REVIEWS

THE LIVELY ARTS

That all-Canadian vanity — the fear of being thought square — is stunting our artistic success abroad

MAVOR MOORE July 1 1969
REVIEWS

THE LIVELY ARTS

That all-Canadian vanity — the fear of being thought square — is stunting our artistic success abroad

MAVOR MOORE July 1 1969

THE LIVELY ARTS

That all-Canadian vanity — the fear of being thought square — is stunting our artistic success abroad

MAVOR MOORE

NOT LONG AFTER we started television in this country, and I was working at the CBC as chief producer, a lady got me on the telephone and delivered herself of the following complaint: “Why don’t you fire all the amateurs you have there and let us watch Buffalo in peace? Canadians will never be any good at entertainment — too many of them go to church.”

Vainly I pleaded that our staff was as professional as any to be found in the U.S. networks (who daily recruited more of our people) and that so far as I knew American entertainers were no less devout than our own. I mentioned fellow-countrymen who were succeeding abroad, such as Lome Greene, and others who were achieving fame abroad while managing to live at home, such as Wayne and Shuster. I asked the lady if she attributed their success to instant excommunication at the border.

She hung up on me.

Times have changed, but only a little. When the musical Anne of Green Gables opened in April in London’s West End, it was the Canadian critics present who winced at its triumph. The Toronto Star's Urjo Kareda called it “mediocre blah,” complained of its “escalating triviality” and ended: “One couldn’t help feeling a bit embarrassed that this was the show representing Canada in London.”

Canadian artists may justifiably feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Ottawa’s Paul Anka can fill an arena anywhere but in his birthplace. Robert Goulet commands packed houses, except in the Toronto he used to call home. Arthur Hailey’s best-selling novel Airport received its hardest knocks from Canadian critics. Norman Jewison says the most savage reviews of his films may be found in the Canadian press.

Those artists and performers who choose to stay are even better acquainted with the great Canadian putdown: they lack the seal of approval from abroad. And those who go and come back are presumed to have failed to make it.

So widespread is the virus that those indiscreet enough to suggest it may

be morbidly self-destructive are summarily charged with chauvinism, or worse — that most heinous of modern crimes, Narrow Nationalism.

Nationalism is a dirty word used by big countries to describe the selfdetermination of a little country, while the spread of their own way of life is blandly labeled Internationalism. When we send Les Feux-Follets to Europe, that is nationalism. When the Comédie Française comes here, that is internationalism.

We are often told that “all art is international” — but this lofty sentiment conceals a neat semantic trick, arising from a confusion between politics and culture. Politics may indeed be international, since there are nations for something to go between. But art, which knows no boundaries, is not international but supranational. Surely we in Canada, at least, have learned that political unity is only possible where cultural differences are recognized and encouraged. One political world demands a plurality of cultures, not homogenization. And the more the merrier for us all.

Yet many Canadians are convinced that nothing of world importance can come of our arts if we deal with our own problems instead of those which happen to be fashionable in the big leagues. Never mind that our hangup is English/French; the In hangup today is Black/White, so let us pontificate on that. Never mind if the plight of the Canadian Indian cries for attention; let us protest on behalf of the Biafrans or Vietnamese.

So writers like Mordecai Richler, painters like Mashel Teitelbaum, and various critical pundits bid us forget our own small affairs and get with the “international” scene—New York, London, or wherever it’s happening.

There is only one thing wrong with this theory: it seldom works.

Not all the practice in the world at making photostats will produce an original. And by the time we have perfected our copies of what is fashionable in the great centres, those centres will already have moved on to a later fashion — probably picked up from some place readier than Canada to offer them something attractively different.

Canadian works which have proved most popular abroad have often been precisely those we disparage as too local to interest others. In literature, by far the largest Canadian sellers abroad are Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The longest Canadian runs in London and New York theatre have been achieved by The Dumbells, a boisterous soldier romp from World War I, The Navy Show from World War II, de la Roche’s Whiteoaks (from the Jalna series), and now the musical Anne.

Paul Almond’s Isabel has brought modest international success to a Canadian film but here we criticized it for flogging a Canadian cliché. Louis Riel, the first Canadian opera to catch wide attention, was deplored by some Canadians as embarrassingly regional.

Instead of protesting at “escalating triviality,” should we not ask what it was in such productions that worked? Does all the world love Anne Shirley because her story is “mediocre blah,” or because a spunky orphan female is a universal figure?

Our protestation is based, it seems to me, on pique at this homely image of ourselves, and on that besetting Canadian vanity, fear of being thought square.

We want desperately to break into the big league, but we’re ashamed of our home-made bat — not because it can’t hit homers but because it’s not in style. We’d like to be considered sophisticated existentialists like the Europeans, without the long lacerating history that made them so. Perhaps the Europeans would appreciate a whiff of our natural gas — but we’d rather send coals to Newcastle.

We long to break into the mass market of U.S. culture — but with what we want to sell, not with what they want to buy. We jibe at those commercial souls among us who case the market and then supply what the customer wants — but have little of our own with which to compete.

Perhaps, after all, we ought to create something of our own, however modest, so well that others will want to copy us. That is, if we are not too proud to learn from the Eskimos.