Canada: A Manifesto
by Robert Downing || Author's Links
Please grant me a few moments of your time. I want to tell you that I'm surrendering. I've come to realize the error of my ways and promise that I will no longer be a practicing Canadian fine artist. I well know that this will not be of direct interest to everyone. Indeed, because of what I'll say here it would be ludicrous for me to assume that anyone at all is especially interested in me giving up a forty year calling, through which I've expressed my love for Canada and my enjoyment of life. Nevertheless, I do feel obliged to make public this deeply personal decision, shall we say, for the record.
Doubtless, there will be some who will react to this declaration in rather nasty ways. However, I've learned that it sometimes serves no purpose to concern myself with even those who may respond in pleasant ways. It is well known that the task of striving to be honest demands, at times, a willingness to overlook what others may think. Of course, it helps to also keep in mind that contradictions are an essential aspect of creation.
Let me start by admitting I'm not the only person to have noticed that when the more influential members of a society decide, for one reason or another, the fine arts are essentially irrelevant, most of the population automatically regards fine artists, and what they may have to say, as inconsequential.
Currently, business leaders, government mandarins, academics, people working in the media and our elected political representatives, all plead ignorance about what is happening to the fine arts in Canada. Or worse, they join forces in support of the populist notion that every hobbyist, part-time craftsperson and amateur doodler should be awarded the same degree of social importance as those few seriously dedicated individuals who have given their lives to furthering the fine arts.
In the midst of this bewildering state of affairs one is open to attack simply by raising the issue. For example, art teachers tend to become defensive and those who have lovingly painted a landscape mural on their basement wall demand to know why their efforts should be degraded. The very foundation of democracy appears to become twisted in a time when hairstylists, cooks, journalists and even engineers proclaim that their contribution should also be thought of as artistic expression.
Under such conditions it becomes easy to confuse devoted fine artists with those who may choose to employ their intuitive abilities commercially in the advertising industry. To avoid that fate some fine artists have committed themselves to teaching, in the hope of gaining economic freedom to pursue their fine art interests on weekends and during summer holidays. While raising my children I found it necessary to teach various aspects of the fine arts, both full-time and part-time, at eight colleges and universities in four countries and I learned firsthand how much time and energy teaching takes away from a fine artist's true vocation. Mind you, many people have long believed that a fine artist cannot survive unless they are willing to work under an academic umbrella. In fact, that fixed idea is so entrenched in Canadian culture I'm amazed it hasn't become a law.
These kinds of circumstances are prevalent in most countries of the world, but here in Canada, where we also live under the constant shadow of the American media giants, the dilemma is compounded. For instance, the American entertainment industry dominates our television and motion picture screens and most Canadians willingly submit to that kind of cultural imperialism. Our newspapers often include some sort of arts or entertainment section, yet those sections of our daily newspapers are invariably filled with promotional gossip about American movie stars. The National Post proudly tells us about the international awards it has received for its Arts & Life section, but close to a year has passed since I've seen them include an article about a living Canadian fine artist.
In much of the western world there is now a great deal of talk about education policies. In the midst of these discussions no one seemed to flinch when Ontario schoolteachers announced they could no longer offer extra curricular courses in the arts because of work overload and lack of funding. This turn of events is not surprising when we allow that most people have never thought about the fact that we lack even the most basic textbook on the history of contemporary Canadian fine art. A proper unbiased, academic reference of Canadian fine artists still waits to be compiled. We are told that grievous cultural omission is a result of there being more important matters at hand.
An example of the bases for that excuse may be seen here in Toronto, where I have spent most of my 65 years. Recently, our city fathers were called upon to spend nearly two million dollars on the production of life-size plastic moose, which were decorated by local "artists," in order to support the tourist industry. Our mayor was so taken by this "expression of creative excellence" that he was inspired to ship five of these grotesque sins against the natural environment all the way to Australia, in support of the city's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. His fervor for "the arts" further motivated our trusted civic administrators to spend thousands more of taxpayers dollars to produce little furry moose key chains, which were given away free of charge to "art lovers" from around the world. But then, I overheard a neighbour say, "You try to do something nice and there's always some spoilsport wanting to tear off the antlers."
There is no doubt whatever that humanity is faced with innumerable serious problems. We all know, for example, that millions of children die from starvation and disease every year and that millions more are suffering from the effects of extreme poverty. We are told that many people still remain in a state of denial regarding the environment and the horrific changes taking place in our ecosystem. Natural disasters have become so abundant that the media no longer bothers to report on the misfortunes of nearly twenty million people who are flooded out of their homes at this moment. Some claim that today's tragic tensions in the Middle East pose a direct threat to all the oil hungry, consumption structured, socioeconomic systems around the world. Others believe that aliens from outer space are walking among us. What is even more disconcerting is the growing awareness that most people are living such stressful personal lives that they are unable to give more than a disheartened nod to the awesome spectacle.
Turning a blind eye seems to be the answer for those who feel powerless to make constructive changes and for them noninvolvement has become the philosophy of survival. The socially destructive potential of this kind of stance may be glimpsed in the widespread escapist slogan: "We've heard it all before, so let's get on with the party." These days, attempts to discuss social issues are interpreted as nothing more than a negative inclination to disturb someone's tranquility. At the very time in human history when it has become most appropriate, manifestations of passion are dismissed as displays of emotional imbalance and proponents of truth are urged to adopt a more positive attitude.
A short while ago, when I first learned about the death of our former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, my immediate inclination was to donate an example of my work to The National Gallery in his memory. But having been born and raised in Canada I knew that such a gesture would be viewed as merely an attempt to draw attention to myself. Besides, my social standing as an artist being what it is I recognized that it would be next to impossible for me to donate an example of my work to anything or anyone. It has already been made quite clear to me that my fine art works are neither needed nor wanted.
I've lost track of the number of times I've been told it means nothing to be listed in Canadian Who's Who, and so many people have told me that it means nothing to be an elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts that I sometimes wonder why the Governor General isn't arrested for being the patron of it. It's the same old story; whatever I do just isn't good enough. For instance, yesterday I discovered my name has been omitted from Anne Newlands' new book, Canadian Art: From Its Beginnings to 2000, in which she lists more than 300 Canadian artists. Call it sour grapes on my part if you like, but the title of her book is not, "My Favorite Artists." How is it possible for that government funded author to overlook the fact that I was the first Canadian artist to be invited to hold a solo exhibition in a major European public gallery? It was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, England in 1969. The internationally renowned art critic Bryan Robertson was director at the time. Confirmation that my contribution to Canadian culture is considered irrelevant may also be seen in Canadian Art in the Twentieth Century, written by Joan Murray and published by Dunbar Press last year. That government funded author also found it easy to exclude my name and apparently had no problem ignoring the fact that an archive of one hundred and fifty of my works has been in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, my hometown, since 1986. Perhaps the board of directors for the Art Gallery of Hamilton should also be arrested for wasting taxpayers' money to house my fine art works. I know, I've heard it too, who cares?
Several months ago I managed to personally produce a limited edition of sixty-four CD ROM disks. It was a major fine art work of multifarious dimensions. I titled it Purusha, which is a Hindu word meaning one's true self. The disk is described as an introduction to my life's work. It offers 333 examples of my digital art, sculpture, painting, prints and photography, dating back to 1956, as well as a series of images from 1971, when I first made use of the computer to generate fine art. In addition, it also contains 9 written works including "Confessions of a Canadian Sculptor," my hilarious early memoirs, (1935-67), which unfolds the years of growing up in Hamilton, joining the Royal Canadian Navy at age seventeen, later becoming a police constable and then the hippie owner of a San Francisco furniture shop, etc., et cetera.
I designed and printed a cover for all sixty-four disks and mailed them, along with a hardcopy README text, to selected public galleries, artist colleagues, friends, art collectors, journalists, government officials and a few well known CEO's. The written text informed the recipients that the disk had no fixed price. They were free to send me whatever they may choose. I tried to make it clear that the disk was a concept piece in the whole new category of fine art shareware. I also informed them that the disk contained a half dozen separate image files of recent digital art works, which were large enough to be made into four-foot square prints, providing they sent me something as a gesture of good will.
I've documented every stage of this fine art work in a loose-leaf notebook, complete with a list of the people to whom it was sent. Unfortunately, most of them have never even acknowledged receipt of it. Out of curiosity, three months after I mailed it out, I telephoned a very well known art collector and asked him to send it back if he didn't want it. He told me that he couldn't find it, but that he'd call me when he did. Needless to say, I'm still waiting to hear from him. A couple of friends did send me cheques for $20.00 and one for $100.00, which I much appreciated, seeing as how I worked over a period of two years preparing material for the project. Out of courtesy, I also sent one to the Honorable Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage. Her Director General of Arts Policy sent it back to me along with a note saying they had no budget for such works, but they found it to be "a unique marketing tool."
I knew then I was finished, but I wanted to clear up a few loose ends before letting go entirely. Neither the Canada Council nor the Ontario Arts Council had seen fit to give me their blessing since the mid 1980's and I felt that I must take one final crack at them. I shouldn't have done that because once again they didn't give me anything but a hard time and I ended up telling a smooth talking visual arts officer that I hoped the whole lot of them would be punished in hell.
My work has been included in 77 exhibitions in 7 countries and I've completed 16 commissions in 3 countries. I've spent so much time and money making art and representing Canada abroad that I neglected to shore up my Canada Pension Plan for my old age. As a result, now that my health is starting to fade my income amounts to just enough to cover basic living expenses. This means I can't be expected to support Canadian culture anymore. So, in all probability you'll not be hearing a word out of me ever again.
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