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.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Peter Ireland has some thoughts here on my review of

The Man in the Hat.

There's a nice story about Napoleon. As with anyone in a position of power and influence, he was besieged by people recommending others for jobs. He had one question of them: What have they done? He didn't ask about their pedigree, who they knew or what their aspirations were. This military genius was interested only in actual achievement. Actual achievement is, I think, the issue at the core of this discussion about this recent film. There are some associated issues too, some of them being the function of the critic and the critic's responsibility to the subject.

I'll start with this last-named. The subject is a much abused notion in the practice of critical enquiry, the one central element whose focus is most likely to be blurred soonest. The subject - the film, the play as written, the performance of it, the latest album, the new solo show, the institutional group show, the novel, etc - is the actual thing made by its creator, not the thing the critic might have done had they the opportunity. The critic's primary responsibility is to examine the actual subject, not an imagined one. The critic's secondary responsibility is to determine the difference between the two and maintain the distinction throughout any subsequent enquiry.

Failure of responsibility in these areas must, I think, reduce the aspiring critic to the role of perhaps interesting commentator, as the growth of the blogosphere so amply demonstrates. The overwhelming amount of comment on it that so confidently occupies the critical chair is not so much criticism as a demonstration of the principle of freedom of speech. Ironically, more often than not, it's also a demonstration of the failure of critical enquiry. No amount of self-belief will turn an Elvis impersonator into Elvis.

For every one person out there who does something - particularly in the arts, it would seem - there are dozens who could have done it better. If only they'd had the opportunity. There's a slightly school-masterish attitude detectable here. An assumption of the right to be a one-person tribunal, marking one's inferiors out of ten. An assumption, too, that such judgements matter, that their division into good and bad somehow accurately mirrors the nature of the world. But even the Pope limits his infallibility to matters of faith and morals. Perhaps in the institutionally closeted world school-masters occupy this delusion may be sustained. But there's just too much oxygen in the world of actual achievement to require the respirators these assumptions resemble.

The Man in the Hat - the actual object - came to be made because someone of considerable actual achievement believed that someone else of considerable actual achievement was the source of potentially interesting filmic coverage. The subject of the film is an essentially private man. The film got made because the subject and the film-maker trusted each other, a trust built on some shared human experience but mostly on a mutual respect for the other's actual achievement. The film is about an essentially private man allowing himself to be filmed. This is what Bieringa's film is about. That the subject of the film's considerable actual achievement is of intense interest to anyone connected with the development of the visual arts in this country is a secondary consideration. But this is what Hurrell's review is about. The horse the critic backed was bound to come in second. His review is a protest to the stewards.

Add up all the comments made and you are left with the impression that the critic is operating from a firmly outlined notion of what constitutes the subject of the film. Where the film confirms this notion - such as the subject's nomadic childhood, Catholic education etc - he is approving. Where it doesn't - for instance, the matter of the hat - he is irritated. (For the record, I have a photograph of the hat being worn dating from the late 1980s. The critic needs either to pay more attention or simply get out more.) When comments are so consistently based on what the writer already knows, it's legitimate to ask what a film such as this has to offer him, and relevant to ask how any criticism worthy of the name can survive in such an airless atmosphere.

These are not qualities usually associated with that standard of criticism, but the review is a litany of unsubstantiated assertions and unexamined assumptions. Some instances. Against Merata Mita's Hotere, Leanne Pooley's Being Billy Apple and Judy Rymer's McCahon film Victory Over Death, The Man in the Hat is judged to be "Just so so", but no comparisons are made, no reasons given. The critic's word, apparently, is enough. To follow "The film's photography though is disappointing" with "Some of the interviews were held when he was slumped in a chair and filmed from below, making him look facially a bit squat or froglike. He should have been filmed at eye height. ... Show him as normally seen" is not to have the critic's eye focused on the actual film but a marker's pen poised over an exam paper, with an unspoken "must try harder" the obvious subtext.

Hurrell asserts that "too much is made of Wellington and its inhabitants" and that "Bieringa wastes too much time showing life on the streets of the capital, and his subject's daily wanderings between home and gallery." Here we have an assumption of the values of geographic coverage when the film's whole point is an intense focus on an individual. Never mind the depth, feel the width. The subject of the film is a Wellington phenomenon, both a product of the place and a shaper of it - at his 70th birthday party he began his speech by stating that his gallery was "a love letter to Cuba Street" - and to describe his daily peregrination as "wandering" is to overlook the fact that this is as deliberate and as central to his being a dealer as the selection of his stable. The film is an auto-biography not a travelogue.

The most significant assumption in the review concerns the cinematographer. The critic places great emphasis on the apparent fact that "only three days were spent filming". Try "only three days were spent painting" - as in McCahon's Northland Panels - and you'll get the idea. McCahon had spend months in the US beforehand; those panels didn't come from nowhere. Bieringa and his team, including Leon Narbey, spent months beforehand examining the archive, discussing various approaches, plotting the route. Narbey hit the tarmac running. His legendary eye and, yes, considerable actual achievement gave those three days a focus beyond the realm of any time and motion study. Bieringa has said there's enough material to make three more films. The subject does not feel misrepresented or short-changed.

There's a working-class suspicion of art that it's a "have"; too easy, not involving enough hard, real work. Is, say, a two-minute portrait drawing by Matisse involving about eight lines less "important" or less "valuable" than, say, a laborious watercolour of the Roman Forum by Bill Sutton? According to the critic's scale of values, probably. Matisse will just have to try harder too.

They say an unexamined life is not worth living. For a critic, the unexamined piece is not worth writing. Maybe all right for the bloggers though - at least it keeps them off the streets. Hurrell titles his piece Rushed job. I think he meant the film.


Unknown said...

I find this piece totally confusing, who is writing, who is being critiqued, is the author the critic or the criticized?

John Hurrell said...

Thanks Richard for telling me. I had trouble earlier putting the link through to my original review, but have fixed it now.

Peter Ireland is criticising my take on Luit Bieringa's film about Peter McLeavey. Peter's response was too long for me to post on the review thread.