Tag Archives: RM Vaughan

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.

Is Turner Classic Movies a repository for socialist thought?

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

I spend some of my time in the past. Although I have Netflix and my share of current movie channels to choose from, I find that I am usually more interested in what is on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Old black and white films from Hollywood and beyond interest me not because I think they are better than current films or because I like old things, but because the era I love, 20s silent and early 30s films have at their core certain values I can relate too. While these films can seem to be embarrassingly racist and sexist at the surface, in many instances there is a strong progressive undertow percolating under the black and whiteness.

I find a tone and suggestion from this era that is socialist, pro-labour, pro-innovation and creativity and for the most part these films illuminate class struggle which is front and centre in most plots. An odd Hedy Lamarr, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy film about oil exploration and production has at its climax a speech declaring oil to be man’s savior from poverty however only with proper regard for the environment and that it is a finite resource and should be treated as such. Within the film there is also a discussion about how getting wealthy for the sake of getting wealthy leads to nihilism.

The world is full of colour, never reflected in these films however their balance of pro and anti capitalist stance makes them a historic curiousity.
The world is full of colour yet it’s never reflected in these films. But their balance of both a pro and anti capitalist stance makes them a historic curiousity. Are they still relevant?

These films were not really written by screen writers. It was a new profession, and not a respected one. Writers from New York (many of them card carrying communists) and other intellectual havens went to Hollywood to make money. They did however have to spend time on these scripts and so a lot of their thinking ends up in these movies. Today, it’s a profession that attracts not so much writers as hopeful, wonderstruck people who want to be close to the flame that is celebrity. A recent blog by the glorious RM Vaughan in Momus about Jurassic World wonders aloud about the strong anti-art messaging and conservative tone of the movie. But it also warns about how ignoring the leviathan that is pop culture puts artists at peril without any understanding of the audiences that are now trained by such blockbuster events. Many mainstream movies today extol the virtues of brutality, the military, money, celebrity and anything else that keeps capitalism humming away. The creativity that goes into them is mind boggling, over 1000 animators for most of the mega action films. I agree with Vaughan that there is an artistry there that we shouldn’t ignore lest we forget what the “people” actually go and see.

But back in the early days of film as a commercial entity, there wasn’t a global market and films were still finding their audiences. For the most part people just loved the idea of going to the movies and cared less about what they were watching. My mother used to tell me how this aspect of film is what made it so special; it was cheaper than a theatre show and it was more anonymous. It was a private and public experience. Today you can watch an old TCM film on your phone on the bus so in many ways it is still private and public. The difference is that the propaganda on display then extolled the virtues of community building, modesty and love – of course racism, homophobia (there are also examples of lots and lots of homo eroticism in old films, beautifully suggested), blind patriotism and other heinous ideas were in abundance too but the adoration of wealth was balanced with the want of equality. It was fine to become rich but you were evil unless you were kind to the poor and there are more films made that obliquely reference Roosevelt’s New Deal than you can shake a stick at. Government funding for this new art form was of course one reason for this.

I would go so far as to say that the densest amount of progressive thinking in the media today isn’t a news channel or a blog but TCM.

If you are Chinese or Aboriginal person then old Hollywood presents a threshold of ideas that you will have a hard time crossing since the casting was done with no cultural sensitivity at all. However if you are a woman you might be surprised at how equally liberated Jean Harlow is as Scarlett Johansson. As propaganda these films sit firmly left of center with thousands of examples of how capitalism has glaring weaknesses. It’s no wonder there was a black list and back lash against liberal(communist) thinking; generations were indoctrinated on progressive ideas in bold (yes, I see the irony) black and white.

Image from the film Boomtown! Google images