Tag Archives: CBC

In a world of cool RM Vaughan was warm

Victoria Ward

“Exposure doesn’t fix anything,” I remember RM Vaughan saying on a CBC bit years ago.  He was one of those media pundits for a time and added an edge to the panel who essentially gathered every week to discuss crazy cultural things.   RM was found dead last week in New Brunswick from an apparent suicide.  I am, like many still in shock.  Like many more articulate than I who have been sharing their thoughts on him, here is some of my initial thinking. 

He and I shared a few things in common; we both felt that class played an integral role in the success of artists in Canada, that platforms like Facebook were completely changing the way people interacted with art and art making, and that thinking anything actually mattered more than love in this world was insane.  

I remember at an exhibition at Olga Korper’s a few years ago Richard said to me under his breath, “I get that artists deserve to make an income but only a handful of people on this earth can buy a thirty thousand dollar painting.  Why are we all part of keeping this world alive?”  That and many, many other discussions permeated my experience with him.  More often than not I agreed however when I didn’t I made him smile as my opinions I could tell made him think even if he didn’t agree.  He was like that – open minded.  He was a wonderful adversary in many ways because we both knew we were on the same side, even though I had a lot more faith in institutions and business than he did.  But I was luckier than him. I was a cute, white chick with biological parents who wanted me.   You win the lottery right there really.  

Ultimately though Richard, like so many people have said over the last few days, was an enormous booster of mine too.  He asked nothing in return. Ever. He was just unconditional and supportive of what I was doing. 

But back to his comment, “Exposure doesn’t fix anything.” Or something like that. He meant that being seen, being trended was fleeting, a part of the mixed up social media scramble to make something stick – and make something stick quickly. No one understood this better than RM. I wish he had wrote more about it but in my opinion he was the most eloquent writer about digital in Canada. He took one look at these things, these online platforms where hubris and nihilism have come to reign and realized right away that though they allowed for so many more voices desperately needed in a tiny meritocracy like the Canadian contemporary art world, ultimately they were not going to directly solve any of our problems.

I got to know Richard like most people, in the 90s at Buddies. Over time we came to be fairly good friends however I saw him more often than not with the extraordinary Kirsten Johnson – an artist who deserves, like Richard did to be a much, much bigger deal in this country. In many ways she is our Cindy Sherman. They were two peas in a pod. Loved each other. Kirsten has these fantastic parties where just about everyone is extraordinary, like ‘Paris in the 20s’. Richard was a constant fixture and always with something he just made for her or a box of dollar store things he would hand out. These are two people who made me realize in art there can be love.

I have such a strong memory of Richard smiling warmly at me when I once drunkenly tried to say he was like our Alfred Stieglitz but couldn’t pronounce the name correctly. He patiently corrected me three or four times.

His life as an essayist was not without drama. Something I was grateful for – us Canadians tend to never want to rock the canoe. A few years ago Richard had the audacity to suggest that there was a financial hierarchy in the art world and that artists were at the bottom of a pyramid of administrators and bureaucrats. The article touched off a firestorm I had not seen in my community in years until the current pandemic. Whether or not you agreed with his premise, he began a conversation that did not exist prior. I actually don’t think basic income would be taking off in the art community had RM not pointed out how important it is for artists to make some kind of regular income. He underscored precarity with controversy. Audacious yes, and brave.

Richard was always only ever trying to help. He saw inequality everywhere and felt we all needed to try harder to make things fair. He also saw creativity everywhere too. This to me is a gift. Bored during the pandemic he created dioramas for squirrels to interact with, he posted politicians with their kindred spirits (Erin O’Toole a potato, Justin Trudeau an otter), and essentially jumped on Facebook threads to flirt, add bon mots and make us all laugh. Sometimes out loud. No one was funnier.

Courage, intelligence, eloquence and wit above everyone is how I think of Richard. Anyone who can leave New Brunswick as a young, gay outsider, make their way to cold, hipster Toronto and end up published, celebrated, in the national news paper and on the CBC has a kind of moxy that will be sorely missed. But mostly it was love I felt when I was with him, his warmth. In a world of cool he was warm.

digital bubbles

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

#digicancon is the hashtag used for the public consultation process that Canadian Heritage embarked on this fall. I like hashtags usually because they can let you follow a discussion that many times falls outside your digital bubble.   Most times people would prefer to stay in their bubble. We want the best of us mirrored back to us, to continue our projection of ourselves; we want myth but are stuck with reality.  These bubbles, once the realm of trending fabulousness are now considered suspect.

It is easy to see why. We have now seen how dangerous ignorance the digital bubble influence can have; the US election might have been a direct result of people not truly understanding what they were reading, looking at or even engaging in online. Television, print and radio also had a hand in spreading ideas that had no truth or no intelligent rigour which I think is just as bad. In fact you could make a case that this truthiness in our culture was created a long time ago in original media sources. I am reminded of a David Brinkley’s quote, “news is what I say it is.”

But unfortunately the entire digital medium was ripe for most of the blame. It is a runaway industry for sure; start ups are able to leverage gazillions of dollars in investment and then the next thing you know taxi drivers all over the world are out of work.  What do you do about that?

I followed the #digicancon stream of thoughts and suggestions regarding how policy regarding Canadian content should be shaped with a big emphasis on digital and it seemed to seesaw between ‘Canadian content is the best!’ to ‘we are doomed and will all be working for Google if we aren’t careful’. The Canadian Heritage ministry retweeting only upbeat, ‘helpful’ tweets. Twitter’s 140 characters is not a great place for in depth consultation but I have hope. I have to and as my American friends put it, “you guys are debating your culture and where to put money while we just elected a climate change denier to the White House, sorry but no whining allowed.”

Yes, perspective is everything. What I see now is an enormous opportunity. Most of the #digicancon centred on content and protecting it and paying for it. For me this is a great relief that everyone seems to be onside in our cultural industries. But, there was far too much emphasis on television and film, those industries like music seem to be continually caught off guard by digital’s innovations. Popular they are, leaders in this new age they are not.

Say what you want about art galleries and their so called 19th century-ness, you can’t replace the experience of standing in front of a work of art.

Sutherland's painting of Churchill. Truth hurts.
Sutherland’s painting of Churchill. Truth hurts.

Speaking of art (the word tended to get lost in Canadian Heritage’s consultation shuffle) while I was following and contributing to the #digicancon debate online I also watched The Crown. The Crown is an original Netflix serial (and an example of how this medium is changing, hello CBC!) about the current Queen Elizabeth. One episode in particular stands out; and it discusses art and its potency so relevantly that I had to watch it twice.  In real life artist Graham Sutherland was commissioned by parliament to do a portrait of the very aged Winston Churchill. Churchill hated it and it disappeared into history. Considered a lost masterpiece it has been the subject of many books and stories.

In The Crown, Churchill, a painting hobbyist, challenges Sutherland and is generally hostile to the process. However there is a wonderful scene where the two men come closer together through an emotional discussion about art. But ultimately Sutherland does what artists do and paints what he wants and this hurts Churchill deeply.

Sutherland defends his work by stating that aging is cruel, not his painting. That we are blind to who we really are and art can help us get past the blindness.  Art sits in this nexus of feelings, external reality and truth. Even someone as brilliant as Churchill couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the distinction between his myth, England’s myth and reality.  My guess is that this program The Crown is challenging the notion of myth versus reality – which is better and for whom?

The #digicancon conversation could have used this kind of deep reflection on what it is we are actually working toward, we are discussing cultural policy right? I never completely got the impression that Canadian Heritage was truly engaged in the realities of the discussion, things like copyright, royalties, trade agreements that eschew cultural protections and finding a way to make huge platforms like Netflix help pay for Canadian content. Their own comments seemed almost naive compared to the vast amount of savvy digital media types who aggressively pushed their own agendas. But then a government always has to decide where to put its energies; a shiny myth that inspires or a dull reality that does the job.  Finding that balance has been the trick all along, digital disruptions notwithstanding.

Image fm Wikipedia