Try the experiment yourself. Cover a surface with colours—get them on fast enough for your subconscious to have played a major part. The result will have something of a sense of rhythm, or direction, emotional impact of some kind entirely apart from efforts or accidents of representation. Next try to control what you’re about, take a precise aim, and you’ll see what I mean. The artist is forever baffled by control—how to gain it—how to lose it—either way, in his own eyes, the ideal balance is still to come with the next picture. That may be what keeps him going, even creating a sense of distance from fellow creatures who do not pursue any vision in particular. Perhaps in some cases, only those who get far enough away from a certain balance and proportion manage to look back and obtain glimpses of any clarity. Is it permissible to wonder if only fundamentally unsatisfied people work up tensions enough to give point to their expression? Does one paint from what one has, or what one wants? The nature of vision is more likely to be nourished by the second.
Ideally, the painter is involved in all the complexity of a view into our strained, precariously poised relationship with the universe. And ideally, modern painting continues to give you this—plunges you into the contemporary adventure. It’s salutary to get a little lost—to ramble rather than hunt through the forests of the interior, free for experience and not dependent on finding one more animal to kill.
A word of comparison on the possibilities of open-mindedness in New Zealand and, say, France. It is not necessary not to have a complex just on the score of living in New Zealand. There could be advantages too. For example, the number of French who feel the need to go further than the comfort of traditions from the extreme richness of their past is certainly exceeded by the number of those who, for many reasons, cannot. For this majority, nothing that the contemporary period has to offer can compare with some period safely past (electricity, plumbing, and gadgets that can be hidden, of course excepted). Furniture plays a decisive role in this attitude, and furniture largely indicates fortune, taste, political opinions and the sort of pictures that will fit.
I think it safe to say that the majority of French are still straining for the reconstitution of some past century—rather less Louis XV now that there are few attics that have not been ransacked, and few bargains possible as a result. The slightly severer Louis XVI is still fairly popular, and Napoléon III (Queen Victoria for us) has stopped being quaint and dowdy and been cleaned up and made attractive and comfortable. Recently the rage has tended more towards Louis XIII (our Stuart period), though furniture of this vintage is of a necessity only for those rich enough to be able to play up the ego more than convenience and comfort. (Here I salute in passing a Queen Anne table very prettily married to this French haute époque. It is a handsome table in terms of wood and colour and labyrinthine rhythm but sitting at it is misery. These pretty wooden legs occupy nearly all the space beneath.)
All of which is part of something permanently crazy in human society. Which period of Assyrian history was it during which you simply could not receive the So-an-So’s unless you had Egyptian furniture of the time of Thutmoses 9th, or some other worthy old mummy.
The design of the past is above all valuable when it inspires present day adaptations and improvements for our sort of living. It becomes complicated of course when much contemporary stuff is mass produced and plain ugly. And if you happen to have some good furniture to begin with, you will not want to throw it away and begin from scratch. What is encouraging along the very rich and bright, is how they can put the best of all worlds together. It can be managed if your likes are strong enough to liberate your taste and produce results that are exciting.
In New Zealand the weight of the past should not be hard to bear, but encourage favourable use of present resources. Surely the more people who work towards a contemporary responsibility, the more contemporary satisfaction there would be. The point I wish to make is that people who want to be thoroughly alive in France have an effort to make which is similar to the struggle not to be dead in New Zealand. Either way such people will be a minority (of benefit to the whole country), because of that initial effort. Getting the mind open a fraction means work. You can go out and give yourself trouble, come home and go on taking pains. Nothing of great quality will come to you like a bee to the flower. And why should it? Of course, eventually in 100 years or so something of what the active minority are about manages to seep through. It is up to everyone to decide for himself how long he can wait for fresh food.
As things stand in New Zealand there is danger of national insipidity. In too many cases one can observe the whole mental mechanism involved in trying to be thought nice but doing nothing to be clear. Which might go some way to explaining why the average New Zealander is afraid of colour, whether for the eyes or the personality. Colour is relegated to the painting of the roof, for the maximum disharmony of our largely hideous towns.
Most of our problems arise from our unadmitted smallnesses and fear. New Zealanders tend to resent and resist outside standards that are difficult to compete with and, as a result, remain closed in. Closed in and friendly. Because we are a genuinely, touchingly neighbourly people, and this is not enough. We need to get clearer in our friendliness and, instead of accepting ‘near enough’ and shoddy shanty-town functional, we must become better friends with the things we make before they can become the best we are capable of.
A mixture of timidity and laziness also prevents too many New Zealanders from being clear friends to word by word of their speech. New Zealand speech is notoriously unclear, as if communication between human beings were not already sufficiently difficult without that! This strikes me as the worst of faults. Not to co-operate energetically towards human communication. Not to have the guts to love one’s language enough to use it in a way that works. To be on this earth for such a short time and to mumble it away in half-hearted mediocrity. We’re blind and dull with so-called friendliness.
What’s to be done? Somehow get conscious of actions and surroundings. Seize all opportunities to compare. Avoid mindless repetition. Get at the heart of reasoning—which is to say, insist on what you really want. Insist with courage. Useless to accept this or that just so as not to be different from other people—as useless as trying to impress them. That only leads to the silly game of going one better.
I think a lot of us were brought up not to be inquisitive and exacting. Whereas, in order to be fair to everything from the ordinary to the unfamiliar, it’s not possible to be too inquisitive, too inquiring. Surely it is better to get the most of what’s presented and possible, instead of letting the mind shut with a snap out of habit, or fright, or the feeling of not knowing enough. Who does know all he needs?
If the contemporary variety (and confusion) were to be examined with fairness and feeling, the process could lead to significant change and solid achievement. But we have to want these things. Wholehearted wanting is the only corrective open to New Zealand.
I don’t know how much is left of a certain self-conscious striving to be New Zealanders that I remember in my youth. Like any natural growth, this is not to be rushed. Surely if we strove just to be individuals of the highest capacity we would be better New Zealanders into the bargain. You don’t stop being a New Zealander, by which I mean, cut years and experiences out of your life, just by wanting to, or by living elsewhere. I am specially well placed to give assurance of that.’