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On heresy and courage

06 May 2010

Chapman Tripp is proud of our continuing involvement with New Zealand's thriving arts community.

Chapman Tripp Chief Executive and Chair of Creative New Zealand, the Arts Council of New Zealand, Alastair Carruthers, was privileged to take part in the ceremony celebrating the graduation of the University of Auckland - Faculty of Creative Arts and Industry students.

He addressed the Autumn Graduation ceremony for those students at the ASB Theatre on Monday 3 May.

His speech follows.

E nga mana, e nga iwi, e nga reo, e nga rangatira ma, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Members of Council and the University, Graduands, whanau and friends.

Thank you for the privilege of spending this special morning with you.

This ceremony and its recognition of your achievements and your commitment to scholarship are things you will remember forever. 

So too will those who have supported you in many ways – your families, friends and loved ones. 

Please be grateful to them, for they have invested much in your success.

In preparing these remarks, I naturally recalled my own graduation and its meaning – some of which has only become clear over the last decade. 

As the years have passed, my appreciation has deepened for my parents.

They were determined that my sisters and I would study whatever we felt curious about.

This habit has served me well ever since, and it will do so for you too.

As you cross the stage today, permit me to suggest a question to consider.

It concerns the state of your minds.

They have been stretched by years of study and exploration.

And what a luxury that is, for scholarship is surely one of the most wonderful privileges of being human.

My question is whether your minds are in a state of great danger.

Let’s consider what that idea might mean.

In his provocative book “Between the Monster and the Saint”, Scottish philosopher Richard Holloway reminds us that while consciousness and free will give us control over our lives, our minds are dangerous and unpredictable places.

They are full of capability, and perhaps only your intentions will determine how well they serve you and the world we share.

You are about to leave a system that has encouraged independent and free thought. 

Many of you will soon join systems - work systems - that will be more focused and require your creative commitment to achieving their purposes.

There is nothing wrong with that, as long as your values are aligned.

But you may find yourselves challenged to conform to environments less open than the one you are leaving.And in such circumstances, your creative mind, your open mind, your exploring mind, may be in some sort of danger: the danger of assimilation, the danger of your courage growing dull, the danger of personal ambition trumping an ambition for wider good.

Of course, we all need to be practical. 

We need to earn money.

And we need to read our worlds carefully and adapt to them in order to succeed in and perhaps improve them.

But please don’t forget the value of dangerous thinking, wherever your lives lead you.

Indeed, let me challenge you to ensure that your minds are always capable of great danger.

Not damaging in their intent, but dangerous in their ability to think greatly and unconventionally – to seek something better and unseen beyond the obvious.

Consider for a moment some of the dangerous thinkers whose examples led to a better world, sometimes at great cost. 

Free-thinking Tudor theologians and scholars Thomas Bilney and John Frith had unconventional thoughts about what to worship.

And they had sympathy with the view that English people should read the Bible in the English language.

These ideas were considered so dangerous that they were burned alive for heresy.

The French and very well funded 18th century chemist and bon vivant Antoine Lavoisier discovered carbon.

He did so by burning diamonds in an elaborate contraption of lenses, ropes and pullies, in front of the Louvre.

His discovery started a trail that leads to the super-conductors and microchips we cannot imagine living without today. 

But for such excesses Monsieur Lavoisier lost his head within five years.

Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinsky lived in more benign times, but their premiere of the Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris in 1913.

It also ushered in what we now love as 20th century tonality and modern dance.

Bertold Brecht’s dissent from the terrifying and seductive group-think of fascism saw him flee Germany and write some of the greatest plays of the age – Mother Courage and Her Children to name but one.

Other artists were unable to escape the horrors of Europe in the 1940’s but held true to their creative spirit.

Amid the cruelty of the Theresienstadt concentration camp:

  • conductor Rafael Schachter formed a chorus and gave 13 performances of Verdi’s Requiem
  • Ilse Weber wrote poetry and song which survives today in recordings by Anne Sophie Von Otter, and 
  • Visual artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis held drawing classes for children, producing over 4000 art-works that were hidden in suitcases and are now exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Artists such as these illustrate Richard Holloway’s belief that “while monsters may triumph in real time, in the long reach of history they are usually defeated.” 

They may, and often do, kill the poet and the prophet, but they can never kill the poem or the memory of the challenge to the powerful.”Now.

What of the world you are entering today?

The dangers seem reduced, and mercifully so. 

But it isn’t so long ago that minds like Janet Frame’s were considered so at-large they needed taming through electric shock.

We are still evolving.

New Zealanders’ attitudes to the arts and to creative industry have never been better.

Public funding, civic vision, willing markets, film makers, and design-led companies are enabling you to find careers that will help our nation be stronger.

But I sometimes wonder if this positive environment also carries risk, for in the absence of adversity, complacency finds an easy bed. 

Are New Zealand creators currently pushing their practices as if their very survival was in great danger?

Is there sufficient strength and urgency, or even a hint of heresy, in their work?

Is there a Frank Lloyd-Wright among you, who would put a waterfall through a house? 

Is there a Charles Renfro who could look at a disused Manhattan train-line and see a highly participative public garden and art space?

Would any of you wrap our Parliament in polypropelene, as Jeane-Claude and Christo did to the Reichstag in 1995?

Is there a successor to Len Lye – someone who will imagine art works so bold they can only be built a generation later when technology catches up with your mind?

Would one of you treat the dance stage as human skin to be punctured by a needle, as Douglas Wright did when he choreographed “Black Milk”?

Who will step into Jane Campion’s shoes, or Roger Donaldson’s, and tell the story of the next Burt Munro?

And who might look at our rapidly changing society and write the next “Smith’s Dream”, “Foreskins Lament” or “Sons for the Return Home”?

The role of a creative person in our society is full of potential.

We are blessed that people such as you might contribute your gifts to explain, to improve and to amplify the human experience.

I urge you not to waste the chance to be great, nor to lose the courage of well-intentioned dissent if circumstances require. 

Your thoughts may simply be ahead of their time.To close, I can think of no fresher or warmer illustration than from two of our most loved performing artists.

Of course this affection wasn’t always so.  And they knew it. 

From the outset they sang:

We are scruffy, we’re regressive, we’ll take over the world.

For much of their lives, they produced their art knowing it was illegal to exist.

Imagine that for a moment.

Then imagine how it felt for them two weeks ago when - backed by the Auckland Philharmonia in a sold-out town hall - an audience they might have once repelled clapped to these words:

We won’t let anybody touch our brainsWe won’t ever, ever plug it into the mainsAnd we’re overtaking in a single laneWe’re untouchable, untouchable girls.

Like the Topp Twins, I hope you will never lose your independence or your bravery.

Thank you once more for the pleasure of being here.

Congratulations on your brilliant success.

I wish you the brightest and most courageous of futures.