WHY PETER GILDERDALE CAN GET STUFFED
Recently the Spinoff published an opinion piece by Peter Gilderdale of AUT contending that Auckland University’s threatened closure of specialty libraries represents some kind of internal schism within the bourgeoisie, and that the outrage expressed doesn’t go, “beyond cost-cutting and general ideological antipathy as an explanation for what the university is doing. ...Well written as they are, the articles boil down to arty people expressing outrage to other arty people. And the people doing these cuts don’t care about arty folks.”
Gilderdale opens his explanation for his view like this:
“I sometimes wonder whether the arts community entirely realise the depth of the antipathy for, or (what is worse) indifference towards them which these cuts represent. If you live in Grey Lynn, Titirangi (or Wellington), read the Listener, go to the theatre, and listen to RNZ, your cultural support networks mean you are barely going encounter people for whom the arts are not a vital part of our cultural makeup.”
There is a reason why Gilderdale confines his argument to Grey Lynn, Titirangi and Wellington, because if dragged into South Auckland or the provinces it quickly falls apart like wet cake. This is a lot of window dressing for what is primarily the result of decades of bad tertiary education policy pushing universities into a position where STEM subjects are prioritised because they bring in funding. Gilderdale disagrees, seeing it as a philosophical class-based split between cultural and financial capital, framed in concepts laid down by the French anthropologist, sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu last century (although Gilderdale refrains from mentioning this).
Unfortunately, Gilderdale has a deeply flawed understanding of Bourdieu and smugly defines cultural capital as the middle class snobbishly wishing to distinguish itself from the merely nouveau riche. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, Bourdieu saw cultural capital as a fairly broad concept that encompassed everything from the arts and sciences to knowing how to change a tire and chartered accountancy. Secondly, humans of varying kinds have been making art for 60,000 years based on little more than an aesthetic response to their environment; most children draw unprompted and enjoy being told stories or read to. Thirdly, Gilderdale is ignoring the vast opportunities for cultural exposure available through the internet and other media. Fourthly, his is an entirely Pākehā-centric model that ignores the intrinsic utility of culture for indigenous people forced to deal with the late colonial culture imposed upon them.
Bourdieu, drawing on Marx’s theory of class conflict, formulated his 1979 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste partly in response to looking back at the crude theories of Oswald Spengler, Max Weber and Martin Heidegger, who framed their greater worldview in terms of a conflict between Kultur (culture, art, the humanities) and Zivilisation (industrial, technological, rational modernity). We may recall that this was picked up as intellectual fuel for some very unpleasant people in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Gilderdale sanctimoniously claims his is a class-based argument, writing:
“A major factor hindering our understanding of what is going on in this library debate relates to New Zealand’s egalitarian antipathy for talking about class. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we are supposed to go on asserting that everyone here is equal. Hence, what I am about to do, which is to use class to dig into this problem, is about as big a Kiwi heresy as I can commit. Indeed, I really hope someone can find a different and less gloomy way of framing these issues, but I can’t. Rather, I’m going to talk about this issue as a battle for middle class identity, in terms of the place I know best, Auckland. To do so, within a digestible format, I must necessarily over simplify.”
“Over simplify”? No sh*t, Sherlock. Rhetorical arse-covering to deflect the inevitable critique, more like. He goes on to suggest that Auckland has “never had a fully blown upper class, in the British sense [as any historian of Colonial Auckland will tell you, this is nonsense], but there has always been a stealth version that lived in places like Remuera, Epsom, Parnell and Ponsonby.” Apparently they go to the opera a lot.
“The children of this social grouping,” he says, “could often be found in the Music School and Elam – places where you did art for its own sake, and never talked about it in commercial terms.” In fact, Elam, founded in 1890, was originally based on the South Kensington model of art education, which prioritised applied and decorative arts. Unlike continental Europe, art education in New Zealand was primarily vocational up until the 1960s. The Canterbury College School of Art was founded in 1882 on the same model. Many of the later art schools evolved out of trade schools.
“Children of the less wealthy also gravitated to the arts, because they sensed that the arts increased your cultural capital. And cultural capital was what counted in the middle class.” This may come as a terrible shock to many of one’s provincial and working-class peers who grew up in an atmosphere where culture was barely mentioned or, indeed, regarded with suspicion. For all Alan Duff can be a frightful and patronising dick at times, he offers an important insight in his 1992 novel One Night Out Stealing in which the marginalised protagonist, breaking into middle class homes, is accidentally exposed to classical music and has literarily overdetermined insight into beauty. Yes, it’s an old cliché that crops up in everything from A Clockwork Orange to the legend of Orpheus, but if Kelis can comfortably sample Mozart in “Like You”, I’d say the music can safely be enjoyed on its own merits – complexity and beauty - without being haunted by class consciousness.
For all Gilderdale may teach young art students at AUT (design, specialising in calligraphy, which may explain the apparent chip on his shoulder regarding fine art), his understanding of New Zealand’s cultural politics seems painfully oblivious to deconstruction of traditional hierarchies in contemporary art, and, well, reality: “Settled middle class culture had always been bolstered by a media that held popular culture at bay.” WT actual F? C’mon was showcasing (admittedly mainstream) pop music in 1967. “There was just a single TV channel well into the 1980s [actually TV2 became South Pacific Television in 1976], but the market reforms of the late ’80s completely undercut this cultural monopoly.” Melody Rules, anyone?
“Choice (a potent neoliberal buzzword) ensured an increasing number of people could opt out of the type of media that the traditional middle classes thought important.” This ignores that salient fact that these other types of media were also created and controlled by said traditional middle classes, and, for the most part, still are, and, indeed, is still consumed by the traditional middle classes as it has always been.
“Simultaneously, educational reforms brought new subjects (and student debt) into the university. If the traditional liberal arts university was framed around subjects that encouraged people to be free thinking citizens, the new neoliberal version prioritised applied subjects that provided proficient, flexible workers for the new knowledge economy.” Gilderdale is disingenuous here. If anything, the risk and debt burden makes the humanities more vocational, not less, and was it not Sir Bob Jones, noted rich jackass and cheerleader of New Zealand’s neoliberal reforms who proclaimed that he preferred to hire BAs and refused to hire Commerce grads? There are threads of truth to Gilderdale’s argument, in so far as it was neoliberal policy that led to why the universities are the way they are now, but this isn’t some paradigmatic culture war.
“Easily consumed popular music and entertainment journalism were better adjuncts to this entrepreneurial activity than the demanding and critically challenging artforms favoured by traditional university departments.” It seems to have escaped the esteemed Gilderdale’s attention that the popular music and entertainment journalists, indisputably vocations, more often than not, have extensive training in the humanities, or at the very least a BA.
“The key point here is that we now have a generation of people who have only experienced the new media landscape and the new university. They are educated and regard themselves as middle class individuals. But their courses did not include the arts, and nor do their version of middle-class values align with those of the traditional middle class. Wealth, celebrity, popular culture and the latest technology are more important to this group than cultural and intellectual capital.” Personally I find this is a rather trite generalisation about the present generation and popular culture. Popular culture is still culture and isn’t structurally different from high culture beyond immediate context. Gilderdale ignores the way popular culture often draws on high culture in insightful ways, and the internet makes high culture orders of magnitude more accessible that it has ever previously been – assuming one is fixated in distinguishing between high, middle, low, pop and sub culture. Cartoons based on Greek myths may well lead to a Classics paper or two. Someone who saw a National Bank ad might decide to listen to more Vivaldi. The ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote odes about celebrity athletes and Shakespeare would have gone out of business if he couldn’t appeal to the ordinary public.
“The middle class traditionally aspires to the values of the upper classes, and the new neoliberal upper class is made up of billionaires, sports stars and entertainers, not gentry, artists or intellectuals. It was no accident that Wayne Mapp recently celebrated the fact that Jacinda Ardern’s husband is the host of a TV fishing show rather than being a professor.” Oh f*ck off. Seriously, if you’re going to invoke Wayne f*cking Mapp as an authority… Sanctimonious bores like Chomsky, Žižek, and Jordan noddy Peterson are YouTube celebrities because the younger generations clearly have a thirst for some sort of intellectual engagement. The only question here is whether it’s quality intellectual engagement, which is debatable, and Anglo-Saxon culture has always harboured a contempt for the “public intellectual” in the first place. There is also the little matter of Gilderdale’s curious distinction between “entertainer” and “artist” – while it’s annoying when the two are lumped together, there remains an ancient tradition of overlap.
Furthermore, while Gilderdale’s understanding of cultural politics is ropey enough, he’s at best guessing what goes on in the heads of neoliberal capitalists, and doesn’t really seem to understand the business world at all:
“Despite the best efforts of university vice-chancellors to embrace neoliberal reform, this emerging middle class are very susceptible to the idea that you don’t even need universities – entrepreneurs supposedly make themselves through being authentic to their dreams, not via long, hard, sustained study, with associated student loans.” Just possibly a traditional training in the humanities isn’t required to become a successful entrepreneur, but (1) that does explain why they’re often incredibly boring people beyond their own narrow interests, (2) they still tend to hire people from humanities backgrounds for the creative stuff, and (3) a loan is a loan is a loan, whether it be a student loan or money from an investor.
“Nor are they ashamed of wealth and success, so they don’t feel the need for the arts to legitimise it.” No one said they did, but that’s still a generalisation. They collect art. They read books. They listen to music. All that has to come from somewhere.
“And this new elite is young. Fresh ideas, unfettered by such things as history, tradition or experience are what matters, so their futurist gurus tell us. Embedded and powerful pockets of expertise and criticism pose a threat to these moves – hence the neoliberal aversion for “silos” and why the symbols of such disciplinary identity, like subject libraries, have to be mercilessly expunged.” Actually I’m going to take a stab and guess it’s more about freeing up real estate on campus for sh*t that more immediately makes money. To be very honest, the targeted departments aren’t hugely active as “powerful pockets of expertise and criticism” – if anything they’re soft targets.
At this point Gilderdale dives down a very spooky rabbit hole which gives far too much significance to Neoliberalism without apparently understanding what the word means:
"This is the point that the defenders of the Auckland University subject libraries seem to be missing. Neoliberalism is not some abstract theory which right-thinking people can talk down. It is the tip of a much more comprehensive set of cultural changes that blur traditional distinctions like those between the right and the left. Over the last thirty years, it has been seeded throughout our society and has been quietly flourishing in upper-middle-class-in-waiting suburbs like the North Shore. It is embedded in business, the public service, the media, university management, and across all major political parties.”
Apparently he thinks it’s Cthulhu, or the barbarians or something and I’d rather hoped we’d gotten past this sort of thing back when Francis Fukuyama (predictably) turned out to be full of sh*t and history hadn’t ended with the fall of communism and the New Jerusalem of the neoliberal consensus. For starters it’s not even as monolithic as that. Most western economies are currently in thrall to neoliberal ideology as they were to liberalism, Keynesianism and classical economics before it. Neoliberalism, for all that it’s not socially progressive, is basically free market capitalism but not as shy about state intervention. It has no philosophy broader than that. It isn’t some sinister New World Order conspiracy. Take any of those countries – New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Germany, France etc – and for all that they are following neoliberal economic policies, they are all doing so to varying degrees and diverse responses to, regard for, and protection of culture, education and the humanities.
Then Gilderdale bridges to the Auckland 2050 district plan’s lack of a discrete arts strategy: “While it may be a coincidence that this is happening under a mayor who was one of the instigators of the 1980s market reforms, this omission is the starkest warning yet that the arts – other than as investment – are no longer considered core business.” I’m not sure what experience Gilderdale has of city councils but they’ve always been tight with the purse strings regarding arts when they could get away with it (which is why they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it). Institutions have always needed leadership that proactively lobbies and advocates for them. As for Phil Goff being a member of the neoliberal illuminati, while I think he’s a bit of a putz and a philistine, I can’t really imagine Helen Clark letting him have all those portfolios if he was really an unreconstructed Rogernome.
“This council move, like the library cuts, has the aspect of a cultural tipping point.” Aha, “tipping point” – someone’s been reading that fraud Malcom Gladwell.
“Obviously, the reality of these changes is more nuanced. There is a spectrum of positions between the binary extremes presented here.” Thank dog for that. “But the trajectory of middle class transition seems clear, and I suspect things have already have gone beyond the point of no return.” Cue ominous Dumdum Dum. Oh, and this bit made me snort my coffee:
“While the arts have not previously had problems making their peace with the super-rich, they now need to find ways to make themselves valuable to the emerging middle class. If they don’t, they can forget arts funding (or indeed broader patronage) in the not-too-distant future.”
Oh hunty, no one understands this better than artists. Artists are probably among the most entrepreneurial people on the planet because if they don’t hustle, they starve. Very few are living from CNZ grant to CNZ grant. Art school is a brief window of semi-security in which a young artist can concentrate on their practice, make contacts, get feedback and figure things out, before having to exist out in the real world. A tiny percentage might get the occasional residency or whatever, but most are out there making t-shirts, teaching in schools, working sh*tty service jobs, and very few have independent incomes.
Gilderdale concludes, “Critique is not a very viable currency in a Trumpian world. Rhetoric, sentiment and affect are. And it may be that the arts are going to have to get their head around some of these distasteful tools if they are going to be an effective critical force in the future.” I’d just like to point out that rhetoric, sentiment and affect are all essential elements of critique. What is art if not rhetoric, sentiment and affect? The critics have had their head around these distasteful tools as long as there have been humanities to begin with. I’m not sure Gilderdale can say the same.