It is hard to escape the fact that in this culture and this city in particular there is serious opposition to critical thinking, questioning and analysis. Rather than seeing critical thought as a necessary agent in the pursuit of a healthy and free society - and the arts in particular playing a leading role in critically analysing our time and place - questioning and thinking is fiercely dismissed as "negative" and unnecessarily antagonistic.
A series of recent incidents along these lines bring to mind an essay Peter Falkenberg wrote that considered the aversion to critical reflection as having a distinct variety in the New Zealand context. The essay was published in a 2007 book on New Zealand theatre: Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand theatre and drama in an age of transition. Peter's essay begins with the premise that New Zealand theatre holds an idealised mirror up to it's audience in keeping with the classic kiwi question to visitors: "So what do you think of New Zealand?", which is asked with the expectation of confirmation that this country is indeed Godzone. A reviewer of the book (and long-time Wellington theatre critic) thought the article was the most provocative of the book's offerings but disagreed with the opening premise: "Aren't we now a little bit more self-aware and self-confident than we were in the 1950s when I first heard of this habit?" That was ten years ago and still today you hear that question asked and regularly hear from visitors how they made the mistake of answering the ubiquitous question critically. Increasingly in this town, you hear the question followed up with (or replaced by) "And what do you think of Christchurch?" Clearly, the expectation here is that the tourist has come via recommendations from Lonely Planet or some other describing Christchurch as a must-see destination as "a creative city in transition".
But surely, an "innovative", "bold", "edgy" city - as a recent council strategy proposes Christchurch should be - becomes so by questioning itself, continuously asking "Whaddarya?" without expecting a stock-standard response, a plethora of critical, perhaps contradictory, responses. This is how a city might develop a distinct identity and the example for Christchurch is very clear - a city with a long history of artists that reflected critically on the city and country via literature, visual, art, film and music. As the most conservative of the arts in New Zealand, theatre is an interesting case, which is why Peter's article, even after ten years, is worth another read.
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