Sunday, February 1, 2015

Funding is not enlistment.

It's been a bizarre few days around reactions to Eleanor Catton's interview in India. I commented on that a couple of days ago. But as an extension of the wider discussion I see the Taxpayers Union (a right wing lobby group) has commented today on the fact that Eleanor Catton (as many NZ writers have – myself included) has received various funding grants for writing, etc.

I'd like to unpack some of this. Firstly, the statements carry an embedded message, using the classic binary opposition of: taxpayers/writers, or taxpayers/artists. (Writers and artists. as creative workers may and do apply for and receive funding from Creative NZ.) This binary is used as if the recipient (in this case Eleanor Catton) aren't themselves taxpayers,or that there is no flow-on tax revenue from their work . It's a discursive trick and shouldn't pass without critique. Maori are well used to it, common examples being the ever popular ‘taxpayers/Maori’ or ‘New Zealanders/Maori’ binaries, written as if the entities are mutually exclusive. And specifically that the smaller group in the binary is not only NOT a contributing part of the larger – it’s just a drain on its resources. .

Then there’s the wording ‘…the support of the New Zealand government…’ The support would come via Creative NZ, an arts funding body that operates to both keep those creatives IN the community (fund them to allow them to work) and keep such a community itself in existence, to ensure an ongoing role in the New Zealand landscape for a vibrant artistic and intellectual life. Creative NZ grants fund a great many endeavours every year. They are not gifts, or crumbs from the master's table, they are part of an arts STRATEGY.

But: arts funding bodies and their decisions and supported programmes are not part of the political arm and aims of the government of the day, as such. We all need to be very clear on this. This blurring comes from the philosophy that promotes the corporatization and potentially the identity capture of everything, including individual and national perception, New Zealand Inc, as an example. This wording about governments supporting artists often features deliberately coded language slippage in which the subtext is: funding body = government = current government’s ideology and policies. So it follows therefore that funding should buy acquiescence, or at the very least - silence. Again, this arts funding is strategic investment.

We can and should debate the points in this ongoing dialogue and perspectives on what specifically should be funded and how, that's our right as stakeholders. To make these debates meaningful it's critical to get the language and its implications as clear as we can.

An artist or any individual or organization does not actually begin working for the political party in government when and because they accept funding from arts bodies,themselves resourced from the wider NZ tax pool.

Funding is NOT enlistment, because that would be totalitarianism.


Sean Plunkett's response to Eleanor Catton this week, other than being simplistic to the point of bargain-basement jingoism feels like yet another middle-aged male determined to take back the space in public discourse from someone who isn't (a middle-aged male.) To restore what he seems to see as the rightful order of things. Eleanor Catton appears to be a lightning rod for such reactionary backlash (I’m thinking Michael Morrissey’s patronising comments in his review last year), and it's important to mention that I feel she would be a target, WHATEVER she says. I think her audacity in even speaking is as aggravating to the likes of Plunkett as what she specifically says – much of which I think should prompt further discussion and critique (in the same way as what any of us says.)

This goes to the heart of so much reaction to her, what is perceived as her sheer effrontery in claiming public space through her talent and vision, not through bestowed privilege from the self-appointed guardians of New Zealand-ness. This is the searing intersection point of several different faces of the patriarchal juggernaut, in this case the ignition point around her being a young woman, who doesn't want to tow the (male dominated) neo-liberal line. Because, let's be honest, Eleanor Catton is deeply white middle-class, her father is a university professor. She's not a Maori or Pacifica solo-mother from Southy. She doesn't face the hurdles of a recent migrant from the third world. Or some of the inmates I teach in prison. But she is still part of (what the literary critic Frank O’Connor defines as) a submerged population group, ie women (especially, but certainly not limited to, young women) who speak their mind. Her white middle-class (seeming) advantage is only there if she agrees to recognize and show deference to the power structure. That’s how power and privilege work, the power structure gives concessions, contingent upon behaviours, but does not cede power. And it gets angry if its needs are not given primacy – which is where I see Sean Plunkett’s comments are coming from.

I find it galling, and very disappointing that in 2015 a successful, creative New Zealander can speak her mind, and have her very right to speak critiqued and lambasted, rather than an intelligent unpacking of her specific points. But Sean Plunkett’s response can’t really be described as critique – words like ‘traitor’ and ‘bagging’ belong in the schoolyard, not in supposedly intelligent public discourse, and the stuff about living in a democracy is ridiculously irrelevant, and especially ironic considering he’s telling her to shut up. Make no mistake, that is a warning. Eleanor Catton is taking the hits here that we all should be taking, in the community of arts, letters, and those of us in this community that believe the life of the mind be as important as the almighty dollar. Many people have of course, taken the hits. New Zealand’s history is riddled with thinkers with metaphorical knives in their backs.

To use Sean Plunkett’s language register for a moment, I call bullshit.