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Banff, Thursday, April 24, 2008
In the past year or so, the Governor General and I have held over 20 editions of Art Matters, not only at Rideau Hall when awards celebrating artistic talent are presented, but also during our visits across Canada and abroad. And we have the same goal every time: to provide a space for people to discuss and reflect on Canadian culture. Hundreds of artists, administrators, researchers and patrons have attended and taken part in these debates on our evolving culture, new methods of distribution and its ever-changing relationship with the public.Artists have spoken about their creation, their relationship to society, their commitment and their aspirations. We have discussed the challenges of new technologies and new distribution formats, the ties that artists maintain with the public, the need for spaces to create and the need for recognition. We have heard artists discuss the experiences they have had in their communities and their achievements at home and abroad. And at each session, after discussing individual experiences and challenges, questions of identity inevitably came up: “What is a Canadian artist? What is Canadian art? What is Canadian culture?”
The uniqueness of Canadian artists and their creations is often represented as a comparison or a contrast. The Canadian artist is not an American artist, or a British artist, or a French artist . . . We know what Canadian artists are not; now, we just need to figure out what they are and what makes their creations unique. It is, of course, impossible to give a rigid definition of Canadian culture or identity, as they are both continually evolving and changing, a multi-facetted mosaic.
Our first impulse, the first distinction we make is that our identity and culture are characterized by diversity. In his 1948 book On Being Canadian, Vincent Massey sang the praises of diversity: “We have plenty of colours and lights and shades in our make-up. Canada is no monochrome of uniformity.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that great defender of art and literature and believe that Canada’s struggle for identity is also a struggle to ensure the survival of Canadian culture.
It is obvious that art and the question of identity are intimately related; we cannot defend the Canadian identity if we do not continually fight, on a daily basis, for the vitality of our culture.
That is how we came up with the theme of “Made in Canada—Art as an Essential Resource” for this edition of Art Matters in collaboration with the Banff Centre. This will be a pan-Canadian, interdisciplinary Art Matters, and a first look back at all the discussions we have had so far, which will help us decide where to go from here.
MADE IN CANADA: Just like the labels in our clothes. But we fought hard enough for the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which came into force last year, to know not to compare culture to a product like any other. But of course, you who fight in your communities on a daily basis to defend culture and that which makes it so unique and diverse already know that art is not a product like any other. Naming this session “Made in Canada” is also a means of provoking a reaction; it is thumbing our noses at all those who want to grind culture up and drown it in the magma of soulless commercialism. Naming these discussions on art “Made in Canada” is a means of expressing our pride.
Yes, we should all be proud of the vitality of Canada’s artists and cultural institutions. Proud that there are over 130,000 artists in Canada. Proud that the number of artists has more than tripled since the 1970s. Proud that our artists are recognized all across Canada and around the world. We must recognize the vitality and determination of our artistic community, which makes such a huge contribution despite the often minimum means it is given. We must also recognize the federal, provincial and municipal institutions, as well as those from the private sector, that work together to support creators and their creations.
In our Internet world of quick and easy transportation, protectionist legislation, quotas to guarantee the presence of Canadian works in the media and the distribution of Canadian films are an extreme necessity, but they are not enough. What would encourage someone go to a museum rather than look at reproductions on the Internet? What would encourage someone go to a concert rather than watching it on television? What would encourage someone read a book by a Canadian author rather than rush out to get the book the whole world is reading?
What motivates us—sometimes without us even knowing it—are the dialectics that begin when we come in contact with creation. When we are seduced and feel the need to start a dialogue. Seduced by a work of art, we, the spectators, enter a universe of emotion, reflection and imagination. This contact, this meeting, is also a mirror that reflects the inevitable questions: “Who am I? Who are we?” Creation guides us through this eternal interrogation and leads us toward the answers.
The work by Ron Noganosh—an Ojibwa artist who was born on Georgian Bay and grew up on the Shawanaga reserve in Ontario—speaks of us. The heart of his piece is a shield, the archetypal Aboriginal object. It has feathers and beads—that which history has told us is pure tradition—but when we look more carefully, when we get a little closer, surprise! there are beer cans, vestiges of the present that reflect people’s current living conditions. This piece tells us who we are; it shows our past and our present.
A blending of our long ancestral history and our present, a mix of tradition with contemporary commercial objects: this is also a definition of our culture. Art historian Jocelyne Lupien summed it up best when she said that the cultural identity of North Americans is a fusion of here and there, us and other, others, sacred mythologies and popular beliefs.
A strong culture is one that welcomes the rich and varied influences of today’s Canada, our country’s past and the past of those who come to live in this land of immigration. A strong culture is one that wants to take its past and its diversity and build a present and a future.
To do that, we must make art the epicentre of political thought in action, as André Malraux, a French writer and de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, pointed out when he said that real culture begins when works of art are no longer simply documents, when Shakespeare is actually present. Real culture, he said, is the mysterious presence in our lives of that which should belong to the dead.
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