Why Can’t We Talk About Class and Art in Canada?

Image from a book parody of a children's first reader, "We Go to the Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide," authored by Miriam Elia.
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A couple of weeks ago, an old friend posted a j’accuse on social media. It was brief and blunt and perhaps even rude. They asked, in the most forward and rough way (how un-Canadian!) why so many well-off artists in Canada continued to accept public funding, from either government grants and/or the new (and equally troublesome) model of public money acquisition, crowd-funding.

A reasonable enough question, one would assume (one not living in Canada, that is).

Now, I am not here to either defend or contradict my friend’s posting(s). They speak well and loudly enough for themselves. What interests me are the reactions the original challenge generated: each was nasty, brutish, and short-tempered.

I’ve been through plenty of shit storms in my writing life, so I get it, from both sides. I get how one can become so overwhelmed by the shortcomings of the artworld that one lashes out in a less-than-genteel or tidy fashion. I also get that the artworld breeds unique anxieties – status anxieties, career mirror gazing, what-about-me complaints – and that provocations aimed at those anxieties, intentionally or indirectly, can cause (shall we be contemporary and say “trigger”?) sniping, rage, and tongue lashings. ‘Twas ever thus.

But reactions can be as telling as the thing reacted against. The original poster, my friend, was accused of being bitter about their career, and then of stirring up questions best left alone, of disturbing the status quo (as if that action in itself was a bad thing). They were then asked for the names. Names, damn it! The post’s validity was questioned because the post’s author refused to identify the artists they thought were being over-rewarded, to “name and shame.” Both of these rhetorical strategies missed the mark by a country mile, as the author’s post was intended to provoke (I stress the word provoke) a discussion about a systemic problem in Canadian art, and that action, by its nature, does indeed disrupt the too-treasured, Cautious Canada status quo, and is hardly about individuals but classes.

Canadian art desperately needs to have a conversation about the role of class in art production. We will not be able to do so if the first instigators of that conversation are shut down and ostracized because they have not taken a baby-steps, academic approach. The pot won’t stir itself, but the muck inside sure does congeal.

Let’s begin by disabusing ourselves of some core fantasies. The first being that Art, like Love or Nature or any generalized conceit, exists outside of the base exchange of cash. Art is not free nor has it ever set anybody free. This rainbow fantasy of Art as being a combination of free expression, passion, and that equally-fraudulent construction called Talent is, or ought to be, easily understood as culturally idiotic and impotent as the generational spurt of jejune fancies that spawned it: namely, the hippie movement. (But these outbreaks happen every generation.) Enough already, nothing is free. Grow up.

The second misapprehension, and the more important to this discussion, is that Canada is a society organized by merit, especially as applied to the arts. How is it that Canadians believe this, and become furious when the lie is put to truth, but know in every other sector of society, merit is, at best, the ribbon on the gift box?

We know in Canada, and have no end of discussions about such, that class affects everything from access to education and health care to body size and employment opportunities – and yet, when a class analysis of any kind is applied to the trade and currencies of the artworld, suddenly ours is a “merit driven” society. However, even our public funders acknowledge that one’s socio-ethnic status can play a role in one’s career, and, to compensate for these discrepancies, funders offer unique programs for under-represented groups and include identity categories in which an applicant may identify themselves as a member of a minority in order for their projects to receive a deeper level of consideration. We acknowledge and attempt to address the bald fact that there is a dominant class on a socio-ethnic level, and I am glad that we do this; so why can’t we see the entire picture and recognize that dominance can also be economically enacted between peoples who (more or less) otherwise constitute a superficial hegemony, who may well mirror the dominant class but in truth do not reflect it?

Having money or not having money divides people as rudely, categorically, and with the same dagger-like precision as does race, gender, or sexuality, to name but a few of power’s too-many targets. To put it plainly, if there’s a tick box for your gender/ethnic/racial status, why is there not one for your economic status?

And yet, we can’t talk about class in the arts without everyone freaking out and acting as if art is too holy to be about money. Nor can we state the obvious: if you are born into money, your art career will in all likelihood unfold at a very different pace than that of a contemporary not born into money, because, of course, you don’t have to work at anything but your art. And with public funding for the necessities of art-making drying up (necessities such as materials, presentation infrastructure, and travel to accompany one’s art should it get out of one’s studio), those with independent means obviously do far better; the work looks more polished and gallery-worthy, they are properly dressed when presented to the right curators, they can leave Canada and establish connections that increase their international profile.

This is all so numbingly obvious, it’s a bit infuriating to even have to explain – but all you have to do is look at the careers of two equally qualified artists, one well off, the other not, and the contrasts are startling, especially in expensive cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.

And here’s another well-observed reality not spoken of in polite art circles: the Canadian artworld is run by academics, academics with access to entire worlds of connection, funding, and curatorial power that stays neatly inside its diamond-hard shell. Many artists in Canada teach and function as academics. There is nothing wrong with that, but when it gets to the point, as it has now, that one cannot have an international or national art career without some backing from the academe, or, better yet, inclusion in same, then it’s a problem because not everybody gets to go to university.

In any other occupation, we would call this out for what it is: class and education bias. Of course, there are examples of “outsiders” who do well without the support of the academic community, but the fact that we think of these artists as “examples” or “exceptions to the rule” is telling. The “rule” is the problem, not the fact that it can occasionally, and mostly by sheer luck, be broken.

Why, then, do we cling to the silly notion that, unlike any other sphere of human endeavor in our country, when it comes to art making and the making of art careers, there are no “haves” and “have-nots.” What pathology fuels this dogged insistence that the Canadian artworld is, to quote the first Prime Minister Trudeau, a “classless society”?

I could zoom way out here and argue that when you build an entire nation from a set of colonial lies, everything false just tumbles forward, but I hardly need go global here. Let’s stick to a more immediate history. The Canadian artworld was constructed, consciously, in the middle of the last century by a busy handful of well-meaning, educated people from “good families.”

Part of that construction involved creating a near-utopian idea of creativity (and access to the creativity of others) for the masses. All of our major institutions and governmental arts bodies have this mission belief at their foundation. It’s perfectly lovely, in the abstract. But seventy years later, we see how in reality this abstraction played out: the arts in Canada remain (almost to the exclusion of all others) for consumption by (and, as is the nature of self-feeding circles, the production by) the very same class who built the allegedly open systems in the first place.

The great “art for everybody” project failed. It’s foolhardy to carry on as if everything is fine and everybody is doing as well as they deserve. The problem is not that the well-off (economically, academically) in Canada hoard the resources and protect each other – many of our nation’s most exquisitely bred and to-the-manor-born artists are sweet and generous people. There is no need for paranoia here, Illuminati panics, or releasing of the hounds. But we must acknowledge that class, like power (they are twins, after all) replicates itself; same is always drawn to same. Canada is not and never was immune from social physics.

We don’t need to shame rich artists for getting richer, we need to shame (and then radically overhaul) a broken system that over-rewards and easily favors those who already own a piece of the deep, plush turf misnamed the “level playing field.”

9 Comments

  • RM, this is brilliant, I read it four times. Of course we all believe that talent and creative drive will overcome all obstacles.

  • Thank you. Just, thank you.

  • Edwin Janzen says:

    Superb piece. Clearly the funding disbursed by the Canada Council and the provincial or municipal councils should be need-based, at least in part. So the question becomes: what must we do to convince politicians and council administrators of this?

  • Wonderful article; thank you. And I agree with so much of what you say here. (In fact, by complete synchronicity, I posted a Facebook status the day before this article was published, speaking to the very same thing.) I hope your article generates the conversation — and, more importantly, positive change — that it deserves to.

    That being said, you and I clearly life in very different communities with respect to at least one thing: I can honestly say that in almost thirty years of being involved in the arts (from high school band through university education through my current employment in multiple artistic situations), I do not *ever* recall a single one of my Canadian artistic colleagues claiming, complaining about, or otherwise referring to the Canadian art scene as “merit-based”. Quite the opposite: every artist I know — in every artistic genre/form/pursuit — is currently, and always has been, complaining about the “have versus have-not” hierarchy.

  • James Whitman says:

    One of the central tenets of the NY Artists’ Union during the WPA era was that Federal Art Project jobs should be given out on the basis of need rather than merit. This put them in rather sharp conflict with some project administrators, like Public Works of Art administrator Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum, who refused to use all of her available budget and became infamous for saying things like ‘need is not in my vocabulary’ and ‘I only select the best’.

    sorry, bit of a factoid. Just to say, this discussion has a long heritage.

  • Deborah Jeffrey says:

    Even MOMUS has to name drop. From the “About” page – “It’s benefited from the support of esteemed arts patrons including Bruce Bailey and Ydessa Hendeles; and notes of endorsement from artists and writers including Frances Stark, Chris Kraus, Douglas Coupland, and the editor of Tate Etc., Simon Grant.”
    The mindset of only giving credibility to those already on the A team will be hard to overcome.

    • Sky Goodden says:

      Doing this helps encourage further patronage and support, so that we can continue paying our writers at above industry-average rates.

  • Noni Mausa says:

    Yes, the dividing line is obvious and persistent, enduring in no small part because the arts are treated as luxuries and disrespected, (remember Mr. Harper scorning those artists and all their galas?) when they are in fact one of the enduring markers of a nation — far more than the efforts of a venture capitalist or a stockbroker. John Ralston Saul discussed this in a 1995 position paper on culture and foreign policy, but twenty years later…

    Anyway, I worry about the nearly complete absence of interest of the Canadian general public in the arts, and their inability to buy the stuff, and their difficulties in displaying or storing it if they, somehow, manage to buy a piece.

    To fold the general public into active participation in fine arts is a challenge I wish could be as energetically pursued as, for instance, the coordination of dog and cat rescues.

    The online ArtBomb art auction seems to be doing well, but much more is needed to boost the buying public’s interest and involvement. Otherwise, the artists will continue to require wealthy patrons and buyers, as well as parents, supportive spouses, or universities.

    (The money, by the way, IS there. Witness the thousands who can afford Grey Cup tickets or iPhone upgrades. It is the involvement and interest that’s missing.)

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