On the Corruption of Canadian Art
Notes Before a Revolution
In 1947 statistician R.A. Fischer was invited to give a series of talks on BBC radio about the nature of science and scientific investigation. His words are as relevant to the arts today. “A scientific career is peculiar in some ways. Its reason d’être is the increase in natural knowledge and on occasion an increase in natural knowledge does occur. But this is tactless and feelings are hurt.
For in some small degree it is inevitable that views previously expounded are shown to be either obsolete or false. Most people, I think, can recognize this and take it in good part if what they have been teaching for ten years or so needs a little revision but some will undoubtedly take it hard, as a blow to their amour propre, or even an invasion of the territory they have come to think of as exclusively their own, and they must react with the same ferocity as animals (whose territory is invaded). I do not think anything can be done about it… but we should be warned and even advised that when one has a jewel to offer for the enrichment of mankind, some people will certainly wish to discredit that person and shred them to bits.”
H.G. Wells in his A Short History of the World described the papacy of Innocent III (1160-1216), as if it were the art world today. “And it was just because many of them probably doubted secretly of the entire soundness of their vast and elaborate doctrinal fabric that they would brook no discussion of it. They were intolerant of questions or dissent, not because they were sure of their faith, but because they were not.” And someone on Facebook wrote that when we can no longer explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets.
Shades of Galen haunt the halls of academia, yet Margaret Heffernan in “Dare to disagree” insists on the importance of speaking out. “The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we can’t handle, don’t want to handle, the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.”
From the 1970s to the Future of Art.
In 1969 Harold Rosenberg of The New Yorker wrote that “The function of the university is to impart knowledge, but art is not solely knowledge and the problems proposed by knowledge; art is also ignorance and the eager consciousness of the unknown that impels creation. No matter how cultivated he is, every creator is in some degree a naïf, a primitive, and relies on his particular gift of ignorance.” Obviously knowledge satisfies but it is ignorance that compels exploration. It’s important to keep that in mind; cognitive certainty in art is a dead end.
During the 1970s we found the magic of art was ripe for deconstruction. Semiotics revealed that signs and symbols were the building blocks of images, which were themselves socio-political constructs. The intellectualization of art had begun, casting a light of reason in shadowy corners and clearing away that haze and fog typical of an art community where feelings and intuition were functional values.
Years later Rob Storr (MOMA, Yale) said in an interview on Yale radio that he “doesn’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school of contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody”. Be that as it may, in this scientific reorganization of academic fine art, an intellectual description of art replaced those personal idiosyncrasies that would never pass peer review such as the naïve, the primitive, the ignorance that impels creation.
Back then it was with a sense of relief that artists learned to think, both because the unexamined life is not worth living, and this newfound ability to conceptualize our culture gave us a wider perspectives than any previous generation. It also provided jobs when educated cohorts pursued advanced degrees. Any talented young artist could now be hired to teach, read and grade essays, find time to organize, schedule, and promote new courses, fundraise for their department, attend conference meetings, consul with colleagues, meet with students, promote best administrative practices, not forgetting to publish or perish. It would be logical to say this leaves little time for an art practice.
As an added irritant, Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours to mastery include a caveat; you need to keep up your chops, if you don’t use it you lose it. There is a magic in art that develops through repetition and practice, the mind being a muscle that grows with use. Eastern philosophy tells of meditation to Enlightment, and western psychology talks of untapped potentials within ourselves, potentials that can only be realized through long hours of hard work, those hours now outside our grasp. Mastery in the arts being desirable yet unattainable, a diplomatic solution was sorely needed.
For an academic the answer was obviously academic. Rob Storr had described the transformation of the art world from the “Cedar Tavern to the seminar room… It was a transformation that created a class of critics and artists, a class that invented a cult of difficulty based on jargon – the words used like pieces in an erector set to reference their own theories to other theories rather than to works of art.”
In an environment where art was academic, a description of art was believed equivalent to an actual work of art. The enormous difference was in the emotions and feelings which the art awakened, a feeling missing in the job description. But to a brilliant mind, no problem is insoluble and Sol Lewitt provided the required equation. As Duchamp made art intellectual, ideas became works of art. Duchamp projected this concept into the ready-made, a new paradigm that made skill and technique passé and also dispensed with aesthetics. Anything that an artist decided was art thereby became art; any thinking about art by an artist was now a work of art.
John Cage’s musical composition 4’33 is silent. Not a single note is played. I myself would sacrifice four and a half minutes to attend the event as a singularity. I would object if silence replaced music and dominated the aural arts. It would be repetitive for every concert to consist of a musical score handed the audience, so the public could imagine what the music would sound like if performed by musicians. It’s noteworthy that the intellect likewise has little place on the stage, in dance, in sports; your theatre director, choreographer, or coach, will insist you’re not to think but practice till it’s second nature, intuitive, till you know it in your bones. There are functions in the mind that are hampered rather than helped by the intellect. Some are rather obvious such as instincts; the creative unconscious is such a function.