State of the Arts, The Haliburton Highlander, June 21, 2012

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Victoria Ward

Pride and Prejudiced

My lawn is a sea of yellow this time of year. Dandelions return more brilliant and multitudinous each time we mow, they seem to find their cutting as a challenge to get more resilient. I like them and don’t see them as weeds so until they seed and become balding, screechy versions of themselves, we let them grow. We don’t use pesticides because we drink from the ground and regardless of what you believe; pesticides end up in ground water.

Unfortunately dandelions are a kind of metaphor for how being alternative in this world plays out. Most people think they are a sign of someone who doesn’t take care of their lawn, but I think that being judgmental about someone else’s lawn can become a kind of mild fascism.

Thinking someone else’s lawn isn’t up to par, or blight on your neighbourhood, or just plain wrong isn’t unlike thinking someone else’s lifestyle is inappropriate. One could argue that lawns are seen by others while lifestyle choices can be hidden.  Really? How does one hide their life partners exactly?

This is a very round about way of talking about homosexuality. Many of my dearest friends in the world are gay, and I am sorry to lump all of you into the category of ‘gay’ but it’s the shortest route I could take to make my point. I could not imagine not having these people in my life, in fact, in many respects they have helped my life become a more joyous place to be. So, of course I was thrilled that President Barak Obama eloquently said that he believes in same sex marriage.

Gay people have long been an enormous economic driver of the arts around the world. They are what hip marketers call ‘the pink dollar’; lots of disposable income and openness to the alternative realm that is the arts. Every arts organization on the planet either has either a gay person running it, sitting on its board or championing it throughout their community. Frankly, I don’t think we would have the civilization we do without the contribution from the gay community.

Ok, so I’m queer friendly. That can’t be a surprise. I do think however we have seen the openness to our gay friends in our society also inspire an unfortunate back lash. This can be seen very clearly in the actions of the Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the Republicans south of the border, the Church of England and many misguided people who think that homosexuality somehow threatens the family.

Out of all my friends I have known for decades now, some of the most successful and domesticated couples are my gay friends. I know one couple that has been together faithfully for twenty-five years and attends church every week. How this threatens the status quo and the family is beyond me.

What so many people don’t realize is how much time and money the gay community has contributed to our culture. Walk into an art friendly gay person’s home and it is stacked with art. These are people who put their money into art, all the time. I know it’s a cliché but it is actually true, many, many gay people love the arts and are happy to pay for it.

It isn’t a coincidence: writer Christopher Reed and his recent opus Art and Homosexuality states that “modern culture conjoined the kinds of individualism represented by the “artist” and the “homosexual” so that these were seen as closely interrelated types: outsiders, sensitive to aesthetics, who gravitated to cities and shocked conventional sensibilities by acting on their unconventional impulses.”

I began my professional art career because of a gay man, Sky Gilbert. Sky ran Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.  For a long time it was the only gay theatre company inNorth America. Sky came to see a performance of mine when I was just fresh out of art school. Over the next several years Sky mentored me, told me I could write, helped me choose projects and encouraged my engagement in politics and the media. His help was invaluable and I honour him every time someone asks how I got into this art thing.

If you take a small stroll through the history of western art you will stumble upon countless episodes of questioning sexual identity. From Socrates to Da Vinci to Warhol, sexuality is but a mercurial marker; it’s a part of us and can be defining or not. Art and its geniuses came into being regardless of it, even though there was probably great individual struggle.

Today we can be very proud of a culture that is inclusive of this section of humanity. Although my dandelions aren’t the greatest of analogies, and I apologize to those who would rather I used posies or roses; we are beginning to look at them differently, not just a weed but plant that makes great tea, has healing properties and a makes a great salad fixing. Let them continue to thrive without stigma and injury.

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Quietly viewing art in the din of Nuit Blanche

October comes with a chill. Since the beginning of the month the sun has been elusive and so our little patch has become a gothic setting, not unlike the town in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – a fav of mine as a child. We also had our driveway dug up and re-gravelled which cut our phone/internet line in half leaving us without outside world contact for a day (we don’t have a strong tower near us so we are still very early 21st century and use a line for high speed). It was quiet. Once back online however the noise began to peak with the steady stream of civil unrest and art revelry.

This year I presented my new work ‘a little red’ at Nuit Blanche, a raucaus festive art event that happens throughout one night in downtown Toronto. My work has some political edge to it and I wanted to give it a debut in an environment with an anything goes atmosphere. It proved to be the perfect and not perfect venue for my piece. Nuit Blanche is at once a distracted free for all made all the more chaotic by the ubiquitous iphone; gorgeous young people showing off their new fall fare taking pictures of themselves with weirdness and oddness, and it can have moments of thoughtful contemplation where the noise of it is doused by an artist who takes their work seriously. I sit between the two camps and although I thought the humour in my piece might work to my advantage, it was actually the serious edge of my writing (the stuff about fairness, eqaulity and other Marxist references) that really caught hold of people. In the recent weeks after my presentation I now see why my work had the impact that I totally didn’t expect: people agreed with me and were somewhat empowered by it (as empowered as you can be at midnight on a freezing October night fuelled by energy drinks, coffee and alcohol – the new accessories for viewing art or anything really).

The Occupy movement has now spread to mainstream media and around the world becoming less about people sitting in a tiny, damp park in downtown New York and more about how the culture can affect change through the drumbeat, both real and virtual, of righteous anger and thoughtful protest. Or thoughtful anger and righteous protest, they both are at work. Bizarrely I have been thinking this very thing for years; all we needed was to cloud the air waves up with our voices, shape debate based on completely new rules, offer tangible ideas about how to vent your ideas and frustrations in viable smart ways, and be ready to allow the organic flow of a ‘movement’ (point defined, shape not so much) to spread and move the way it needs to without allowing anything or body to co-opt it.

And art can play a vital role here, which is the idea I had for my project: create something that is undefined but purposeful so that other mediums can spring from it in a natural and unforced way. Ground ideas in need and importance then play with them and keep in mind what impact they can have. All very airy fairy perhaps but only in this writing. When I got down off my little soap box in the corner of the Arta gallery and a group of young people approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed my piece (all of them standing quietly and attentively throughout the presentation) and thanked me, I was somewhat overwhelmed. People are listening, they are listening to the din of change everywhere, even in the crazy setting of the over endowed Nuit Blanche.

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