Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Conversation about Canadian art from a postcolonial perspective

The Dominion of Newfoundland was a British Dominion from 1907 (before which the territory had the status of a British colony, self-governing from 1855) to 1949. The Dominion of Newfoundland was situated in northeastern North America along the Atlantic coast and comprised the island of Newfoundland and Labrador on the continental mainland. The dominion was self-governing from 1907 to 1934 when it voluntarily gave up self-government and reverted to direct control from London — one of the few countries that has ever voluntarily given up direct self-rule. Between 1934 and 1949 a six-member Commission of Government (plus a governor) administered Newfoundland, reporting to the Dominions Office in London. Newfoundland remained a de jure Dominion until it joined Canada in 1949 to become Canada's tenth province.

Steve Thomas
“Are Canadian writers Third World writers? In a cultural sense, very definitely yes. Canadian artists in general can be said to be of the Third World. . . . '“International art” means the cultural forms of the dominant imperial cultures of the . . . times. And it is only as that dominance wavers or becomes suspect that independent artists of Third World countries like ours can assert their true voices even in their own society, let alone the world at large.' That is a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree. Canadian writers, like African writers, have had to find our own voices and write out of what is truly ours, in the face of an overwhelming cultural imperialism.” – Margaret Laurence, 1978
June 4 at 12:20am
Bonny Poon and Jamie Shannon like this.

Jonathan Newman
Wow, so we get to claim subaltern status while still enjoying a functional infrastructure and abundant food and water? Sweet!
June 4 at 9:15am

Dee Westwood
June 5 at 5:33pm

Steve Thomas
do you think it's not true?
June 5 at 5:54pm

Dee Westwood
Canadian artists/writers are in a way better position to assert their voice in the face of other dominant cultures and because of their social/economic/cultural similarity, can often play both sides of the fence as far as dominant/marginalized goes. Canadians (as opposed to Africans or Caribbeans) do not really have to immigrate to the U.S., the U.K. or Europe to seek security, support and an audience for their work. Without local publishers, gallery spaces "Third World" artists/writers still pretty much do. (The Dakar Art Biennial aside) My only direct experience with this is working with artists in Ghana but I think their experiences were indicative of those in other African countries.
June 6 at 6:19pm

Steve Thomas
dee, I know we're in "a better position" to assert our voices in the ways you mention, but there are other barriers we face, that this quote I think gets at, that are harder to see and so in a way more insidious--we have money yes but on the other hand our "social/cultural similarity" I don't think does us any favours--we're so inundated with american culture from a young age and the fact that eg the TV characters more or less look and talk like us makes it that much harder to realize that they're not us, and in a way makes it almost feel like we're "faking it" if we pretend we're not them. in this way african artists like chinua achebe (who laurence talks about) actually has it EASIER because it's obvious to him how he's different from his imperialist occupiers--the line is very clear--for us it's a harder thing.
June 7 at 1:43pm

Eric Foley
which is why it's important to seek out and support local authors whose work we value, right?
June 8 at 7:29pm

Cian Cruise
Alternatively, isn't is just as viable to forego the issue and simply make (or support) the best (word)art one can (find), period, allowing for the Canadianness (or lack thereof) to come out in the wash?

I mean, do people seek to be "A Canadian Artist/Writer" or just "An Artist/Writer"? Do you feel that the distinction is worth cleaving to for any nationality? If so, why?

Or is the issue here that the im/ex-plicit Canadiana in any such work will render it a pariah if it isn't demarcated with that label?

Or is it that we tend to make crappy, non-world-class quality stuff, and thus depend on the label more?

Colour me confused about the issue...
June 8 at 8:36pm

Steve Thomas
cian, see this:, and maybe also this interview I did,, specifically:
ST: Regarding . . . Canadian setting specifically, do you think about being accessible to a broader audience, be it . . . American readers?

NS: I imagine that you’re talking about “Green Fluorescent Protein.” . . . The city in the story is Montreal. In other stories, however, the city is more ambiguous. For example, the town in “Scrapbook” is a more generic place. The same goes for the title story. Writing about Montreal raises the whole language conundrum. How do you portray a bilingual city accurately without writing in both languages?

I do think about commercial prospects when I write books. My new novel, for example, has only American characters. Canada isn’t mentioned at all (maybe this is heresy). I’m hoping for universal appeal.
June 8 at 11:13pm

Steve Thomas
the issue is a political issue, not an artistic one, although it bleeds into psychological issues, which arguably circle back into artistic issues. correct me if I'm wrong cain, but I feel like your main point is "screw everything, why don't we just make the best art we can?" that's fine. but consider:

- the issue is that it feels "lame" to set something in belleville, ON, but it doesn't feel as lame to set something in buffalo, NY. it feels like a bit of a joke to set something in mississauga, ON, but "meet me in Montauk" (eternal sunshine), ie the farthest tip of long island, feels less lame. ditto kingston ON vs chapel hill NC.

- so if you are apolitical, and you want to make the least lame art, it should follow that you should set your narrative in buffalo, long island or chapel hill over belleville, mississauga or kingston.

- however, for a cdn artist, this raises serious problems!
1. practical problem: probably you know the cdn location better. what to do? research chapel hill? obscure the kingston location into a "generalized" mid-sized city (this decreases your ability to do realism)? move to chapel hill so that your life will be less lame when viewed through an International Narrative Art lens (seriously disruptive of other life plans/values you may have)?
2. psychological problem: confronting the fact that the place where you live has low cultural cachet.
which, as an artist making art that has a setting, will probably influence that very art.

now, you can say "I don't care about relative lameness of locations"--but if you accept that the value exists in some sense for some people--which it obviously does, cf all manhattan-based programming--you've already reacted to it, and you've already displaced it, actively or passively, with some other value/priority/POV. this will influence what kind of art you make, so in this sense the psychological issue comes round to an artistic issue, even if you don't care about the political issue.
June 8 at 11:35pm

Steve Thomas
and so btw, depending on how you look at it, it doesn't have to be a Bad Thing. if you're apolitical, it may simply be an interesting thing to think about how canadian artists are psychologically affected by this issue, and how it shapes our art. pointing this out doesn't necessarily have to be a complaining, it can just be mapping. in this way "third world" is perhaps an unnecessarily provocative term. in slightly less loaded language, it may simply be _illuminating_ to consider cdn art through a postcolonial lens, and by illuminating I mean nothing more than understanding it better.
June 9 at 12:01am

Cian Cruise
Thanks for the elaboration, and the links.

Although I see your connection from political through artistic and back again, I just don't know if I'm fully on board with these places being necessarily "lame". The dangers brought up by Smith re: shorthand are quite tangible and understandable, but I have to wonder if this feeling of inferiority is justified.

Certain places (Paris & New York are both good examples) have a mystique that is fed by (what I see as) an amalgam of massive cultural representation, historical precedent, architectural uniqueness, artistic presence, etc.--but wouldn't the same troubles of place be found in any relatively unknown location, Canadian or otherwise?

(The problem I can see in my own reasoning here refers back to your initial point about the similarity between Canada & US being a detriment insofar as the ease of transmutation lends itself to the invisibility of Canadian stuff by making it either pseudo-American or generalized, and that is a salient difference between here and, say, Argentina--but that still rests on the acceptance of the inferiority of Canada which doesn't seem given to me.)

I'm not trying to say that I think it is a complete non-issue, because--as both problems you outline indicate--it has an effect upon the creation and distribution of works of art. What perplexes me still is the seemingly universal acceptance of the assumption that setting a story in Canada has such adverse effects...

If enough people believe it, as seems the case, then this belief will have the above-outlined effects (among others), but at face value it just seems so... fantastic for people to be under the sway of a notion this specious.

This disbelief is where the extremity of my initial "damn it all" response comes from, as you rightly noted, and not a dismissive attitude towards the issue.

It just honestly boggles me.

Bottom line: Why buy-in to the inferiority complex? It seems like a no-win situation.

(Furthermore, considering your final paragraph: do you feel that the influence of this displacement is negative?)
June 9 at 12:41am

Cian Cruise
‎(My last comment was written in between your 2nd and 3rd, rock on for anticipating my conclusion, Steve.)
June 9 at 1:05am

Steve Thomas
You know, in some ways I agree with you, which is why I specifically avoided mentioning Toronto per se. I like Toronto as a fiction setting, I don't think it's lame, and I am currently engaging in it. However, the _way_ I'm engaging in it has an element of “being aware of the issue” to it, in a similar way that the opening sentence quoted at the start of the globe article obviously has some winking involved, as smith discusses.

And so I guess for me the interesting thing is that, even though I _don't_ buy into an inferiority complex, if you strip away the matters of pride and status, you're still left with the issues involving what it means to make certain choices involving setting and treatment of setting in Canadian fiction. Which, as you point out, aren't unique to Canada. But one thing that's been interesting for me is the locating, and is an ongoing process, of Canada in like the “international semiotic market” or something. Like what does Canada mean. Which is a weird activity, because Canada as a location often either has less meaning attached to it than I would like, or the associations/connotations it does have are shitty/insulting/demeaning. So it's either a lack of meaning or just plain unsatisfactory meaning.

As a disinterested party, it might be enough to simply study/analyze what meanings Canada has.

But as a writer who wants to write fictions set in Canada, and furthermore as someone who likes to be able to make every part of my art mean something, as opposed to being incidental/accidental/intentionless, there is a clash here. If I want to do a WALL STREET story, i.e. pure capitalism/aggressive selfishness/unbounded patriarchy, how do I do that in Canada? BAY STREET? See, it sounds weird. Bay street sounds like a cute little brother to wall street. Its meaning is tempered by its Canadian associations, which include socialism, the welfare state, tameness, all of which contradict the aggro connotations I want.

So, ok, I'm constricted in a way that binds me closer to realism, to the stories that actually take place here. No symbolic props like “wall street”. But what if I don't want to do strict realism? Even the realisticest realismers tend to at least employ metonymy of the kind smith talks about, such as street names. Or like: “It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” – the opening to the bell jar. Pretty realistic, but also instantly evocative of a lot of stuff. I dunno. Maybe it's just shortcuts. But maybe the greater range of signifiers your country has, the greater range of possible meanings you can channel. But maybe not, maybe it's stultifying. I always think of how joyce handled these problems with respect to dublin. But he hated dublin, or at least harshed on it, and I'm not interested in doing that with Toronto.
June 9 at 1:27am

Cian Cruise
I don't think that this shorthand is necessarily lazy, or bad or whatever, it is just something that you have to use with great care--perhaps more so because of the statistical potential for your setting to be alien internationally. I'm on board with possible meanings to an extent, but none of them are guaranteed.

Further, the potential for new writing to imbue a place with meaning makes some kind of intuitive sense to me given the current trends you have earmarked: a vacuum or an insult. In other words, by establishing a coherent expression which either erects meaning where there was none before, or else flies in the face of current (invalid) assumptions sounds to me like both a likely and worthwhile outcome for which fiction is particularly well suited. By crafting this imaginary universe which has overlapping layers with our shared reality, you have the unique chance to forge emotional experiences and develop (or perhaps re-develop) people's understanding of the spaces involved within fiction.

What I guess this means is that I don't see the Canadian connotations/associations as constricting one's creations to those connotations/associations, so much as providing one with a clear picture of where you are starting, which in turn grants a launch-pad for re-creation through the conflict or friction itself. By flying in the face of established, yet ridiculous, pat assumptions the potential clarity of your expression seems (to me) to be enhanced and the impact intensified. This overwhelming tide of simplistic homogeneity sounds ripe for some kind of resonating contradiction.

By having some force to push against, you at least have an idea what direction to aim towards.

Of course, in high school physics terms that is a pretty clean description, actually creating with this in mind is a good deal messier... but maybe that's what makes it so engaging?
June 9 at 2:22am

Steve Thomas
I actually agree 100% with everything you just said. cool. I would like to do that--to try to create new associations. I am trying to do that and I like the challenge.
June 9 at 2:41am

Dee Westwood
mmmm.... I'm reminded quite often that I am "different." (sometimes by people that probably have good intentions) My dad used to constantly warn me when I was a kid "stop acting like those Canadians!" I was born and raised in Toronto by the way. There is no way that I could buy into: There is a Canadian (and their cultural products) and There is an American (and their cultural products)
June 9 at 3:15pm

Dee Westwood
Or an African (and their cultural products). All I'm saying is this is no longer about differentiating a specific Canadian culture and experience from American culture. 'Canadian" can now be individually defined in many different ways and I'm not talking about our "multi-cultural mosaic." These national labels are difficult. I would offload mine in a minute if I could.
June 9 at 3:28pm

Steve Thomas
dee, when I said "it's obvious to [achebe] how he's different from his imperialist occupiers--the line is very clear--for us it's a harder thing," the analog in my mind is us and americans (as our cultural occupiers). are you reminded often that you're "different" from americans? I mean it's more obvious, at least for me, now, how I'm different from an american, but it wasn't always so clear when I was younger, having twin inputs from american media and canadian day-to-day reality, and not understanding how the one didn't actually refer to the other. that's the problem I was talking about.

and I wouldn't buy into "there is one single uniform canadian experience" either. however, despite that, I think commonalities can be seen. the idea that "'Canadian' can now be individually defined in many different ways" can be true at the same time that "broad patterns can be perceived in canadian art and experience" can be true. one emphasizes differences while the other emphasizes similarities. it's always true that any set of people have an infinite amount in common and an infinite amount of differences. however, saying "we're all different" doesn't illuminate much, whereas thinking about commonalities, I think, might.
June 9 at 4:31pm

Dee Westwood
No I meant I'm reminded by people that I'm 'different' from Canadians not Americans. I think that's the danger of trying to sort through our collective experiences/expression for commonalities that differ from those of other nations. We and our influences are just too fluid now (to the point that even the influence of American culture has less clout) and I think that this is for the better. I really don't think it's possible, or should be possible to find commonalities to all Canadian artists, writers etc. without leaving some Canadian artists out. When I am compiling a list of reasons why a work of art should be considered an important representation of Canadian culture for Heritage Canada/CCPERB's evaluation (which it has been part of my job to do over the last two years) I end up listing very diverse reasons and ever-new, ever-changing characteristics for a painting or video art's Canadianess. I never sift it all down to a common characteristic or perspective that all Canadian works share. I feel like I re-invent the idea of Canada every time I write one of those applications to Heritage Canada. Maybe that's Canadian culture.
About the Africans, I found that it was difficult to get contemporary African artists to see the value in just creating work from their point of view without incorporating what the possible European or American gaze/reading might be of their work. The African artists engage with 'us' the Developed World before they engage with each other. They are still dealing with the idea of art as a European/American invention so for them to sort the internal expression from the outward influence in art and conception in a way that they can draw a boundary around a common 'African art' would be difficult.They are always seeing/developing their work through a foreign lens. I honestly can't speak for African writers because I don't have experience there. Perhaps their writing is a more honest and closer embodiment of "African" ideas and expression than their art. Certainly their music, both pop and traditional is. Perhaps in this way, Quebec artist are the luckiest. They hold themselves apart and together so easily it seems. But I don't know really.
June 10 at 9:51am

Steve Thomas
dee, you have some really great insight and I find it really valuable to hear about that stuff so I don't want to sound like I'm not hearing you by disagreeing with you. I do agree with what you're saying about cdn art being diverse and it not being possible to group everything together under one umbrella. HOWEVER, I feel that, accepting that as true--it's still enlightening to look for commonalities. not in the sense, necessarily, of traits which will apply to 100% of cdn art, but more like, traits that, when you look at _some_ works of cdn art, you will see something you didn't see before; something in the work that previously you hadn't noticed or that seemed arbitrary will suddenly make sense as fitting into a pattern of work made by other canadians. again, not necessarily necessities, but tendencies.

when I asked you if you were made to feel different from americans, I knew you had meant you were made to feel different from canadians. I was countering what you were positing as a difference (which I acknowledge) with a possible similarity between you and other canadians: being heavily influenced by americans.

and: the way you talk about how africans engage with art is for me so incredibly interesting, and the thing is that THAT IS EXACTLY HOW I'M POSITING CANADIANS RELATE TO ART, but because the line between us and europeans/americans is so much less obvious, we don't realize it's happening, whereas it's obvious when africans imitate their former colonizers and the current world powers.

"I found that it was difficult to get contemporary Canadian artists to see the value in just creating work from their point of view without incorporating what the possible European or American gaze/reading might be of their work. The Canadian artists engage with 'us', the non-Canadian Developed World, before they engage with each other. They are still dealing with the idea of art as a European/American invention so for them to sort the internal expression from the outward influence in art and conception in a way that they can draw a boundary around a common 'Canadian art' would be difficult.They are always seeing/developing their work through a foreign lens."

there's a point where this POV stops being useful, but for me, as an artist, having some awareness of it is very useful. because the thing is it's not a uniquely cdn problem: it's actually a problem of artists everywhere: repeating the patterns of a pre-established tradition/form vs innovating, trying to figure out how the previous generation's art no longer suits. the mark of a boring, shitty artist is one who doesn't even see that tension, who blindly, lazily fills in the appropriate blanks of a pre-existing form. for me, where this "canada is a postcolonial place" thesis comes into play is that it reminds me to question all aspects of the various literary forms I work in before I accept them unaltered as vehicles for my thoughts. how true the proposition "canadians unthinkingly make art based on foreign forms alien to their actual lives as they live it" is, is, for me, less important to the goading function it serves--although I do think it's probably a little true.
June 10 at 1:15pm

Steve Thomas
btw thank you everyone esp cian and dee for the discussion
June 10 at 1:19pm

Cian Cruise
Potentially useful term for what Steve is talking about in his first paragraph there: "Family Resemblance"

I mean, it is a weird thing to consider the nation-state and its cultural web of influences and attempt to describe it as anything other than fluid, alive, and ever-changing--I think Dee is totally right about it being impossible to crystallize into a solid definition of, say, "Here's what it means to be Canadian Art..." I am super-suspicious of things that seem to be either doing that, or else relying upon an unstated definition as shorthand for something in particular.

Yet, at the same time, we still get away with using the term "Canadian" to indicate something regarding our cultural expressions, and I don't think it is entirely fatuous, even if it is consistently mutating (or even contradictory).

Hence "Family Resemblance", things may be in a state of constant flux, but there are aspects we tend to recognize about various elements of a culture: patterns that do emerge, as elusive, or vague, or non-universal as they may be.

It would be somewhat misleading to put too much stock into those patterns, for they themselves are also changing, but given the winding path of the conversation I don't think that's what Steve has in mind.

There can still be vast, and even irreconcilable, differences between particular members of this abstract family of cultural tendencies, but given particular vantage points one can draw threads of inference between them. Less boundaries separating (e.g.) Yanks from Canucks along a strict line, and more a tracing of possible influences and likeness, followed by a meditation on the meaning this newfound relationship invokes.

(I hope I haven't put any inappropriate words in people's mouths, if so I apologize. I also want to express my gratitude for the conversation: Thanks!)

(p.s. I like the idea of you being goaded into staying on your toes, Steve.)
June 10 at 2:28pm

Steve Thomas
cian-- yeah family resemblance is exactly the term I was looking for. thanks.
June 10 at 4:18pm

Edward Hanrahan
GUYS! writing isn't even a ART!
June 11 at 12:45pm

Dee Westwood
Thanks too, it's good to have these conversations or whatever resembles a conversation on facebook...
June 11 at 10:34pm

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