Outside the Shaw Festival theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake I watch busloads of blue-haired ladies flock to their seats for the Wednesday matinee of Robertson Davies’ Leaven Of Malice, a smug, pretentious Canadian comedy which bombed on Broadway 18 years ago and bombs again. The ladies love it. They giggle at the smutty jokes and applaud the cheap stage tricks. It’s a triumph of vulgarity, not unlike Davies’ new play, Question Time, a grotesque banana split which self-destructed at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre this winter. Davies is considered to be a fine novelist, but he’s a terrible playwright. It doesn’t seem to make any difference: Leaven Of Malice is the first Canadian play to be staged at the Shaw Festival and the only Canadian play to occupy the main stage at either Shaw or Stratford. “Hey!” I want to shout from my $7.50 seat. “What’s going on?”
What seems to be going on is the stagnation of artistic vitality. A slough, a slump. A creative depression. It’s the feeling that came over me at Leaven Of Malice, and again when I picked up Harper’s to read another put-down of Canadian writers by Mordecai Richler, a feeling of fatigue, frustration, almost despair. Davies has been writing bad plays for 20 years, Richler has been peddling that same sycophantic malice ever since he left Canada in the Fifties. Now he’s come home, but he hasn’t changed. Is there nothing new? I find it hard to pick up a book or a magazine, listen to radio, watch TV without the feeling that I’ve read it, heard it, seen it all before. My mood is reflected in a single word scrawled in a CBC elevator: ENNUI.
It’s partly a reaction to the enthusiasm of the Sixties when art was snatched up and stuffed into concrete crypts where we go now to pay our respects to the corpse of Culture. Galleries, theatres, concert halls are lush, plush, suffocating. Sure there is good, provocative theatre in Canada, but you’ll find it mainly in old warehouses and church basements and converted firehalls. Directors protest that most Canadian plays are too short, or too simple, or too plain to make it on a big stage: actually many of them are too tough. They don't fit into a theatre where the play is only part of the ambience, an elegant finale to an afternoon spent picnicking by the lake.
The artist’s seduction of his audience is difficult, a relationship full of caution and mistrust, a delicate affaire that at any moment can explode into hatred or violent passion. Both partners depend on culture brokers, those scholars, patrons and critics who seek out artists, buy their works and interpret it to the public. Without them art becomes meaningless or terrifying, and it is their absence, the disappearance of the culturati, that is confusing and depressing me. “I have the feeling I am almost one of the last of the old literate generation,” says a film maker, “the generation that still believes in quality, standards, excellence. That’s all out of fashion now.” The fashion, of course, is pop culture, do your own thing, as they say. “All art is good,” says an 18-year-old student passionately. “Every poem is creative, every painting is beautiful, every novel is great. Who’s to judge?”
Who indeed? Most critics are terrified to say whether a book or a play or a poem or a painting is good or bad; they summarize the plot, they review the audience, they list images and metaphors, they search for something nice to say about a bad production and make picky criticisms of exciting work just in case they’re caught out, exposed as not being up to the latest trends. People like me who slog through this grey mud are baffled and infuriated, stuck with $12.95 books we hate and expensive evenings at the theatre of exquisite tedium.
It’s almost embarrassing now to talk about art. Nobody uses words such as “culture” or “good taste” any more and “beautiful” has become meaningless street slang. Mention aesthetics and people blush and shuffle their feet, afraid of being labeled an elitist, tarred forever as a snob like that insufferable prig, Sir Kenneth Clark. Our two most influential cultural theoreticians, Marshall McLuhan and Margaret Atwood, offer insights but avoid value judgments: a book can be nonlinear and chock full of survivors and still be terrible. The Americans offer a financial aesthetic — if it sells, it’s good — but in Canada this tends to be reversed (if it doesn’t sell, it’s good). The function of patron, connoisseur, has been taken over almost exclusively by the Canada Council and cigarette companies.
If all art is of equal value as individual expression, attention naturally shifts to the artist. Instead of critical evaluations of their work we get interviews: we know how much booze they drink, what kind of typewriter they use, how often they've been married and how much money they make. (Do I really want to know that Atwood raises sheep? It’s like learning that Emily Bronte knitted afghans for the church bazaar.) We know all about Atwood. How many of us read her poetry? Biography has become not a supplement to criticism but a substitute. An artist’s success depends not on the excellence of his work but on his attractiveness to the media, on his ability to become that romantic hero of pop culture, a star. Robertson Davies is a star, therefore his plays must be good.
There is art that speaks directly and strongly to the public in Canada, yet most of it has to be sought out, tracked down in such out-of-the-way places as Newfoundland and St. Catharines, Ontario, in little magazines and thin paperbacks and hole-in-the-wall theatres. Canadian culture is underground. Without promoters, without money, without friends, artists get stuck (like playwrights who always write small plays because they’re always in small theatres) underground. With no audience and no reward for excellence, they become exhausted, discouraged. In a few years their bones will be disinterred — another interesting example of a promising,-and failed, artist — and we’ll all feel sad. Why didn’t we know?
For me art is an emotional response, a flash of recognition. I feel it or I don’t. Criticism is an attempt to explain this response, to interpret it and universalize it. Without it, art is just salesmanship. That may be democratic but schlock is still schlock.
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