The issue of arts funding and who gets what is not a new debate in Aotearoa New Zealand. Creative New Zealand (CNZ) has regularly come under fire from writers and artists, with literary doyenne Paula Morris even winning a bias complaint against it earlier this year, after it turned down her application on behalf of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. (She reapplied. The funding was approved.)
But recently CNZ made a funding decision that caused widespread public outcry, dominating headlines and no doubt fueling heated discussions in school staffrooms, drama studios, and homes across the country.
For the first time in ten years, CNZ declined a funding proposal for $31,000 to go towards the Shakespeare Globe Centre NZ (SGCNZ). It’s the organisation behind the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival (SWSF), an annual competition in which high schools around the country perform scenes from the author’s plays.
In the funding proposal assessment document, the assessors said, “the proposal did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape.” The assessors also added that “this genre was located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa.”
As you might guess, the media went to town, proclaiming that the SWSF was at risk of falling over entirely … and much of New Zealand believed them.
“WOKE NONSENSE!” screamed Newstalk ZB listeners.
“Shakespeare’s being CANCELLED!” shrilled drama tutors and The New Zealand Herald readers and Sean Plunket and his five listeners.
But here’s the thing: it wasn’t just the right-wing fanatics and white middle-aged talkback listeners (the ones who think “Don’t Say Aotearoa” would be a great slogan for a political party) who jumped on the bandwagon of outrage and condemnation. It appeared to be most people – and, I’ll be totally honest – that included me, for a few hours. Until I did a little more digging.
In a surreal development, “most people” appeared to include our prime minister. In a move that some – OK me, it’s me – might say sets an extremely dangerous precedent, she issued a statement saying the government would enter talks with the SGCNZ to ensure the SWSF could still go ahead. Three cheers for Jacinda Ardern! Though she be but little, she is fierce!*
Phew! Thank God. Shakespeare would live another day. All’s well that ends well.*
But here’s the thing: it appears that the breathless headlines and tweets and angry commentary (talkback radio went OFF, my friends) and outrage and cries of wokeness and cancel culture were based on … not the truth.
Lord, what fools these mortals be!*
So let’s break it down.
- The application was for about 10% of the SGCNZ’s operating budget. It was NOT the funding specifically needed to put on the SWSF.
- The SGCNZ has reportedly since started a crowd funding page and they will make up the shortfall.
- The SWSF will go ahead. It was always going to go ahead. It was never at risk. (Thanks, PM, though. Nice optics.)
- CNZ issued a statement saying they don’t hate Shakespeare; they love and support him (one of the most bizarre defences I’ve heard, but there you go), and that the application was turned down because there are higher funding priorities at this time, the application wasn’t as strong as others, and they simply don’t have enough money to fund everyone.
Many media organisations were initially more than happy to overlook these truths. And so, the conversation was quickly blown entirely out of proportion, based as it was on misinformation and half-truths.
Folks, Shakespeare is here to stay. It’s OK. Really, it is. You speak an infinite deal of nothing.*
So why did we go momentarily mad?
Look, anyone who tries to deny that racism exists in Aotearoa is kidding themselves. There’s no way you could look at the viciousness of some of the arguments around imperialism and contemporary art and what constitutes worthiness, and not sense the ignorant terror of anything not white. There are people in our country who wait for just these moments: the opportunity to weaponise their fear. Their vitriol masks, at its heart, dread that we’re all going to end up speaking only Te Reo and weaving kete and banned from enjoying Beethoven or any dead white man’s art ever again. Ultimately, they fear their own irrelevance.
I could be kinder and say that some people might have been concerned that this decision (and others like it) could herald the loss of our links with the vast and rich history of art and expression in Europe and other continents and nations.
But I’m not here to be kind.
I’m also not here to judge the rightness or wrongness of the decision. I will say, however, that there are many, many artists and arts organisations struggling for funding in New Zealand, and believe me when I tell you that William Shakespeare is not one of them. He will go on, a permanent fixture in theatres and schools and universities and on TV and in movies and in our homes, no matter what, and rightly so. I’m with you, CNZ. I love Shakespeare. But, arguably, a dead white man hailed as one of the greatest writers of all time doesn’t need any further funding from CNZ.
The main issue here, to me, is the way we create, collate, and disseminate knowledge. And the way we consume it.
Journalists and media organisations, I’m looking at you. Consumers of news, I’m looking at you.
Shakespeare-gate has seen a handful of comments cherry-picked and smashed onto computer screens, where they have masqueraded as truth – and too many of us bought it. Literally.
I have written in a previous post about my concern over the state of journalism in this country. You can read the full post here, but for now I’ll offer an extract:
“What has happened to journalism in New Zealand? Superficial, once-over-lightly reporting, prizing youth above experience when hiring journalists, the pressure to churn out fresh headlines every ten minutes, particularly in radio/online, a “gotcha” interview style, soundbite-driven leading questions, and the age of social media domination, which prizes speed and sensationalism over careful, thoughtful, long-form reporting and explanation.
“There is an argument that we are in the era of “post journalism”. I’m still trying to figure out what that means, but no doubt it involves dumbing down, and opinion, and social media manipulation, and a dearth of analytical skills and discernment.
“This all makes me afraid for our country. Clickbait headlines and opinion pieces dashed out to meet deadlines and make money are hurting people, inflicting damage on our attempts to protect all New Zealanders, inflaming reactionary responses, making people afraid, and sowing dissent.”
Consumers, it’s your turn. Where is our discernment? Where is the hesitation to swallow headlines whole, the urge to double-check before forming an opinion? The patience and wisdom to wait until the complete story has come out before angrily bashing out a tweet or a Facebook comment?
Shakespeare-gate has been a tangle of poor reporting, misinformation, half-truths, and the blind willingness of too many of us to believe shouty headlines and hearsay.
As George Orwell once said:
“If there really is such a thing as turning in one’s grave, Shakespeare must get a lot of exercise.”
Or, as the bard himself said:
“[Thou] mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!”*
*A special prize to the first person who can name all the plays these Shakespeare quotes come from. Disclaimer: the special prize may not be all that special.