Act’s arts spokesperson Todd Stephenson in front of his famous piece of art (Hamilton)
Act’s arts spokesperson Todd Stephenson in front of his famous piece of art (Hamilton)

PoliticsApril 30, 2024

A handy primer for arts spokespeople who know nothing about New Zealand art

Act’s arts spokesperson Todd Stephenson in front of his famous piece of art (Hamilton)
Act’s arts spokesperson Todd Stephenson in front of his famous piece of art (Hamilton)

What to say when pesky journalists ask gotcha questions like ‘can you name a single book you’ve ever read?’ and ‘did you read it, or did you just see the movie?’

This week, Act Party arts spokesperson Todd Stephenson foolishly agreed to an interview with Newsroom’s Steve Braunias regarding his alleged interest in the arts. During the interview, he struggled to name a single local writer, besides Alan Duff and Tusiata Avia, whose poem (or to quote Stephenson, “hateful-diatribe”) about Captain Cook sparked a furious Act Party press release in December last year, threatening the future of Creative New Zealand.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a libertarian politician is against using taxpayer money to fund art. Maybe this is an area where corporate sponsorship could come into play. Possibly Eleanor Catton might consider teaming up with Fonterra and writing a science fiction epic, set in the trenches of the forthcoming dairy war. In fairness to Stephenson, he does mention he once attended a performance of Hamilton in New York with his partner, combining his two favourite genres, musical theatre and political biography. 

More surprising than Stephenson’s ignorance, is the fact he requested the arts portfolio. Even if your general stance on art is, I’m waiting for the Netflix miniseries, you should at least have the good sense to pretend to know what you’re talking about. So here’s a guide for aspiring politicians, on how to bluff your way through these hard-hitting interviews, riddled with difficult questions, such as “can you name a single book you’ve ever read?” and “did you read it, or did you just see the movie?”

Who’s your favourite New Zealand musician?

As many political parties know, this is a tricky one. We have a long and storied history of New Zealand politicians getting in hot water for using unauthorised music to support their political campaigns, only to have the band’s lawyer file a cease and desist. Recently Winston Peters was in trouble for his use of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping. In 2017 the National Party was successfully sued by Eminem, for its use of “Eminemesque” in its 2014 election campaign.

Most local politicians, when quizzed on the subject of music, traditionally opt for Crowded House or anything someone in a bread commercial could conceivably mow their lawn to.  In my opinion, the best strategy is to pick someone universally beloved, who doesn’t give a lot of interviews. Take Bic Runga, for instance. You can’t go wrong with Bic Runga. She may not be ‘Hayek’s Road to Serfdom: The Musical’, but you can’t have everything. 

Nobody would blink an eye if you said this was your favourite NZ album of all time

Who’s your favourite New Zealand poet?

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is politicians of all affiliations tend to share the same taste in poetry as ChatGPT. Namely, they like it to rhyme. 

For some reason, politicians are crazy about rhyme. They’re ravenous for it. They’ve reached the first milestone of phonological awareness, and they’re eager to share their findings with the wider world. The list of New Zealand politicians who have penned a satirical rhyming verse, or adapted ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ for a parliamentary audience is seemingly endless. In March earlier this year, David Seymour dropped an absolute clanger for World Poetry Day, rhyming “life” with “drive” and “remove” with “you” in a subtle nod to Emily Dickinson

These days, few contemporary poets outside of the Beehive rhyme. It might therefore be safest to defer to the reliable meter and agricultural observations of yesteryear. In this instance, you can’t go wrong with Denis Glover – poet, rugby player, yachtsman, alcoholic and raconteur. 

What have you been reading lately?

Reading novels is hard work. It not only requires time, but an active interest in the inner lives of others. Fortunately, I happen to be a children’s bookseller and know the easiest way to get reluctant readers to pick up a book is to find a subject close to their heart. Sometimes a Dorling Kindersley Star Wars Junior Reader is just the ticket to get those pages turning. 

To this end, I’d suggest picking up Milk Island by Rhydian Thomas. A daring and eerily prescient novel, set during a fifth term National government, about a public-private partnership between the New Zealand dairy industry and the prison system. It’s marketed as a dystopia, but isn’t one man’s dystopia just another man’s Elysium? 

What are you watching?

Todd Stephenson was never more right when he said (petulantly) “Creative things are on TV”. And yet these are precarious times. Shortland Street’s future lies in the balance, as do many other local programs struggling to secure the ad revenue needed to survive. Rather than raising awkward questions about the future of our film and television industry, perhaps it’s easier to default to the archive. 

My vote is for The Tribe. A roving gang of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic, virus-infested wasteland, free from the shackles of government interference, living together in a decaying shopping mall, inventing new kinds of technofascism. Terrifying or aspirational? You be the judge. 

The Tribe, a classic New Zealand TV show

What’s your favourite New Zealand movie?

For a perfect fusion of commerce and art, you can’t go past Lord of the Rings. Who could have predicted a British fantasy epic about a fictional race war would represent the single greatest boost to New Zealand’s tourism industry? Not only did it spark a thriving trade in promotional mousepads and keyrings, but it also removed the ability of film and television workers to unionise. Sure, the books have a lot of inconvenient messaging about the perils of wide-scale deforestation and ecological destruction. But the movies gloss over all that, and focus on what’s really important: famous men fighting each other with magical swords. 

Who’s your favourite New Zealand artist?

Art! Not only is it nice to look at, but it’s a great way to launder money, and can make a great addition to your investment portfolios. The only difficulty is in telling which art will be worth something in the future, and which is just meaningless blobs of paint on canvas. 

For those wanting to buy low and sell high, I’d consider investing in the work of Caitlin Devoy. Her stunning latex renderings of phallic recorders and BDSM light switches would not only look fabulous on the walls of Premiere House, but make a great conversation starter for visiting foreign dignitaries. The only problem is you’d have to put them away when Steven Joyce came over for lunch. 

This would look great on the wall of Premier House (post-renovations of course).

It can be difficult, as a politician, to speak about areas you don’t feel confident in, even when those areas are literally your job. Imposter syndrome affects people from all walks of life, especially imposters. Sometimes the best advice is to fake it till you make it. You don’t have to have read the complete works of Janet Frame in order to command respect. You just have to tell people you’ve read the complete works of Janet Frame. After all, who’s going to check? But just to be on the safe side, I wouldn’t return any more of Steve Braunais’s calls. Good luck! 

Keep going!