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SocietyApril 22, 2018

The university library row reveals a seismic shift in NZ’s middle class


Grey Lynn arts lovers just don’t get it. The debate over plans to close libraries at the University of Auckland lays bare a battle for the middle classes, writes design historian Peter Gilderdale.

If one were to look for a watershed moment in New Zealand cultural history, Auckland University’s decision to axe specialist libraries in Art, Architecture, Planning and Music looks like a real contender. Students, staff and some media commentators have roundly condemned the move, seeing it as a neoliberal attack on the arts – which it is. Unfortunately, I have yet to see an analysis of this event that goes beyond cost-cutting and general ideological antipathy as an explanation for what the university is doing. Certainly, none of the impassioned pleas that have been made will in any way alter the minds of those who are doing the cutting. 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.

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 to encounter people for whom the arts are not a vital part of our cultural makeup. The arts were central to the formation of the British middle classes in the 19th century. To be considered middle class, rather than nouveau riche, you needed to display genuine taste – which was expressed through your choice of furniture, the art you put on the walls and the music you listened to. These values have defined the middle class throughout the 20th century and are still at the core of traditional middle-class identity.

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.

Auckland has never had a fully blown upper class, in the British sense, but there has always been a stealth version that lived in places like Remuera, Epsom, Parnell and Ponsonby. If you want to see this group in action, the opening night of an opera is a good place to go. The children of this social grouping 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. Doing art somehow sanitised the stain of money. 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.

Settled middle class culture had always been bolstered by a media that held popular culture at bay. There was just a single TV channel well into the 1980s, but the market reforms of the late ’80s completely undercut this cultural monopoly. 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. 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. 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.

Inside the Elam Fine Arts Library. Photo: Reilly Hodson

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. 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.

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. Nor are they ashamed of wealth and success, so they don’t feel the need for the arts to legitimise it. 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.

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. It isn’t going to go away, and it is now increasingly asserting itself as the ideology of the rightful middle class. It is no accident that the new Auckland 2050 district plan does not have 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. This council move, like the library cuts, has the aspect of a cultural tipping point.

Obviously, the reality of these changes is more nuanced. There is a spectrum of positions between the binary extremes presented here. But the trajectory of middle class transition seems clear, and I suspect things have already have gone beyond the point of no return. 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.

The emerging middle class places a greater value on the quality of paint you put on a wall than on the quality of painting you hang on it. Culturally, the tectonic plates have shifted, and a new land-mass is gradually encroaching on the territory of the existing middle class. And it changes everything. Approaches that once worked, work no longer. Precious as it may be, it is time to recognise that resorting to the “critic and conscience of society” argument alone is not going to hold as a justification for either the existence of the arts or of the traditional university. 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.

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