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Does Strictly Canadian = Doomed to Fail?

Does labelling something Canadian build our society or doom our cultural industries to failure?

On April 13, the Spur Festival—a new national festival of politics, art and ideas created by the Literary Review of Canada—held a panel on this provocative question titled “Strictly Canadian = Doomed to Fail?” at OISE in Toronto.

After submitting a 750-word response to the question, I was accepted as a panellist along with Toronto writers Terri Favro, Mayank Bhatt and Evadne Macedo. The panel was moderated by Peter Howell, who is movie critic (and past music critic) for the Toronto Star.

This post attempts to informally sum up some of my own personal responses to the question “Does labelling something Canadian build our society or doom our cultural industries to failure?” and also include a measure of the response from other panellists.

***

I applied to participate in this panel because Spur’s question got me thinking.

What first struck me was the impossibility reducing all matters of socio-cultural success and failure to a simple matter of labelling.

In reality, the success or failure of our literary, cinematic, artistic and theatrical sectors is determined through a very complex process. Timing, personality, distribution and promotion are just a few of the factors that determine the success of an artist beyond the need for their work to be (of course) excellent to begin with.

That’s not to say that I haven’t wished that cultural achievement (or abasement) could be as simple as Spur’s question suggests.

After all, what critic hasn’t wished for the ability to doom a repugnant and time-wasting (n.b.: often the same thing) book, album, painting, sculpture or film with the a single word—whether that word is “Canadian” or not?

Similarly, what critic hasn’t yearned for a term that could elevate a creative work and make everyone appreciate its essential and groundbreaking goodness—as well as the admirable or courageous efforts of the person who made it—automatically?

The fact is, that’s not how criticism works (which is a good thing). And it’s not how cultural industries work either.

***

These reflections led me to consider the emotional resonance behind Spur’s question—and that, for me, is a resonance of shame.

The question’s mood could be rephrased as follows: Should we be ashamed of calling something Canadian? Is that too reductive? Too essentialist? Too generalized? Too uncool? Or (when we get down to nitty-gritty dollars and cents) simply too counterproductive in a global marketplace?

I’ll admit my own rephrasing of the question is reductive too.

After all, there are plenty of things in Canadian history (and Canadian present-ry) to be ashamed about. Residential schools, head taxes, and Japanese internment camps are just a few that come to mind.

Simultaneously, there is much to be proud of in Canada: Terry Fox (and other activists like him), restitution initiatives, gay marriage, and (yep, I’ll just say it!) maple syrup are on my thumbs-up list—among many other (I wish to reassure readers) quite serious and non-condimentary phenomena.

***

What I like about a lot of the good art that gets made in Canada (or by people who have spent key parts of their lives in Canada) is that it can address this complexity—of shame and pride, ease and difficulty—and encourage new discussions about it.

Take, for instance, the art of Kent Monkman. This Toronto-based Cree artist (as many Canadian Art readers already know) makes large paintings that initially resemble historical landscapes of the Canadian West—until you notice homoerotic reversals of power between the “cowboys and Indians” depicted.

Or consider the work of Toronto’s Shary Boyle, who will represent Canada at this year’s Venice Biennale. In her installation The Clearances, Boyle creates what looks like a magical storybook illustration, but it turns into a dark reflection on colonial injustices when the gallery light changes. Her installation Canadian Artist explicitly takes on the topic of a troubled national identity, creating an imaginative genealogy that sees a Hudson’s Bay Company rapist procreating with a foundling from Wales.

Refusing to attach the term “Canadian” to such artworks—even on an optional basis—robs viewers of two opportunities.

First, it denies viewers the opportunity to understand the artwork better through an appreciation of its myriad Canadian reference points and influences. (How many people know that Peter Doig’s 1991 painting The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, which fetched $12 million at auction in February, is of Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler’s home in Toronto?)

Second, it refuses viewers the chance to understand Canada better—largely through the bits that don’t easily stick to any idea we might typically have about “Canadianness,” bits that indicate how much we are connected to cultures and experiences that go beyond the usual borders of what we might imagine our nation and its residents to be.

There’s lots of works I could name as examples of the latter, among them Brendan Fernandes’s Foe—a video of the artist receiving lessons in how to speak the “accents” of his Kenyan-Indian cultural backgrounds.

***

My fellow panellists had some illuminating responses to the central question of the event.

Mayank Bhatt, a books blogger and Indo Canada Chamber of Commerce COO who moved to Canada in 2008, wrote that “if there is a perception that labelling something ‘Canadian’ dooms our cultural industries to failure, it’s because at present the term Canadian is narrowly defined and doesn’t encompass all that it should—culturally, socially, economically and politically.”

Bhatt also pointed out that while the “national mainstream” occasionally acknowledges Indo-Canadian talents like Rohinton Mistry and Deepa Mehta, it quickly moves on to “Justin Trudeau and Margaret Atwood.”

Listening to Bhatt, it occurred to me (yet again) how Eurocentric my art-school instruction was. I wondered how much these norms had changed, if at all, when it came to teaching such “foundations” as drawing, painting and sculpture. Do the teaching tools for intro courses have to be limited to artifacts of the Italian Renaissance? Or can they encompass Indian miniatures and Japanese prints as well?

Macedo spoke about the frustration of submitting a book manuscript to agents and editors only to have them suggest that she change the setting of her book from Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood—where she lives with her family—to a more marketable setting like San Francisco or New York.

She also spoke and wrote about support for the arts in Sweden; Swedish authors such as Stieg Larsson enjoy remarkable success “even though” their books are set in a non-American setting.

Listening to Macdeo, I wondered whether visual artists had ever been told—by an internalized voice or otherwise—that they shouldn’t include something recognizably Canadian in order to enhance the international market for a work. I suspected yes, though I can also appreciate that writers, artists and filmmakers often belong to floating “nations” of their own that cross geographic borders, and that they respond to common influences and formal issues without (quite reasonably) feeling a need to highlight nation of origin or residence.

Favro wrote that “Irrelevance lies in trying to be a one-size-fits-all culture, not recognizably Canadian (or anything else).” At the same time, she noted, “Our problem isn’t cultural, but demographic. Survival depends on being appreciated elsewhere… because Canadians are too few in number to support our cultural and technological industries singlehandedly.”

Listening to Favro, who is a writer, I thought about some of the differences between the literary market and the art market. The book world deals in multiples, and authors need to move hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies to make a living solely off their work. (In contrast, a “Canadian bestseller” can be just 5,000 copies, some say.)

In her essay, Favro also foregrounded the fact that her parents were immigrants—a trait I share. Even though my parents were from the nations supposedly most similar to Canada—the United States and New Zealand—I wondered if this growing up as a kind of “newcomer” has made some of us particularly attuned to issues of what is or isn’t Canadian, and made us more invested in such issues as a result.

Howell, who has long covered Canadian film and music for the Star, reminded us that when CanCon was introduced into radio requirements, there was a huge outcry—”no one’s going to listen to the radio anymore!” it was said. Also, “it’s not going to help anyone!” On the contrary, however, music is now perhaps one of Canada’s strongest and most internationally integrated cultural industries.

What other legislation to support Canadian culture might have gone by the wayside due to outcry like this? And could something like CanCon regs ever work in the art world?

Howell also reinforced the importance of Canadians telling their own stories. Though he enjoyed the movie Argo, he noted its slant pretty much overlooked the contributions of Canadians in the historical event it depicted.

***

Overall, the idea that it is counterproductive internationally to label something Canadian doesn’t hold water these days—at least in the art world, I think.

Over the past year or so, two major international museums—the UK’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and the USA’s MASS MoCA—have seen record-breaking and above-average attendance, respectively, at exhibitions devoted to Canadian art.

Last May, an artwork by Vancouver’s Jeff Wall sold for $3.6 million at Christie’s in New York, becoming the third-most-expensive photo ever sold at auction.

At Germany’s Documenta—arguably the world’s most influential art show after Venice—an installation by Vancouver’s Geoffrey Farmer was one of the most-discussed works in 2012. And canvases by a considerably less hip Canadian artist, Emily Carr, also received positive attention there.

These are just a few examples—a mere suggestion of the great things Canadian artists are doing these days, regardless of labels. But when we shame ourselves out of noting their CanCon contexts, all of us—viewers and artists alike—end up worse off for it, I believe.

Sure, there are many challenges, financial and otherwise, for the great majority of Canadian artists to face at home (a topic that deserves its own panel, possibly a multi-year one).

But the evidence suggests that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have a problem with “Canadian”-labelled art. Why should we?


Comments

Sky Weir says:

I wonder if there are other countries or cultures that constantly wonder if they exist! Constantly wondering if they are worthy enough to exist? Questioning if they are actually “valid”. Why are we so frightened to just be? I liken our constant looking over the shoulder to somebody afraid that their shoes might not match their outfit and must ask every few minutes if they look OK.

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Sky,

I totally hear you that this kind of questioning can be viewed as both (a) perennial and (b) annoying. I bet there are lots of people who feel the same way.

Me, I’m someone get intrigued about these kinds of questions from time to time. That’s where I’m at. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing, too, that we are willing to question what we are all about rather than assume there’s some kind of monolithic or permanent version of same. Writing that just now, I can see that there is, of course, a spectrum of options between questioning things all the time, self-consciously, and presuming that everyone agrees on some singular version of national identity–we could all just never question it, but accept that there is change and multiplicity in national identity at the same time. Maybe it’s that latter option you are thinking of?

In any case, I appreciate you taking time to voice an annoyance and irritation that, as I said, I’m sure many others feel as well.

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