Here and now

The jury is looking for works suggestive of a creative imagination authentically deriving from, and alluding to, a non-colonized sensibility embedded in its own time and culture, speaking directly to present-day realities.

When I saw the statement above on the application form for the “Art Victoria Now” juried exhibition, I’ll confess I wondered what it meant. So I gave it some thought. Maybe a little too much, I’ll admit: I have a tendency to over-think things. But here we go.

I wasn’t too familiar with the phrase “non-colonized sensibility”, so I had to look it up. Turns out Google isn’t all that familiar with it either: “non-colonized sensibility” (in quotes) gets zero hits, while “colonized sensibility” gets 196 hits initially, but when you’re about 3 pages in Google decides it really meant 24 hits.

But I think I get the gist: in fact the subsequent clause “embedded in its own time and culture” is in itself a kind of definition. I take it that a “colonized sensibility” would be one that has uncritically adopted another culture’s norms and ideas at the expense of its own. Historically, in Canada this has been generally taken to mean adopting an American (US) sensibility, due to the dominance of US media in the Canadian context. “The colonized sensibility is convinced of the inauthenticity of its own cultural messages,” according to one source I found. (The imaginary Canadian, Tony Wilden, Pulp Press 1980). So authenticity, which I take to mean truth to our lived experience, is heavily bound up with this as well.

Ultimately my perhaps over-simplified interpretation is that the jury is looking for works that are consciously of the here and now, ie of this time and place. And I agree that’s one of the most important things regionally based art can provide. In fact it’s what I was getting at when I wrote in my post on Karl Spreitz and the Limners a couple of years ago, “it’s great to have some persistence of regional culture in a time when so much of what we get is the opposite; the product of a globalized culture-making machine.” But I think it’s also important to take a nuanced view of what “of this time and place” means.

Elza Mayhew sculpture at Expo '67, source Library + Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Elza Mayhew sculpture at Expo ’67, source Library + Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

To illustrate why I think that, let’s take another look at the Limners, a group of artists who many would acknowledge to have been an important force in the cultural scene in Victoria back in the 70s & 80s, and whose influence continues to be felt even now.

Were the Limners of this place? Well, yes, in the sense that they lived and worked here, and many (but by no means all) of their works referred to local places and people. But they were also, many of them, from away. Some, like Herbert Siebner and Robin Skelton, were expats whose formative years were spent in other countries. Others, like Myfanwy Pavelic and Maxwell Bates, were born in Canada but were educated, lived and worked abroad for years. Even Elza Mayhew, who was born in Victoria and lived here most of her life (and whose sculpture is featured in the photo above), studied with Czech sculptor Jan Zach and got her MFA in Oregon. Consequently they brought with them wide ranging cultural influences that reflected those other places where they had lived and studied. So in addition to the local references, their work reflected stylistic approaches from all over. In fact, I recall hearing that for this reason some of their contemporaries dismissed them as “too European”, not Canadian enough.

Were the Limners of their time? Yes again, in the sense that their art reflected their lived experience and the ideas that were important to them. But not so much, if “of their time” means plugged into the approaches to art making that were fashionable in the 60s, 70s and 80s. All of them, in their various ways, reflected artistic sensibilities more grounded in the first half of the 20th century than the second. In fact, Maxwell Bates even wrote a nice little poem about it, “The Critic”, which both acknowledges the criticism and makes it evident he didn’t particularly respect it.

So if “of this time and place” is elastic enough to accommodate the Limners (as one example), then I’d agree it’s a useful criterion. Less so though if our idea of the here and now means sticking to a more circumscribed set of possibilities. Because of course, part of being Canadian in the present day is to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, both from here and now as well as from there and then. Ultimately, truth to our lived experience in fact requires the freedom to choose which of those ideas will become central to our work. It seems to me that the difference between a colonized sensibility and one that isn’t, lies less in the temporal and geographic origin of the ideas that it assimilates, and more in whether the sensibility took an active or passive role in assimilating them.

A trip to the Brera

339px-Piero,_Pala_di_Brera

Why do we think some paintings are good, and others not so much? Why do we like what we like? Is it all just personal preference, or can we legitimately say that one painting is, objectively and for everyone, better than another?

These are hard questions. They were probably somewhat easier back when art was based more in craft, and in fact “art” simply meant craft of surpassing skill. Skill isn’t that hard to recognize, and it’s certainly possible to say that one painting is more skillfully painted than another. But is a skillfully painted picture necessarily better, in some absolute sense, than one of lesser craft? I very much doubt it.

The craft of painting never attained a higher level of perfection than it did in the great painting Academies of the 19th century, but sadly the work of the Academiciens, revered in its day, has not held up so well over time. Much of it seems rather cloying and sentimental to us now. Whereas work painted at around the same period by painters of lesser technique continues to live on and inspire us. Think Cezanne, the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and their followers.

So craft skill is out. Note that I don’t think this means craft is completely unimportant – obviously, the painters I just mentioned took it quite seriously indeed – but just that it can’t be the only determinant of what makes one painting better than another. Better craft does not necessarily equal better painting.

Unfortunately this gets us no closer to answering the questions posed above.

Maybe there is no absolute scale of values. Maybe the canon is basically just a random group of historical talents whose apotheosis is sheer convention, and we could substitute another group just as well. Is it possible that our liking for Cezanne, Picasso, Piero, etc, was learned or even conditioned? That is to say, we were told so often during our impressionable years that these were great painters that we simply came to believe it?

Somehow I doubt that too, and I’ll back up my doubt with an anecdote.

Many years ago, in the context of an extended European vacation, I made a day trip to Milan. Since there were several things I wanted to see while I was in the city, I had at most a couple of hours to spend in the Pinacoteca di Brera, the main public gallery there. It was an absurdly short time to spend in a place with so many amazing paintings. (Heck, I could have spent the entire two hours in front of the Piero.) In order to see the small collection of paintings I had previously determined I absolutely could not afford to miss, I had to run past other paintings that, had the circumstances been different, I would have gone out of my way to see. Countless Modern and Renaissance masters … “Next time,” I thought. “Next time.” Not knowing when that next time would be, if ever.

And then I came to a small group of paintings that stopped me dead in my tracks. These paintings weren’t on my must-see list, and in fact I’d never heard of the painter before. There was nothing obviously arresting about them: small paintings of musty-looking bottles and generic Italian landscapes in muted tones. But they had some kind of curious, undefinable power. Ultimately I spent longer looking at those paintings than the ones I had come to see. When I finally did tear myself away I carefully made a note of the painter’s name so I could look him up later: it was, of course, Giorgio Morandi.

The point of the anecdote is of course that no one told me Morandi was important; he wasn’t on the curriculum of any of the art history survey courses I’d taken to that point, or mentioned in any of the books I’d read. So you can’t say in Morandi’s case that I was looking at his works because I’d been told to. Nor can you say I was looking at them because they were on the walls of a prestigious gallery, since there were many other works on the same walls I was regretfully bypassing as I checked off the paintings on my list. You can’t even say I looked at them because they resembled other paintings I’d been taught to like, since a Morandi doesn’t resemble anything but a Morandi. No, I think the only possible explanation is that I was looking at Morandi’s paintings because of some intrinsic quality or qualities they possessed. But that gets us no closer to understanding why I liked them (and still do, to this day).

If you’ve read this far you may be a bit disappointed to learn that I’m not actually going to answer the questions I posed at the beginning. In fact I don’t really think there is a definitive answer, or if there is one it’s probably complicated and far from universal in its application. What I am going to say though is that ultimately I prefer not having an answer. I think it’s a lot more productive to leave open ended the question of why we like what we like. Occasionally we’ll come across something that seems to give us a clue, a part of an explanation. But the full explanation continues to elude us, and so we keep looking.