Another View

It's summertime—and the arts are in season

You can lead a Canadian to culture, but you have a better chance of doing so when the weather is warm

Charles Gordon August 10 1998
Another View

It's summertime—and the arts are in season

You can lead a Canadian to culture, but you have a better chance of doing so when the weather is warm

Charles Gordon August 10 1998

It's summertime—and the arts are in season

Another View

Charles Gordon

You can lead a Canadian to culture, but you have a better chance of doing so when the weather is warm

Among this year’s summer trends is the full-service jazz festival. You can get a foot massage while you listen to Nicholas Payton. There is a caricaturist on hand, a wide range of ethnic food offerings and, of course, Starbucks. The portable toilets are bedecked with advertising, inside, including recommendations as to where you can find real estate information, begin your home renovations or have pinstripes painted on the side of the car.

Our summers have come a long way. Once, we spent them in rowboats.

Not just in jazz have we come a long way. We have summer theatre and chamber music, summer blues and summer folk, big summer exhibitions at the museums and galleries, not to mention summer reading. What with one thing and another, thousands, probably millions of us are involved in the summer consumption of culture. The big question is, where are we in the fall, winter and spring, when empty seats plague the theatres and clubs, empty stores plague the booksellers?

To devise ways of extending the summer culture into other seasons, we first have to consider the summer phenomenon. What makes it work?

Well, to begin with, we are Canadians and summers are precious. We want to get out into the warm air and do things before the snow comes again. So whatever gets us out of the house, be it jazz, Shakespeare in the park, a whodunit in a renovated movie theatre or chamber music, will do the trick.

Then, there is the issue of the comfort zone. Jazz clubs—or the thought of jazz clubs —can intimidate the non-regular listener, who feels he is moving into a smoky, alien environment, in which he won’t know what to do. Non-regular playgoers feel the same way about theatre, except for the smoky part. Put that theatre on the grounds of a university, notorious for making the public feel excluded, and the degree of discomfort increases. People want to go where they feel at home.

Now, put that same play or concert, no matter how unfamiliar, in a park and the unease vanishes. People like to go to the park. They are comfortable in the park. They are likely to meet their friends in the park. In the summer, balloons fly overhead.

Along with the comfort zone provided by the location is a comfort zone provided by the performers of those summer diversions who have discovered that there is a summer way to practise their art. They recognize that they are not aiming at experienced audiences, so they do some summer things. Jazz musicians—at least the big-name American ones—have party pieces, little tricks, high notes, flashy drum solos, that are guaranteed to amuse the crowd and elicit its applause. Regional theatres have undemanding plays

for an audience that might have, just half an hour ago, changed out of its bathing suit. Even Stratford, to hear some of the recent criticism of it, may think occasionally of trying to get some laughs from the tour bus.

In literature, there is the tradition of the summer book, featured in those summer-reading supplements you see in the spring. Summer reading, the book you take to the beach, is by definition lighter and less serious. It is a potboiler or a romance, and the ethic of summer reading says that you are not to feel guilty for indulging in it. So you read and are not intimidated by what you read. And when you return to work in the fall, you see the new books coming out, serious ones by all accounts, and you say: “I haven’t got time to read.”

What all of this says is that you can lead a Canadian to culture, but you have a better chance of doing so when the weather is warm. The Canadian is in the mood then, and the culture meets him halfway.

The lessons in this are not as obvious as you would think. Certainly we should not be watering down the arts in the colder weather, playing nothing but high notes, publishing only lawyer novels and putting on Man of La Mancha year-round. Canadian artists should not compromise to attract winter audiences. But they should at least recognize from the summer that potential audiences are there and be encouraged by that fact.

Keep in mind that most of the people in the crowd are not off the bus. Most of them are Canadians, and a lot of them are from town, wherever town is. Keep in mind also that while many use the summer to read lawyer novels, many others use the summer to spend some time with serious Canadian books they promised themselves they would read.

If some of the people in those summer crowds have liked what they saw enough to look for more of it, the same goes for corporations. If the corporate banner can wave over the festival in the park, there is no reason that it cannot hang in more lobbies during the winter.

That should offer a degree of hope that when the government grants dry up it is not necessarily the end of the world. If creativity, community enthusiasm and corporate largesse can win the day in July, there is at least the hope that they can be summoned, if on a smaller scale, in November. You don’t need a million readers to make a book a success, only 10,000. You don’t need 5,000 people to fill a jazz club, only 100. Why they aren’t there as often as we would like is a difficult question, but at least we know that they could be. The summer tells us that.

The summer arts find audiences by welcoming them, putting them in comfortable surroundings, making sure they feel at ease. With any luck and a decent set of priorities, the arts in Canada could be a walk in the park.