ANOTHER VIEW

Forget idealism—it is much too expensive

If the people running Canada now had been running Canada only 15 years ago, there would be no National Gallery, no Museum of Civilization

CHARLES GORDON December 11 1995
ANOTHER VIEW

Forget idealism—it is much too expensive

If the people running Canada now had been running Canada only 15 years ago, there would be no National Gallery, no Museum of Civilization

CHARLES GORDON December 11 1995

Forget idealism—it is much too expensive

ANOTHER VIEW

BY CHARLES GORDON

If the people running Canada now had been running Canada only 15 years ago, there would be no National Gallery, no Museum of Civilization

Here’s some pre-referendum wisdom: “There are still places in Canada, and particularly in Quebec province, where... people live naturally hardworking lives without the greyness and futility that so often accompanies life in new settlements. Ontario has much to learn from Quebec.”

Arthur Lismer, one of Canada’s most celebrated artists, made that statement, a verbal reminder of the social relevance of art. It is displayed in the National Gallery of Canada, beside a visual reminder, his painting Quebec Village, part of the current exhibit of Group of Seven paintings. The exhibition, called Art for a Nation (also the title of an excellent companion book by Charles Hill), is worth seeing, as a portrait of the way the country was, the way the country still is, if we only take the trouble to look at it. It is also, in a poignant way, a portrait of the way the country could be.

Various quotations from artists and writers about art accompany the exhibition. Here, from Hill’s book, is one, from Herman Voaden, a dramatist and booster of the Group of Seven, in the December, 1928, edition of Canadian Forum: “Canada is probably on the eve of a great renaissance in her art and literature. She is unshackled by the past. She looks only to the future. With untold wealth, power and idealism, she is ready to create a new and important culture. All that has been done before, in prose and poetry, music, painting and sculpture is only a preparation for what is to come.”

"Hiere is something sad about reading that today—not because it was false: it can be argued that an important culture has in fact been created. The reason it is sad to read those 1928 words about Canada’s being on the eve of a great renaissance in art and literature is that it is painfully obvious that no one would say such words today.

Idealism, like so much else today, has become something we can’t afford. And if ideal-

ism is too costly, a renaissance would be out of the question. “First, get the debt under control,” someone important would say. “A renaissance can wait.”

The Art for a Nation exhibition re-creates some of the Group’s early shows, going back to the beginning of the ’20s. Not all of them were successful. But the visitor, noting the inscriptions under the paintings, is struck by how many of them were purchased by the National Gallery, and how early. Lismer was aware of this. In 1920, he wrote: “Were it not for the kindly offices of a very few interested people who impress the government with the necessity of providing sustenance to Canadian art by the occasional purchase of a picture from one of the annual shows, Canadian art would inevitably go under, or succumb to the popular forms of picture-making, usually known as ‘potboilers.’ ”

The purchase of those paintings was a risk-taking we can only hope will be allowed to continue. But to continue, it needs political support. The arts need support, both public and private. Every sign, including last week’s Ontario financial statement, points to such support becoming a thing of the past.

The National Gallery itself is a kind of risktaking, a spectacular one and, in a way, as outdated as a quotation from 1928. Walking around the magnificent building, gazing through its glass walls across the Ottawa River to the equally spectacular Museum of Civilization, the visitor is struck by another depressing thought: neither of these could be built now. If the people running Canada now had been running Canada only 15 years ago, there would be no National Gallery, no Museum of Civilization.

Take the same mentality back a few years to the burst of construction at the time of Canada’s centennial and it becomes apparent that not only would we not have any museums with today’s crowd in charge; we would have no auditoriums and hockey rinks either. The fearful, debt-whipped thinkers who dominate today’s politics would not allow a museum to be built, unless it were done by a corporation. No corporation would build the museum, although one might take over a museum if it were built by another corporation.

It would be permissible, in today’s climate, for a museum to be built by volunteers—except that volunteers are too busy filling in for the teachers, nurses, social workers and librarians who are no longer working.

This brings up one of the other reasons— other than sheer dogmatism, that is—why it is difficult to defend public spending on the arts these days. life is difficult for other people too, as those in power take what they like to call tough decisions. Note that the tough decisions are never tough on the people who take them. Be that as it may, people on welfare are having difficulty buying groceries. University students are having a tough time coming up with tuition. Many people are jobless, some are homeless. In the face of that, the request for more funds for book publishing and live theatre, for example, doesn’t have a chance.

‘You want money for that when people are going hungry?” goes the cry, and there isn’t an effective answer other than the wellknown “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

Setting one disadvantaged group against another, making cuts to culture appear preferable to cuts to other groups is such a classic piece of divide and rule that you wonder whether those running the show are smart enough to have done it on purpose. You almost wish they were.

What hope, at the end of 1995, for the Great Canadian Renaissance? We don’t lack for artists. In some areas, such as literature, we have far more resources—in other words, writers—than we had 70 years ago, or even 20. What we don’t have is idealism. What we don’t have is a favorable environment.

Had the Group of Seven been around today, they would have become, after tough decisions were made, the Group of Five, with the possibility of further reductions in the future. For the information of those who want to see the Art for a Nation exhibition, the National Gallery is now closed every Monday and Tuesday.