no. The parameters of the actual subject are quite precise and measurable. Books have so many words in a certain order, paintings have certain dimensions and colours, films have a real length, identifiable dramatis personae, actual locations. Focusing on these as the basis of any critical comment is the most realistic take possible for a critic. In fact, I'd hazard saying the ONLY take for a critic. To hitch any discussion to other elements the critic may wish for is, I'd say, being un-realistic. Thirty years ago I didn't complain that you never did the Declaration of Independence in pasta. Not even irately.

As for Luit Bieringa being a "timid kiwi" - right after this I'm emailing Tui with a good suggestion for their next billboard.

Cheers, Peter Ireland

David Cauchi said...

Ireland: kindly leave me the fuck out of it. I do not set up as an art critic, nor do I traffic in gossip from openings.

However, seeing as you asked for it, I did find your initial response oddly defensive. I also found the implication that Great Men of 'considerable actual achievement' should be immune from the criticism of the hoi polloi repellent, especially when coupled with the sneering put down of the working class. I suggest you keep your aristocratic power fantasies to yourself. See also the argument from authority.

Oh yeah, and the comparison with Matisse was particularly specious. All you need to make a drawing is a pen and paper. Making a film is more like making a meal. Once you get into the editing room or the kitchen, what you can make is limited by the ingredients you have assembled.

John Hurrell said...

You are a little touchy about pointlessandabsurd,David. You would agree though that exhibition openings are pretty trivial, and that usually everything gets talked about but the art.

eyeCONTACT - just to establish a little clarity - strives to generate some public conversation about work. It is not about being some high and mighty 'art critic' but about saying, 'hey, my view is this.. what do YOU reckon?' It is about starting a dialogue and not claiming to have the last word.

David Cauchi said...

Heh, I'm touchy about most things.

I thought it funny that, after going on at such length about criticising the actual thing and not some imagined version of it, Ireland hassled my blog for what he imagines it is rather than what it actually is.

But then it seems he can't even post a comment on a blog by himself, so I'm not surprised he says silly things about them.

John Hurrell said...

Mmm David, I see you have commented earlier on your site about The Man In The Hat. And you independently came to the same conclusions as me.

Perhaps Mr.Ireland is punishing you. It's a good explanation - for his outburst about your site is somewhat peculiar, is it not? Unless he is just stirring for the sheer pleasure of it. Uncharacteristically of course.

David Cauchi said...

Very peculiar.