Sunday, March 18, 2012

What is “Canadian Art”? Is it similar to what the writer George Bowering suggests when he asks himself, What is Canadian Writing? and then responds by unpacking the category so that we think not of Canadian Writing but of writing in Canada?

Art made by Canadians is Canadian Art, just as art made by United States Americans is American Art. But we don’t say American Art, do we? Nor do we say art in America, unless we are referring to the magazine Art in America.

Canada has a magazine called Canadian Art. As its name suggests, it is concerned with art made by Canadians and, to a lesser extent, art shown in Canada. Those familiar with the magazine will note that Canadian Art covers a range of visual art activity within (and without) the country, notably through its overture section, “Fast Forward,” an announcement of what is up and what is coming from Newfoundland to British Columbia, with special attention paid to Toronto, not because the art made and shown there is especially relevant (Canadian?) but because that is where the bulk of the magazine’s advertising revenues are generated.

Defenders of Canadian Art magazine might think me cynical for pointing this out, that I am grousing about Toronto getting more attention, but this is something even Toronto-based Akimblog will admit to when asked why Vancouver posts appear every four months, while Toronto posts seem to occur on a weekly basis. That we are to accept these “realities” without questioning them (lest we be called “whiners,” etc.) speaks not only to contradictions in the art world but to those found in everything from Canadian domestic policy to America’s foreign wars. (Like Julian Stallabrass says in Art Incorporated [2004]: the art world does not mirror the business world -- it is the business world.)

Canadian Art is a modern phenomenon that began not with a single work of art but a collection of works by Canadian male artists in the 1920s and early-1930s, painters who painted the country’s numerous regional landscapes with an awareness of the various modern (European) styles. Although I am sure a painter like Lawren Harris would have developed a reputation had the Group of Seven not existed, it was his identification with this group (painting within his own geographical milieu) that made the Group of Seven painters more relevant than had they not been bunched together. For me, it is the work made under the banner of this group, not any one particular work, that is the basis for a Canadian Art.

This collected approach continued into the 1960s, not through the medium of painting and the (petite-)genre of landscape but through the integration of mediums such as poetry, performance, photography, installation, film and video; as well as artist collectives and the country's first artist-run centres. Region played into this insofar as what was happening in Halifax was also happening in Vancouver, and that there was a dialogue between the two. The same could be said in the 1980s, with an awareness of identity, multiple modernisms, critical theory. Where Canadian Art began to wane occurred around the same time concepts such as nation, political ideology, even modernism itself, were being challenged. We saw this in Vancouver when pedagogical artist-educators like Jeff Wall began to identify not with what was going on in the rest of the country but what was then going on in Dusseldorf, eschewing Canadian (private) galleries for those in New York, turning his students into cadets…

Nowadays I am not sure what the basis for a Canadian Art might be, if it could be said to exist at all. The critique of neo-liberalism has it that nations are puppets of the one-percenters and that Canadian Anything should be looked at with suspicion. While I am inclined to agree, I would suggest that puppetry, too, is an art form and, like all cultural forms, capable of generating consequences that, if perceived as real, are real by their consequences. This leads me back to the Roy Arden essay I mentioned in Friday's post (“Supernatural”, CAG, 2004) – his suggestion that art made by First Nations artists in Canada is the “new” Canadian Art. Indeed, what better way to continue the subjugation of First Nations people than by giving them not political and economic power, but symbolic power.

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