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Get a job

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Years ago in Ontario we ushered in a new conservative provincial government who brought with them something called the “Common Sense” revolution. As I was young and lived a fairly unstable lifestyle I noticed this government’s action’s consequences over time – the most damaging of which have never been resolved. Almost half my friends in my art community quit or took teaching jobs. The rest of us struggled on. Some moved away from a city like I did. Some left the country.

In the years following many of us tried to figure out how best to live our lives under a new paradigm where we all had to become art-terpreneurs, use small business as a winning example of how to be an artist (“you make product don’t you?” I was told) and be shoved through the degrading vortex of Richard Florida’s “creative cluster” zeitgeist. We were held up as an example of how to gentrify our city’s neighbourhoods and told over and over and over how much money the arts contributed to the overall economy. We were an economic engine! Oh goody, I even used the phrase myself.

Our recent exhibition in Toronto. Here is where we engage with what I am going to start calling ‘defiant beauty’.

Meanwhile in my universe incomes plummeted. And lots of peers scrambled back into academia where the thought was that at least there would be steady income. Now the art world runs on academic fumes; art galleries have given over to DJs & nightclubs, and the contemporary work being made seems to be about tech or a sociological context in which talk, consensus, convergence, conversation, and more talk seems to loom larger than anything hanging on a wall or sitting in the middle of a gallery. Language and ideas reign in the new contemporary field. For the rest of us not welcome in this new world order – we just tried to hang onto our studios and hoped for the best.

What we should have all been doing is safeguarding our art worlds against the tyranny of ideologues. We should have been shoring up public support and public money (not grant and council money but actual private sector money in the form of people purchasing art). We should have spent our time not aggressively making our supporters test themselves against a changing world – we should have spent our time reassuring them about art and its importance. We should have spent our time creating more art supporters not more artists.

Ahh but I learned in therapy not to ‘should’ people. As a community the arts in Canada has always worked in an uneasy balance between socialized ideals and nurturing millionaire art stars. I think however things began to get a bit lopsided when the Chair of the Canada Council started calling themselves a CEO. Remember when being a CEO was cool and now it’s public enemy #1? That didn’t take long.

But where to go from here? In Ontario we are now on the verge of a new “common sense” revolution in the form of a new conservative government, although their motto now is “Poor? Get a job.” Their transparent love of hate seems to be a selling point. Yes, and that is where we are in civilization, being run to a certain extent by people who think compassion, justice, fairness is all part of some liberal conspiracy to make everyone gay. And there are Nazis again now too.

Art now for who or what? I guess most of us have just reconciled ourselves with the fact that we will not be saved. We must survive. What gives me hope is the fact that many of my peers who have just steadily continued to work at what they do have gotten very, very good. This may be an epoch of ‘defiant beauty’ – I can only speak for painting at this point. All this “the world is ending, the world is ending” isn’t really having a negative impact on the work. And it never did.

I think the artists who just enjoy their work, make it regularly and do their best to get it out there for people to see are real leaders in this cultural climate. The hope is in the art – it always has been, it always will be.

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State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, How amazingly unlikely is your birth, And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,’Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.”
– Monty Python, The Meaning of Life

I end the year wondering about how we can pursue art deep into the future without the mechanisms of a common, shared understanding of culture’s worth. Two recent issues:

1. With a declaration of bankruptcy the city of Detroit will be forced to sell its assets. The Detroit Museum of Art holds some of the finest works in the world, purchased and gifted to it during America’s empire building years. Some in the city believe selling the work could help with the city’s debt; others believe that a public gallery is a resource not an asset. The city has now pitted pensioners against the value of the gallery’s collection. What is at stake is that publicly viewed works might disappear into private collections.

2. The Ministry of Canadian Heritage turns down funding for the Toronto theatre company Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s thirty five year running festival Rhubarb!. The festival is responsible for helping begin and shape careers of artists who are now internationally recognized, building one of the most successful artistic communities in the country and whose impact on Canada’s largest city is non-debatable. MP Peggy Nash’s query to the Minister in charge is pointedly unanswered in a recent question period. What is at stake is that a festival that nurtures artists (such as yours truly) in a rare but vitally non-constrictive way could be lost to future generations.

Both of these issues bring to mind that questionable quote by Churchill who replied to why they shouldn’t cut arts funding for the war effort, “what are we fighting for then?” is what he supposedly posited. His actual quote was that they should just hide the National Gallery paintings in cellars when asked whether they should ship them to Canada during the bombing of London. He was confident they should stay put because they were going to win the war. In any case, the arts was discussed at the highest level during the 20th century’s most significant event, and it was decided it was worthy of protection. Don’t get me started on the Nazi looting either, while it makes my blood boil (The Ghent Altar piece kept in a cave until they were going to finish ruining Europe!!!!), even Hitler recognized the collective understanding of the value of art and with it culture.

  The Ghent Altarpiece recovered from the Altaussee salt mine at the end of World War II. Photographer unknown, possibly by the US military.

The Ghent Altarpiece recovered from the Altaussee salt mine at the end of World War II. Photographer unknown, possibly by the US military.

Today? Not so much. We have come to an almost end time in the arts when private money and profit trumps any other kind of thinking. The social compact or social good as Rousseau, Socrates and many other philosophers spoke of; ideas that shaped our world are being stomped on loudly by a non-stop ideological juggernaut that proposes making profit by any means as the only activity the human species should be engaged in. Have we lost our ability to have a common good?
How did we get here? World War II was only seventy years ago.

I can’t possibly answer why it seems that art is now nothing more than a possible bit of equity to be traded, sold, borrowed on and insured rather than discussed, contemplated and reflected upon. There are collisions of reasons I suppose. We neglected its significance while trying to make it entertainment; we bought into the idea that a market place was a fair and equitable way of running the economy; we busied ourselves with gender and identity politics rather than looking after a bigger picture; we thought aspects of it like oil painting was a relic from a dead era; we fell in love with iphones and figured they and their makers will save us; we feel that art is perhaps, like God in the 19th century, something that holds us back from being modern.

But I haven’t lost hope because only a year ago it would have been unthinkable that Walmart employees would try to form a union. We have a Pope that decries capitalism. A Pope?! Our era more and more resembles the 1820-50 era in Europe when everything was contested by a raucous, unruly and increasingly educated public. It is a time of transition or even transformation. We do however owe it to the people hundreds of years from now that they too can see an altar piece created in a world that dedicated itself to the power and mystery of faith and that redemption figured as largely then for people in a real way as bargain hunting does for us today. The Ghent Altar piece reflects medieval Europe and its complexities, before Henry VIII got his hands on the church, before Luther nailed his protest to a door and western civilization was changed/transformed forever; the piece stands as a testament to our vulnerability as a species unmoored from nature, adrift in a cosmos hoping to give our flesh some meaning.

What will we be without being able to know work like the Ghent Altar piece (not that it is in jeopardy but I use it as an example of a significant work that was once) or the works in the Detroit Institute of Art or even the contemporary courage of artists in the Rhubarb! Festival? Without an understanding of our potential we will be slaves. Haven’t we all fought long and hard for generations to be rid of slavery? Or perhaps as a species this is what we do; fight for a place among the heavens, for an immortality of spirit and for a freedom to proclaim ourselves special in a dark and forbidding universe. Art can help take us there.

State of the Arts will return January 6, 2014. 

Pic Wikipedia