The Untitled Art Awards at Steamwhistle Brewery

15 February 2005

If you're up for spending 15 bucks to hob-knob with .... well, I won't say it, might get in trouble. Let's try again, if you're willing to spend 15 bucks, to get your first glass of beer free at the Steamwhistle brewery tomorrow night, you'll be saving not only 5 bucks or so, but you'll also be able to watch the 2nd Annual Steamwhistle Art Awards, which were renamed the Untitled Art Awards and yay! a chance for the art community to pat-itself on the back again. Or maybe I'm just bitter because I wasn't nominated.

"Award Show: Mechanism by which the members of a given profession attempt to give themselves the attributes of the pre-modern ruling classes - the military, aristocracy and priesthood - by assigning various orders, decorations, and medals to each other. These shows are a superficial expression of corporatism. As with the pre-modern classes, their awards related principally to relationships within the profession. Each time the words, "I want to thank" are used by someone being decorated, they indicate a relationship based on power. The awards have little to do with that corporation's relationship to the outside world - what you might call the public - or for that matter with quality." -John Ralston Saul, The Doubter's Companion (1994)

In an interview with the Torontoist, Julia Dault, Gary Michael Dault's daughter, says she's never heard of Jessica Wyman, who she's up against along with her father for best art writing. I used to work with Jessica Wyman on the board of YYZ, and I just think it's a shame that someone nominated for art writing is unfamiliar with her work. I think it says a lot about how the art scene here is fragmented into genre interest groups.

Let's be fair, Julia's never heard of me either, nor have I really heard of her. She writes for the Post, which I don't read, mostly because their online archives are moneywalled and I'm not about to buy it everyday, in addition to their editorial slant (although I hear things are changing).

Of her dad, Gary Michael, who writes for the Globe (which I do read everyday), I can say, "Some art critic, he never writes a bad review," except for the one he wrote at the end of 2001. I know that GMD avoids shows he doesn't like ... that's his idea of furthering art criticism and the discourse of art in this city. Not that I've proven myself much better, but at least Sarah Milroy calls it like she sees it, and she hasn't been nominated.

Art writing is beset by the problem of worth: if you're going to write about a show, you're essentially advertising that show, so folk like the Daults are answering the worthiness of their column space by saying, 'this is worth your time'. There's no point wasting words on shows that aren't worth seeing, because they can find other shows to advertise. I know myself, as someone who writes about art, that's partially a motivation. But, there's also answering the question of, 'is it really worth my time? They've programmed such and such in this prestigious gallery/institution, should I go see it?' and so we turn to these pages to find out. Sarah Milroy is the best at this, answering the question of whether or not the institutions are best serving the public.

In terms of catalogue writing, they've been paid to think up Derridian/Foucaltian/Lacanian/insertdeadfrenchwriterhere-ian things to say, so they're basically prostitutes. I'm not so much a moralist to think prostitution is so wrong, but I do think that it is woefully inauthentic and thus not as valuable as the real deal (not to mention the whole exploitation thing, which really raises my ethical ire). Sex is so much more worth it when it's based on real lust or love, but doesn't follow through with its promises when it's nothing more than a trick (not that I have experience with prostitution, that's just what I imagine it'd be like, and why I'd never bother with it) . The same is true for sophistication - when writing about art that is based entirely on payment, and not on the desire to share what's great about something, you aren't helping the artist, nor are you establishing rock-solid credibility for yourself. We sophisticates end up feeling privileged to show off our book-learning rather than feel exploited. But, I have to say that's an extreme example. Unlike the sex-industry, exploitation doesn't really factor in, since, as a power relationship, it's the sophisticates who are holding the cards. It's much more of a symbiotic mutual back-scratching. 'I'll write for your catalogue because I like your work and you'll pay me, so you get to seem like you're a relevant artist and I keep some cash for the bank account'. As far as prostitution goes, it reminds most of the porn industry, where sex-maniacs get paid for their appetites. The "best art writing" in this case, most likely, represents the 'best' sycophantry.

Looking over the shortlist, I have to say that there are worthy nominees. Honestly, I am a little jealous that I'm not amoung them, but that's a whole different story. The temptation is that winning one of these awards will make these artists seem a bit more prestigious, but what's really wrong here, is that all award shows ultimately create false hierarchies. It is an honour just to be nominated, but beyond that, its becomes a popularity contest, which I hated in highschool and I hate even more as an adult. But I also question whether being nominated at all is so great - it just reveals the biases of the scene. Those who weren't nominated, what does it say about their work? Just because art-writers don't write about it doesn't mean it's bad, it only means that they probably haven't been to the shows, or aren't able to fit it into the last year's fashions.

Art awards like this are merely props to support a status quo, an attempt to create a monolithic cultural identity, which is unwise, especially in a city as diverse as Toronto. It's also unwise since monolithic cultural identities are games that Empires play, empires like USA and it's Greek tutors, the Brits. It doesn't fit Canada at all, and seems like another example of the Canadian streak of insecure provincialism.

I do appreciate Steamwhistle for trying this, I mean, I appreciate that they do care enough about Toronto's art to bring this pizzazz to the scene. I figure the artists and others nominated appreciate the attention. But really, I drank Steamwhistle without variation for a year and half, and while at first I thought it tasted awful, by the end it had grown on me, but it did leave me with the worst hangovers. Getting drunk on Steamwhistle is not an experience I recommend. It does nasty things to my chemistry, that's all I can say. They've made lots of money selling bad beer to the city and to the artists around town (as when they first started out they promotionally monopolized the gallery-opening market) and now they want to give something back. That's more than we ever get from lots and lots of companies, so I think this is worthy of commendation. Give them an award for caring.

The prospect of an awards show with nothing but their strange brew in their cavernous space has little appeal for me. So thanks Steamwhistle, but no thanks. I don't think you're doing anyone any favors really. In fact, you're doing nothing but fostering bitterness amongst the art community.

Saul, writing in 1994, with the Grammy's and the Oscars, with the Genie and Junos as our Canadian knock-offs (not to the mention the East Coast Music Awards, keeping the Maritimes perpetually stereotyped) as the most relevant examples, we can now throw in the local Toronto art scene's attempt to codify the who's-kissing-who's ass-power relationships, which, as he said, have nothing to do with the public. Is art, in Toronto and elsewhere, for a public, for people who walk in to galleries without having gone to art school, or is it only for those of us who have gone to art school? Award shows are bad ideas for any genre. For an arts scene which is already painfully insular, an orgy of self-congratulation does no one any good. The 'best of" that Now Magazine prints - which is mailed in by readers - has way more legitimacy for me.


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