PRINT February 1984


IN A DOWNTOWN-TORONTO DUMP for demolition refuse, in the summer of 1981, General Idea fashioned a vast installation entitled Toronto’s Fault, the First Tremors: The Ruins of the Silver Bar Lounge of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion. This monumental piece was made by the three-man team (plus friends) scrambling over the rubbish heaps and decorating pieces of urban industrial trash with silver paint, transforming the dump into an artifice of disaster. It was a melancholy acre of broken pediments, forlorn appliances, silvered bricks, and reminders of the gala Pavillion half buried under tons of rubble.

This junkpile Pompeii invited many interpretations, but it symbolized one national fact everybody knew: that Canada’s rehearsals for the promenade down the art world’s runway of stars were over—and the smiling land had not even gotten to be Miss Congeniality. Once again artists were talking about the country’s in hospitability; there was a sharpened attentiveness to fashions in New York and Europe, and a hunger for the glamour of those places. Once again there was an anxious insistence on the primacy of painting among artistic acts, and on portability and commercial appeal in general. One could almost feel the hard distance some stylish younger painters put between themselves and the preceding generation of video, performance, and installation artists.

It had not always been so. Since 1967, when Canada celebrated its 100th birthday, the nation had been reveling in new wealth, and in a bracing, newfound sense of independence from the hegemony of the United States. And since the early ’70s, the whole society had also been engaged in the strong discourse of identity provoked by the Quebec separatist movement. Nurtured by the expansive spirit of the times, by new private interest, effective public funding, and a national network of artist-run centers, advanced artists in all places and in all media showed a new assertiveness toward the world outside Canada.

Then, with little warning, the first economic tremor shook the nation, and the concurrent psychological recession brought down the pavilion of hubris. The bold chauvinism and the doctrines of Canadian nationalism abruptly sounded tinny, off key. And as above, so below: artists who came of age in the ’70s, and ones younger still, were sharply reminded that to be a creative worker in Canada is to be a borderline case (as Marshall McLuhan once called the country itself)—to be a dweller at some point in a vastly long, improbable, nearly invisible linear monarchy nestled against the northern boundary of the more powerful American republic.

This historical and geographical fate can be forgotten for a while, as we have seen. It can be resented; some Canadian artists do resent their marginal status in the American metropolitan system, and express that sentiment in either a devotion to American fashions, or a fervent hatred of them. But the sobering shocks of Canada’s recent past, and the tempering of the hopes of its art world, may lead to an end better than any of these: the embracing of the borderline condition—the radical acceptance, that is, of Canada as source and ground for the structures of creative work.

This true Canada of invisibility, marginality, and essential strangeness is virtually unknown in the United States; Americans seem able to see in Canada only the images they project upon it from their own hoard of frustrations and national obsessions. It is not surprising to find that they tend to see the country as a tidier, rather eccentric America, and its artists as adolescents, thoroughly vexed by chastity, unwilling either to consummate or to break off the mating rite—choosing instead to perform, again and again, a ritual of erotic hesitation with the electric body of New York.

Such an impression has a glint of truth in it—just enough, in fact, to make it misleading. If geography and a long history of artistic pilgrimage make New York an inexorable fact in Canada’s creative culture, the nation’s shaping as a series of isolated outposts in the northern wilderness and its nurture by the Victorian Empire are facts more inexorable still. This history has urged and enabled much that is most interesting about the country’s art, and certainly what is most persistent about it. That maps and topographical sketches were the earliest known works of art made by the European newcomers in the place now called Canada would be of little importance had Canadians ever stopped making them; a resolute continuity exists, however, between the landscape watercolors of Samuel de Champlain, and the conceptual landscape projects and documentations of urban physical and psychic topography by contemporary explorer-artists in Canada 350 years later. In virtually every generation the most advanced Canadian artists have felt compelled to lay claim to the land anew, to define what it is to exist there.

At the root of this enterprise is an ongoing anxiety whose manifestations vary over the centuries, but whose structures remain recognizably continuous. The meditation on this estrangement has in the past visualized the Canadian dilemma as that of stockade surrounded by threatening nature, and, more recently, as a peaceable, bourgeois monarchy threatened by the feverish, dangerously deteriorating American republic to the south. Given this threat to the northern outposts, it becomes imperative to keep the national communication lines open, and to establish new ones between the far-flung garrisons. The Canadian concern with communications has found its most eloquent modern spokesman in McLuhan; its most resonant expression in the media art that flowered in Vancouver in the early ’60s and across the country during the next decade; its most important contemporary critics and celebrants in General Idea.

Yet media is mediation; and mediation, by its very nature, is a state of alienated knowledge and desire. Lacking direct contact, one must depend upon the messages coming along the wire, however fragmented, fugitive, or obtuse they may be. Underlying contemporary Canadian art is an abiding pessimism about the possibility of cognitive certainty. This pessimism explains two things: first, the absence of artists claiming the mantle of the voyant whom Rimbaud (and avant-gardism) tells us we need if we are to escape from the cave of received ideas; second, the presence of many artists given to play with information, to fascination with the myths and fancies of media, to meditations on what can and cannot be known. There is little of nature or the natural in recent Canadian art; nature is there to be tamed. Canadian art finds its subject in the indirections of culture, and itself embodies culture’s historic strategy as indirection, protection against the natural, and affirmation of human peculiarity and vulnerability in the natural world.

Such anxiety about place discourages the notion that much can be changed by revolt against history, and encourages instead a genteel melancholy among Canadian artists. And these notions also seem to permit a casual impurity of materials and methods. It would hardly please Rimbaud, but it might make Dante Gabriel Rossetti happy to learn that contemporary Canadian art is given to exegesis and narrative, and, like Victorian art (as George Levine’s epigram has it), continually aspires to the condition of fiction. Certainly we find in generation after generation this drive of Canadian art toward exegetic, fictive recreation of the real. It is interesting to note that some of the most original modern Canadian artists have been known primarily as interpreters, and hence have gone unrecognized as the originators they really were. One thinks of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Glenn Gould.

This genial, self-effacing approach to art-making produces little bustle, though it does make for what McLuhan has called (in a 1947 essay on the American South) an artistic culture of passion—one characterized, that is, by the attention paid to feelings, especially fleeting pleasures and the uncertainties of existence, and also by a distaste for tense, intellectualized drives. We see this commitment to affect in the best Canadian art of the recent and more remote past. In the absence of voracious local markets herding them toward uniformity, without national or ideological axes to grind, advanced Canadian artists tend to create an eclectic art of passion, at times flirtatious, at others solemn, frequently dandified and perverse, often suffused with ironic desire for New York or some other city or time—and sometimes not, but persistently symbolizing the sense of being strange in this strange place.

Such traits combine to make the seriousness of much Canadian art incomprehensible to those with a taste for theoretical purity. The conservatively passionate, Victorian estheticism of Canadian culture may preclude the emergence of a genuinely radical, critical avant-garde, even as it has frustrated such an emergence in the past. It is worth recalling that Piet Mondrian and Fernand Léger, finding themselves wartime refugees in New York, loved the city, and were loved by it. Wyndham Lewis took refuge in Toronto and thought it mean and absurd.

John Bentley Mays