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David Kirk: What is the spirit of New Zealandness?

"Sport is a very direct and open expression of our national character and identity, but it is no more insightful or truthful an expression than the performing and visual arts."

If I was asked to identify the origin of the powerful divide that exists in New Zealand between sport and the performing and visual arts, I would say the awful Darwinian tribe-forming of high school. All sorts of pressures cause young boys and girls to pick a group of friends to hang out with in their early teens. The sporty kids go to the field or the court, the arty kids to the theatre or the café and the nerds to their books or their rooms.

The dominant culture in New Zealand, no matter how much te reo we speak or Polynesian art we admire, remains Anglo-American, and we have inherited our educational and social prejudices from that tradition. New Zealand’s educational philosophy, curriculum and teaching methods are mostly derived from English public schools in the Victorian era, whose educational philosophy and practise was centred on preparing young men to contribute to the ruling of the British Empire. Sport was a central part of this preparation. Children were taught to aspire to lead through sport and to be good team players able to treat victory and disaster just the same.

Educational attitudes to the performing and visual arts in the English tradition, and hence in our schools today, were very different to sport. While sport was a mainstream contributor to educational goals, the performing arts were an entertaining diversion, an optional extra.

This divide between sport and the performing and visual arts is established early and it is hard to bridge. Children in their mid-teens who choose a tribe to hang out with are not simply choosing what they like to do and who they like to do it with, but how they see themselves. They are establishing their identity.

Often when I toured with the All Blacks, when we were in London or Paris or Buenos Aires, I would suggest to a team mate that we go and check out an art gallery. The look of shock and reflex rejection was pretty quickly replaced by a shrug and “okay” and off we would go. I cannot think of a single time when my team mate didn’t love the experience. They had been conditioned to think that arts were not their thing. But really, they had no idea. Arts were their thing, they just didn’t know it.

The point of education, I mean all education, not just school education, but the education you give yourself as you move through life, is to provide you with the understanding and the tools required to lead the most engaged and fulfilling life you can. You may be trained to do a job, but you are educated to live a life.

I recall the wonderful Brian Lochore being asked many years ago why it was that New Zealanders were so good at rugby. His typically succinct and insightful reply was, “Because it suits us.” He was saying there is something inherent in the experience of being a New Zealander, of living on these few small Polynesian islands, being close to the land, respecting our traditions and being immensely proud in our own quiet way, that makes rugby just the sort of game for us.

Sport is a very direct and open expression of our national character and identity, but it is no more insightful or truthful an expression than the performing and visual arts. We can and should look at ourselves from every angle possible, from the end of a hockey stick and the end of a paint brush, from the back of the stand and the front of the stage. Every expression of what it means to be us enriches us. A variety of expressions enriches us more.

The funny thing is we know this and without thinking about it we practise it. After the black jersey and the silver fern, what’s the most iconic thing about the All Blacks? I would say the haka. And what’s the haka? A cultural expression through a performance I would call art. And what did all the rugby teams I ever played with do when on tour after a match and after the obligatory judges’ session? We sang. Kevin Boroevich or Buck Shelford or Frank Shelford or someone else pulled out a guitar and off we went. The rugby match of the afternoon was an intense public expression of the spirit of our New Zealandness. The singing in the evening was a gentler but, if anything, more intense private expression of the spirit of our New Zealandness. Sport and song carry the same load, serve the same purpose and burnish the same treasure.

Sport and the arts are different and complementary ways of learning about the world and about ourselves. Sport is a stronger expression of human physical endeavour; the arts are a stronger expression of human creative endeavour. We complicated humans need both to thrive.

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