Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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'The Awful Stuff': Colin McCahon, High Art, and the Common Culture 1947-2000

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posted on 2021-12-08, 10:29 authored by Strongman, Lara

This thesis analyses the conditions of artistic production at two pivotal moments in the reception of modernism in New Zealand: the emergence of a tradition of modernist painting in the work of Colin McCahon in the late 1940s, and the dispersal of that tradition under the impact of postmodernism and postcolonialism circa 1990 in the work of Michael Parekowhai and Ronnie van Hout, among others. Artists’ distinctive engagement with a broad compass of visual culture is considered alongside a critique of local high culture in relation to the culture of everyday life. The reception of this work is figured as emblematic of the historical contestation over the representation of the everyday; a struggle for visibility which reveals the social antagonisms of New Zealand culture.  The first part of the thesis considers the vituperative critical response to McCahon’s use of formal devices drawn from comic books and commercial design in the late 1940s, against the background of the establishment of the national high culture. It accounts for the response by exploring the social factors inherent in critical disdain for commercial art and mass culture, which drew on the trenchant opposition of British intellectuals, and suggests that in McCahon’s work popular culture is employed as a form of aesthetic primitivism with which to represent the barbarities of World War II, as well as to express the experience of everyday life in New Zealand to a broad public audience. It concludes that fundamental to the antagonism over his work was disagreement over what constituted local cultural authenticity.  The second part of the thesis considers problems of New Zealand high culture figured in antagonistic relation to the culture of everyday life that were advanced by New Zealand critics in the years after McCahon produced his popular-culture inflected paintings. The anti-Americanism of New Zealand culture is considered in relation to the rise of the ‘comics menace’ as a source of moral panic in the early 1950s. However, the interest of a new generation of New Zealand scholars in popular culture is observed in changing attitudes towards comic strips (and to American culture) in the 1980s. The same scholars also seek new terms for local critical address. A final chapter of this section explores the afterlife of McCahon’s work following his death in 1987, tracking the movement of the work out into the common culture and the high culture’s contestation of his modernist legacy.   The third part of the thesis opens with an account of aspects of art practice under emerging cultural conditions of postmodernism and postcolonialism in New Zealand in the 1990s, and explores the continued role of McCahon’s work in expressing and revising issues of national identity. Central here is ‘Choice!’ (1990), an exhibition of contemporary Māori art, which introduced Michael Parekowhai’s work and precipitated an ongoing discussion on the politics of identity in contemporary art. While Parekowhai located aspects of Māori identity in the traditions of high art and globalised mass culture, other artists interrogated national identity by similar means. The result was an expansion of the terms both of national identity and of the critical territories of the high culture. The thesis concludes by examining the critical furore that arose when Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s new national museum, opened with the exhibition of a painting by Colin McCahon beside a refrigerator of the same vintage. The debate, which ensued, was largely concerned with the desire of critics to separate the domain of art from the domain of everyday life.  This analysis demonstrates how contestation between the high culture and the common culture represents a recurring and generative dynamic in the history of New Zealand art—in which McCahon is a pivotal figure—during the second half of the twentieth century.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies