The Canadian Art Foundation's Symposium

3 March 2005

Last weekend Canadian Art Magazine organized a film series and symposium on 'artists on film'. From Friday to Sunday, a variety of films were shown, mostly by Michael Blackwood, which were documentaries on artists or artists at work within their studios. On Saturday afternoon, a panel discussion was held around the question of 'imaging the artist', consisting of Myfanwy MacLeod (an artist from Vancouver), Mark Kingwell (the U of T prof), Michael Blackwood (the filmmaker), and Vera Frenkel (an artist from Toronto), moderated by Richard Rhodes, editor of Canadian Art magazine.

It was an attempt to look at how artists tend to be represented in the media. Richard Rhodes introduced the topic with a little essay in which he described watching Lust for Life as a 14 year old one evening in Winnipeg during a snowstorm, and the images of the movie stars and the south of France during that winter night made an impression furthered by subsequently seeing a depiction of Michelangelo by Charlton Heston as an heroic worker in The Agony and the Ecstasy. Rhodes admitted these impressions of artists as glorious and heroic influenced and confused him for years and I think it's fair to say that we've all gone through that. Sarah Milroy, in her pre-review of the film series in last Friday's Globe and Mail, stated that she has never been flung on a filthy studio mattress and been ravaged by any of the artists she's interviewed, and yet, year after year, artist's biopics are made which depict them in this way.

But to be fair, the biopics are made on artists who did behave that way. Jackson Pollock really did piss in his patron's fireplace, and Picasso really was a womanizing asshole, and Van Gogh really was a little off despite being extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive. As Vera Frenkel pointed out in her statement, keep a segment of society underpaid, underemployed, and underappreciated long enough, and it makes sense that some of them end up antisocial and crazy.

Which has been the bind artists have been in for 100 years - society likes the idea of crazy artists, and so, the economic forces that make them that way almost seem to be there by design. And the idea of a crazy artists is a romantic one. Now, it's worth remembering what this means. The word 'romantic' is popularly associated with love, and to say 'romantic artists' seems to somehow say that they are good people to date, which isn't the case. Like Modern Art (which was a style of art running from the 1890s-1960s) Romantic Art was a style of expression which began during the 19th Century and in many ways is still present, only it's been degraded and to be considered that way is more synonymous with a lack of contemporary sophistication, a sign that you're not quite with it. For this reason, the romantic idea of an artist is one which no artist likes to be associated with.

The Romantic movement, was characterized by lots of overblown 'woe is me' rhetoric, (and for this reason I see goths as nothing more than 21st century romantics) and the romantic ideal was also one of elitism, depicting artists as a type of imaginative aristocracy, overcome with extravagant passions which places them outside the limits of polite society, and making them so very sexy (hence, the dating thing).

So, Richard Rhodes introduced the discussions with his experience of biopics, (the heroics of which representative of the 19th Century romantic conception) Michael Blackwood merely told us how he came to make documentaries on artists, and then had nothing more to say, Myfanwy MacLeod gave us a slide show in which she critiqued the popular misconception of the romantic artist and also critiqued the contemporary fashion that confuses biography with artwork (which is perhaps best exemplified by Shakespeare in Love, which used this idea to develop it's fictional storyline around the composition of Romeo and Juliet). Myfanwy complained, and Kingwell echoed this, that biography is often irrelevant to a created work. The biopics, and indeed the film series itself, are often centered around the idea that the artist's life is important to understanding their work, and while I would say it is certainly not irrelevant, it is true that artists often do not consider it important. Like when you have a fight with somebody and they use something from your past against you, out of context and out of place, does it ever seem relevant?

Kingwell's presentation restored my appreciation for him which has eroded lately since he's been writing about fishing, whiskey, and the architecture of Shanghai, none of which particularly interest me. He began by reminding us that the 1999 adaptation of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations, staring Ethan Hawke and Gywneth Paltrow, had Hawke aspiring to be a New York artist, as opposed to becoming a lawyer, which definitely recast the New York Chelsea-delt artist as someone with social standing worth aspiring too, an idea far more current in England and the States than it is in Canada. He then went on to his favorite lecture props, Simpsons Pez dispensers, and reminded us of two episodes of the Simpsons depicting artists - the first one where Marge painted Mr. Burns and the second, where Homer became an outsider artist after failing to build a backyard barbecue. He went one to describe 11 artistic stereotypes, from artisan to romantic genius; the artist as philosopher and as 'artist on the make' - those who are exploiting the 'bankruptcy' of the art system, and now, his 11th, most recent manifestation of the artist, as 'disappeared' - that is, the anonymous street-artist who treats the art world as everywhere given that artists have achieved the idea that anything can be art.

Vera Frenkel was the last to read an essay, which was considered and intelligent but I didn't really agree with most of it. She spoke about being at a conference on creaolization on the same date 7 years before, that the language used by the Canada Council in their proposed changes platform was infantilizing, advertised her web-project in which artists assign various stereotypes around fictional characters who inhabit this virtual artist-run centre (no character of which can be under 50, so it mostly seemed to me like more Boomer self-absorption) and who's only relevant point seemed to be that if you assigned Rorschach tests to all the artists in the room, they would be as varied as anyone else in society. Frenkel's speech though, in raising the current Canada Council controversy, seemed to sidetrack the discussion, because in the Q&A period, statements supporting her's were raised by the audience, and I was so annoyed by what I see as a glaring generation gap that suddenly nothing anyone on the panel said seemed relevant to anything anymore.

In addition, there was a great question from an audience member which attempted to address why none of the artist stereotypes being talked about included anyone who wasn't white - why, in 'imaging the artist' artists are always of European descent? The question met with what seemed to me a stunned silence. Richard Rhodes did he best to explain that the artworld - 'our tradition' (that is, the cultural hegemony of Europe as inherited by its former colonies by the descendents of Europeans) - had been remarkable in adopting and accepting the cultural values of 'other' cultures (a type of benign colonization as it were). While the question highlighted a continuing problem of discrimination, it is a problem that is trying to be rectified. (Which is also why I think the Art Awards are a bad idea, because they unconsciously communicate that art is only done by a select group of artists from a select tradition).

Perhaps I missed something with regard to Frenkel's arguments on creolization (that the fear of everyone turning brown is racist and that creole cultures are delightfully complex), but I was left with the impression that a desire to embrace ethnic intermixing was another desire for an homogenous culture that we can pin down and define. Not that I have anything against the idea of ethnicities and cultures intermixing, but I sort of understood her desire to be 'mix all the colours together to get beige' rather than appreciate the rainbow mosaic. The Canadian experience has always favored the mosaic rather than a melting pot, and yet we're immersed in a dialog of culture which we're not conscious of as American. It says something toward how effective the Canada Council has been, for example, that Kingwell and Myfanwy can use American films and The Simpsons to exemplify their points. We're already in the midst of type of creolization of Western culture, dominated like everything else by the States.

In the end, I left feeling most convinced by Kingwell's arguments toward the artist's disappearance. His visual examples showed work that was similar to that of Roadsworth in Montreal. While much street art and tagging is so often a territorial pissing, clearly an expression of identity, I think it's a matter of expressing identity in ways that are not connected to biography or the name on your ID. Roadsworth has now been outed as Peter Gibson only because he got arrested, but Kingwell's point about the artworld being everywhere resonated with me, as a way of saying that there's a new hierarchy between the white-box and the street in terms of cultural legitimization. Just as there's a new hierarchy developing between print media and blogs.

The participants and the PR:

"Myfanwy MacLeod is a Vancouver artist whose work has shown in major exhibitions across Canada as well as at the Biennale of Sydney.

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper's magazine.

Michael Blackwood is an independent New York filmmaker who has made more than 100 films specializing in art, architecture, music and dance.

Vera Frenkel is a Toronto-based artist currently engaged in a web-based project on the inner life of a dysfunctional cultural institution.

Imaging the Artist: The Role of the Artist in Contemporary Culture. Genius, sage, joker, subversive, madman, outsider, aesthete, avant gardist, intellectual-the image of the artist in contemporary culture is an amalgam of types from history, literature, film and academia, each offering its own role to be played, its own art to be made.

Are artists held prisoner by these images? Do audiences misplace expectations because of them? What is the role of the artist? The as-yet-unwritten identities? Can we separate Pop from Warhol cool? Abstract Expressionism from Pollock intensity? The Vancouver School from Jeff Wall's aloof clarity?"

(image from


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