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.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for your interpretation. It’s definitely a phrase worthy of sitting beside the rain with a strong coffee to think upon! I believe I shall submit something for fun!

  2. Coffee definitely helps, and “for fun” sounds like a great reason to me. Thanks for stopping by!