Shayne Carter: ‘Art has always been completely undervalued’

12:51 pm on 22 March 2024
Shayne Carter during the All In For Arts Events, March 2024.

Shayne Carter: "Is the real world about the stock market or your connection with other people and the environment around you?" Photo: The Arts Foundation

Musician Shayne Carter says art is a life-saving necessity, rather than a frivolous sideline, in a speech delivered as part of a nationwide series.

Carter, best known for his involvement in bands Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer, is also an award-winning writer. He delivered the following words as part of a recent Art For All event organised by The Arts Foundation and Creative New Zealand.

"I think that art has always been completely undervalued in this country, and often seen as this frivolous sideline while people get on with the real stuff like making sure you can have a cigarette and dealing with gang patches.

I know growing up when I told people I was a musician there'd be this air of, "So, when are you going to get a real job?"…or the question - "So do you sit around writing songs all day?" Well, yeah I do, although I might stand up if it's a fast song.

This attitude, I believe, is a sort of cultural immaturity, in the post-colonialist version of our country anyway, because that version doesn't have the depth of history, or the proof of history, like older societies, in Europe and Asia for instance, where artists are recognised and valued for what they add to a community. What they add is richness, self-awareness, well-being and a sense of identity, among many other things.

The bottom line is that art makes people feel better. When a person sees a movie or a play, or reads a passage in a book, or hears a piece of music and connects it to their own experience, it makes them feel less alone. It makes us aware of our commonality and the humanity of others. Art is something people share. It's way deeper than the clickbait and algorithms of a swipe swipe / short attention span world. Art involves contemplation and stopping for a moment and properly taking stock.

You can't put a monetary value on poetry and beauty, or connection, or empathy, or transcendence, or inspiration, or history, or inclusion, so that's another reason why art is undervalued. It's a capitalist society. Art deals in intangibles that are apparently airy-fairy and not connected to the real world. But is the real world about the stock market or your connection with other people and the environment around you?

I think traditionally in this country we've also been made to feel inferior to the colonialist motherships of Britain and the US. One thing I've witnessed in my lifetime is the erosion of that attitude and the surge in our cultural confidence. We here in Aotearoa are uniquely placed in the world, geographically and culturally, with a unique perspective. We're on the outside looking in in many ways and that's the correct place for an artist to be. Artists aren't here to reinforce the status quo. We're here to investigate it and to offer new shapes and alternatives.

I think the term "cultural cringe" wouldn't even occur to our new generation of creatives and that's a great thing.

The giant Ed Sheeran mural in Dunedin

The Ed Sheeran mural, Dunedin. Photo: Supplied

I want to briefly mention the decision a few years ago to paint giant murals of Ed Sheeran in Dunedin, when this city has so many cultural icons of its own. That isn't a celebration of art, it's a celebration of commerce. It's also that old school attitude I'm referring to where the overseas model is considered superior. I wonder how people would feel if there was a statue of an English rugby player outside Forsyth Barr stadium? Just a thought.

On a more positive note, I'd just like to share what being an artist means to me.

I was a mixed-race kid brought up in a poor part of Dunedin. I was disenfranchised, but music gave me an outlet, validation and a voice. It proved that I existed. I wonder about kids from a similar background who don't find that outlet because sometimes all a person needs is a chance. It's not being overly dramatic to say that self-expression can literally save lives.

Don McGlashan and Shayne Carter

Shayne Carter and Don McGlashan playing live at RNZ in 2016. Photo: RNZ/Cole Eastham-Farrelly

One of the greatest things about being a musician is playing as a group, because there's fewer deeper or more magical ways to connect with other humans. I've played with musicians of all stripes; from symphony orchestras to noise musicians from Port Chalmers, for dance, theatre, ballet… I've also played with people from around the world. When I play with Thai or Korean musicians, we may not speak the same language but we recognise each other in the music. We also recognise each other because, no matter where you are, the artist's heart is pretty much the same.

That aside, being an artist is usually totally unromantic. It's grunt work involving thousands of hours where you hopefully arrive at some point of illumination. Creating is all in the editing. It's about what you put in and, perhaps more importantly, what you leave out. I think as you mature as an artist you learn to operate by stealth and you learn to play the spaces. But a beautiful passage of music or a beautiful sentence has a correctness to it. A symmetry. The right balance, the right proportions, the right shape and the right weight. And you see that symmetrical phenomena everywhere. Think of a microscopic image of the shell of an insect or a plant. You'll see an amazing intricacy and logic to the design. So when you create an artwork that has that same sense of balance and correctness you genuinely feel connected to a higher universal order.

That to me my friends is the true shape of things and that to me is the real world."

The All in for Arts event series is delivered by The Arts Foundation and Creative New Zealand. There are six more events around the North Island between now and early May 2024. Learn more [ here].