Canadians Hate Artists

obama_hopeWell, not all Canadians hate artists, but there appear to be enough of them to make one wonder what it is that happened to these people to make them so afraid of artists and the art they create. Perhaps there is some deep-seated fear of artists from some childhood trauma that keeps them from appreciating what it is that Arts and Culture do for our world and for our economy.

I blame clowns.

Two recent CBC stories demonstrate a disdain for artists all too well. It’s not the stories themselves, specifically, but the comments posted in response to the stories.

Of course, it is important to remember than any time someone posts something on the Internet, they may or may not actually believe what it is that they are saying at the time. There’s a real possibility that they’re just “flaming” to get themselves some much needed attention. The other possibility is that this is the only forum for these people to be able to state their beliefs without anyone answering them to their faces, thereby avoiding the embarrassment that one would feel from having said something so incredibly stupid that at least one person within earshot would have no recourse but to say something about it.

The first is an article that states that, based on the 2006 census, artists outnumbered auto workers. Not only that, but they earned 37% less than the average Canadian worker and that number is falling.

One has to wonder why the author of the story singled out auto workers, but it does demonstrate a point: there are a lot of fucking artists in Canada and they make up enough of the work force that they can’t be ignored. With artists making much less than other Canadian workers, one has to wonder where our bailout money is. Our minority government is putting billions of dollars into the auto industry, while at the same time, they are cutting funding to artists. Makes one wonder, no? Or not, I suppose.

Of course, there will be those that would argue that artists don’t contribute to the world in the same way that auto workers do. This is, of course, true. It is highly unlikely that the art that is created in Canada each year will contribute to climate change, or create smog so thick that you have to be careful of how long you breathe in the air outside at certain times of the year.

That’s not to say that I’ve never owned a car, or have not ridden in one recently. We all need to get around somehow, so that’s all I’ll say.

It was the way that people chose to comment on this story that I found the most disturbing. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“Solution: Better art.”

Good point. Another solution might be to involve more people in the Arts and give them an understanding of why it is important so that more people will support the Arts. However, there are those that will never appreciate art, and that’s fine too. That’s not to say that there is some art that people won’t buy, just like there are some cars that people won’t buy.

“Get a real job and quit complaining. Why would you keep doing something that won’t pay the bills? Move on.”

Artists might complain, from time to time, about their lack of funds, but you’ll find that about 95% of the time, artists are just as pleased as punch to make any kind of living at all by being able to do something that they love. It seems like the person that wrote this post probably doesn’t really enjoy too much of their life, let alone the work that they do. By the same logic, we should not listen to the appeals of auto workers, or other sectors of industry that seem to complain a lot more about their wages than artists ever do. Perhaps it is that artists get to do something they love on a daily basis that keeps them from going on strike.

Artists don’t attempt to make a living at their craft because they want to. They do it because they have to. That is something that can not be explained to a person that has not experienced this kind of calling. That’s not a statement of elitism, it is merely saying that it is something that can not be quantified, in the same way that you can not explain why the sky is blue or how posi-traction on a ’69 Camaro works. Well, you get what I mean.

“So, artists are still getting better than minimum wage I figure. And these art councils are publicly funded. So… what’s the problem? Am I to feel all bad for them or something?”

It’s actually a small percentage of artists that get grant money. This post assumes that no artists actually make any money from the art that they produce and that they are all living on government handouts. While it’s true that artists do, from time to time, get grant money, the reality is that there is a hell of a lot more government funding going towards the auto industry and other sectors of the economy than to the Arts.

“Oh, and btw, if so many artists didn’t come off as elitist, misunderstood snobs, people might feel a tad more sympathetic to their struggles.”

I can sympathize with that statement to a certain degree, but those are attributes that people tend to assign to artists and this person would probably not have made a statement like that if the auto workers were attempting to defend themselves from the vast amount of disparaging comments made by people in this thread. My deepest apologies if I have come across as an elitist, misunderstood snob. Perhaps if I joined a Union and went on strike, I might be taken more seriously.

Next up is a CBC article about the arrest of Boston artist, Shepard Fairey, the man behind the already iconic Hope poster of Barack Obama. He was arrested by Boston police on his way to his first solo exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The story itself is innocuous enough and merely recounts the events that led to the arrest of Fairey. The warrants are for misdemeanors in connection with graffiti art that has been linked to the artist.

What’s troubling is the comments that come below it. I’m not against people being charged with defacing public property and anyone that does such a thing in the name of real art knows that the time will come when it happens to them. I think it’s something that they all accept. However, it’s when we get comments like this that we see just how misunderstood an artist like Shepard Fairey actually is.

“Taggers are L-A-M-E. Too crippled to earn their own property to tag, they have to deface what others have worked for. Too cowardly to actually destroy the property, they just want to mark it as ‘owned’ by them, without actually working for it.f”

This person has completely missed the point of, not only the artist in question, but taggers in general. Taggers don’t tag property in an attempt to mark that property as their own, but to mark their territory. It should be said that about 99% of the tags that one sees these days are nothing more than middle class kids trying to be cool, but at one point, this did serve a very real purpose, criminal or not. Shepard Fairey is not a “tagger.” Calling him one is a bit like calling the Kronos Quartet buskers.

“The most MISSUSED, OVERUSED word in our world is ARTIST!”

I have to disagree. the most misused, overused word in our world is “Hope.” With people like you in our world, I have less and less of it every day.

“I am always amused by the supporters of ‘modern art’ who when a person says they don’t ‘understand modern art’ attack them as having no brain ie intelligence. Why does art have to be so obscure and to defy understanding? ”

I’m not sure that anything done by Shepard Fairey is obscure. Perhaps, if one opens one’s mind, one can come to grips with what the artist meant when they created it. That said, it really is up to the artists to do this in a way that makes people believe in them. That said, there will always be people that just want to complain about something. There will also be bullshit art, in the same way that there will always be another Edsel, or Isuzu Ascender.

To be fair, what Mr. Fairey did is obviously against the law. I don’t think anybody would claim otherwise. What is disturbing to me about the story is the timing of his arrest.

And, of course, what is most disturbing is the reactions of people to the story and the vitriol that they spew towards artists and the contempt in which they hold people whose sole purpose in this life is to beautify the world in which they live.

Orange Peels

orange_peelCarly slid the key in the door, jiggled it softly, turned the key, and unlocked the door. Upon opening it, her first sight -as it was every time she came home – was her cat. Noodles was a tabby that, instead of rubbing up against you or meowing to express her pleasure at Carly’s arrival, would arch her back, walk on her tippy-toes until she reached a wall, then collapse in a heap, her belly exposed. Carly would say hello, but found the display a little too lascivious for her tastes.

She hung up her coat, closed the closet door and slid her feet into a pair of Hush Puppies slippers. It was, by far, her favorite time of day. She sighed a deep sigh of relief and wore a smile for the first time in that day. It was a day that was not any worse than any other, but going to work was starting to become more than she thought she could bear for much longer.

She made her way down the hall to the kitchen, flicked on the overhead light and reached for an orange. Ever since she was a little girl, oranges had been her favorite fruit. Her mother used to say that if she ate so many oranges, she would eventually turn the color of one. The thought of this excited her so greatly that she increased her consumption. She loved navels and mandarins. She drank OJ with, or without pulp. She would not however, allow orange “drink” or soda to come anywhere near her lips.

Peeling an orange was an operation of great pleasure for Carly and she went about it as though she was performing a sacred ritual. The orange was peeled in meticulous strips of incomprehensibly similar width, as though the orange had been peeled by a precision instrument. She would place the peels on the table, and make a complete circle with them, to give the appearance that the orange had just opened up perfectly, like a flower in bloom, and presented its sweet meat to her. The entire process gave her comfort and made her feel important. It gave her the feeling that something existed solely for her pleasure and that nobody in the world could ever appreciate an orange the way she did.

Piou Piou (M. Oiseau)

oiseau1-11For some reason, in 1996 I decided to start dating a French-Canadian girl. It’s not as though it was a French-Canadian girl I was after specifically, it’s just that this particular one kind of knocked me off of my feet. Blew my socks right down, as it were. She was a beautiful Seperatiste, the kind that gets very upset about almost anything to do with anything that’s not French. She hated the English, but didn’t seem to mind me too much for some reason. I think she was still upset about the referendum.

To assuage her anger I would take her on long walks in pretty places with no signs in English, or at least very few. It’s not exactly an easy thing to accomplish in Edmonton. Every time we’d pass a sign only in English she’d say, “Tabernak, criss d’anglais!”

I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded pretty.

Her name was Marta and to annoy her I would call her Marty, which made me laugh, but it made her angry and she’d drive her fist into the bony part of my shoulder. At first I thought it was funny and cute, but after a while I had to stop making the joke because I was having trouble lifting my arm.

While it may seem as though she was always angry and spending most of her time hating English people, writing manifestos, and making bombs in the basement, she was actually a very sweet girl – in her way. Her compassion was as palpable as her ire, and this raven-haired beauty seemed to breathe a new life into me.

Until…

It was a gorgeous June morning and I had been enduring a tirade of French curse words when my girl had come home after arguing with a barista at the Starbuck’s on Whyte Avenue. Every time she went in there she left in a huff, trails of Francophone righteous indignation following her like a path of bread crumbs so that she could find her way back to renew and validate her hatred for the Alberta Anglophone. I’m not too sure why she did this. I think she enjoyed the drama because, even at her most angry, she could not disguise her glorious self-satisfaction.

Having grown tired of her pontification that day, I asked her if she’d like to go for a nice long walk with me and, sweet girl that she was, she sensed my discomfort and smiled at me, agreeing to go.

“I will teach for you da bird and trees names en Francais”, she said, beaming. She loved teaching me about anything French.

We decided to walk down 84th Avenue and into Mill Creek ravine, heading south down the newly paved trail. As we walked she pointed at different trees, naming them in French, encouraging me to repeat them and laughing delightedly at my clumsy accent, and then clapping her hands and crying, “Tres bien, Minou!” when I would be able to wrestle my tongue and throat around the difficult syllables. It was a lovely game, therapeutic for both of us, and it was in those moments that I loved her, in the small way that I was just barely capable of achieving.

As we walked, she suddenly slipped her arm around mine, laid her head on my shoulder and hummed a tune unfamiliar to me. Most things she hummed were. Then, as if to answer her pretty song, from just to the left of us in the bushes came a small cry.

“Piou-piou”, it sang. “Piou-piou”, in the way that little boys make the sound of a laser gun.

We looked in the bushes to where the sound came from and saw a tiny robin on the ground. Looking up, I saw that it had probably fallen from the nest about 15 ft. above us, and was crying pitifully for its mother.

“Ooohhh, piou-piou”, cried my girlfriend. “Ou-est ta mere, mmm?”

I watched her squat down in this – I don’t know how to describe it – very French way, and extend her hand to the little bird.

“Piou-piou”, she cooed.

“Piou-piou”, the bird replied. They had bonded.

I suddenly remembered reading something about how you should never touch a baby bird because after you have, the mother bird will no longer care for it for some reason, and while I’m still not sure if this is true or not, it was too lat. I watched her pick the baby up in both hands and hold it close to her chest, just under her chin so that she would be close enough to whisper words of comfort to the helpless creature. Like it or not, the bird had a new mother. Of course, there would be no way of determining whether or not the bird actually cared, but it seemed content enough to warble away in this woman’s caring embrace.

“We must take dis bird ‘ome to make it better, la”, she said with a determined look on her face that, by now, I recognized as one I need not bother to argue with.

So we did.

Marta set the pace for the journey home by taking these excruciatingly careful steps as though she were treading upon the empty eggshell of her new found worry.

Excruciating.

I settled in a couple of steps behind and bore the occasional glare from the new mother; accusatory looks that told me I wasn’t caring enough, but because I knew that no matter how much I cared or how ingratiatingly I fawned over the bird, it would never be enough, I just remained several steps behind, like an obedient Muslim wife.

Arriving at our apartment building, she gingerly climbed the steps, one at a time, and waited –while glaring at me – at the door of our suite for me to unlock the door.

Knowing that the only way I would ever be able to even consider the possibility of any kind of amorous encounter over the next few weeks was for me to take an active interest in the recovery of the bird, I went to the cupboard and got a small bowl that I filled with water from the tap and set on the counter. Ignoring me, Marta painstakingly placed the bird on the counter (piou-piou) and went to the cupboard, recovered another small bowl, and filled it with Evian water, placed it on the floor, then the bird next to it. She did not look at me.

Dejected, I decided to try again. I got some newspaper and placed it on the floor next to the bird. Marta, ignoring me, went to our bedroom, took the little rug I had on my side of the bed, then placed it on the floor in the living room, then the bird and the bowl of water on the rug. She did not look at me. (piou-piou)

I realized that I was no match for this tiny concern, and so I just sat in a chair nearby, awaiting instruction. None came.

Until the next morning when I awoke to find on my bedside table, a list that she must’ve written sometime in the night or early morning. She had stayed the entire night at the bird’s side. I walked into the room, list in hand and stood surveying the scene. Mother and child (piou-piou) in quiet communion with each other, the mother caring for her infant as only a mother can.

Sensing my presence, Marta looked at me, then the door, then back at me, her eyebrows raised as if to say, what’s the holdup you h’English pig?

I put on my shoes.

Out on the sidewalk I looked at the list.
Birdseed
Evian
Starbucks
Hurry!

I hurried.

For the next few days she cared for the bird with an English Patient-like enthusiasm. Slowly, but surely, the bird began to become more animated (piou-piou) and would jump about the house, shitting everywhere. I learned very quickly to recognize the clean that up look. For me, the whole freaking thing was a huge pain in the ass.

But it was the happiest I had ever seen Marta. She spent all her time with the bird, nursing it back to health, and 4 days later the payoff came. The bird flapped its way onto the coffee table, shat, then, with a Herculean effort, flapped wildly, if not somewhat comically, to the kitchen counter. Where it shat. (Piou-Piou!)

I sighed and walked to closet where we kept rags and disinfectant. Marta let out a terrific squeal of delight and screamed, “Ah, Piou-piou, tu es magnifique!” but the bird was startled by this sudden outburst. Piou-piou squawked viciously and began to fly erratically around the house like an airplane that has been shot and lost control. Flapping its wings with all its might, it knocked over a vase of flowers that I had bought when I went for bird seed, got momentarily caught up in the curtains, shat on them, then freed itself. It tried to land on the couch, but bounced off the top of it and hit the wall: hard. Piou-piou slid gracelessly to the floor, visibly stunned, and physically shaken. And shat.

Stopping only to glare at me as though this had all been my fault, she ran to the bird, took it in her arms as she had the first time, and walked to the bedroom. I spent the next hour cleaning up.

At 1am I finally grew weary of waiting for the pair to emerge, and because I was very tired and had a terrific headache from the smell of disinfectant that lingered so triumphantly throughout the apartment, I decided to risk everything and go to bed. With them.

As I lay down in the bed, Marta turned the other way to protect the bird from me. She cooed softly to the bird, then turned around and glared at me for a moment. I sank into my pillow and slept.

The next morning I awoke, my head still pounding. Marta was still asleep. She was most likely exhausted from so many long days of ministration. I looked, but did not see the bird next to her, and craving a Tylenol, a coffee and a long pee, I sat up in the bed, stretched and put my feet on the floor, looking for my slippers. But my left foot found neither my slippers nor the floor. There was a soft crunch sound and a squish under my foot.

I couldn’t look.

I just sat there for a long time, head pounding, my bladder near to exploding, thinking about how much I would miss learning about French things.

When Marta finally awoke she found the bird had left her. She looked around the room – ignoring me – and called out, “Piou-piou. Piouuuuuu-piou”. Then she looked at me.

I suppose I still miss her.

Art In Public, For The Public, By The Public

maninmirror1I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “I think that I might like art, I just don’t understand it.” A part of the problem is that there are those who claim an elitist status in the artistic world, one that separates them from those that they deem to be ‘the rest of the populace.’ Far too much art has been made inaccessible to the public: to regular people who wish to just simply enjoy the aesthetics of what they’re seeing. The elitists of the art world have made it clear to them that unless they can spend five minutes spouting some rhetoric that has less to do with the art they’re speaking of than it does with the cavernous recesses of a self-absorbed brain, then they have clearly not understood the art they’re seeing.

There’s no doubt that this would put anyone off. If I went to a cricket match, attempting to understand what was going on and was laughed at and ridiculed by the fans, there’s an excellent chance that not only would I take my hot dog and beer (or whatever it is that they sell at cricket matches) and leave, but I would most likely never come back. Moreover, I might hold cricket fans and, by rote, cricket itself in less than high regard. By the same token, anyone that attended a gallery exhibition and was treated with the same lack of respect would probably begin to hold art and artists in contempt.

There is an obvious misconception about artists throughout a large amount of the general public. After Stephen Harper made his comments about restricting arts funding to artists because they were all a bunch of elitists who regularly attended black tie parties, a large part of the country appeared to agree with his assessment, even though there could be nothing further from the truth.

The mission now must be to involve people in art. To show them the beauty of art, to give them a sense of what it is that artists are attempting to accomplish. To let them know what it is that drives them and to show them what it is about art that is important, not just to artists and cultural elitists, but to the populace in general. To show them that artists are people just like the rest of the world and that they struggle, but do so willingly.

We, as artists, all know the choices we have made and we know that very few will make the sort of money in their endeavors that a chartered accountant or a business executive, for example, might make. Enough Canadians (barely) make their living as artists that we now represent a group larger than others that consistently garner more funding from the Federal and Provincial governments that it must be seen as nothing more than a crime.

Huge corporations are consistently and unashamedly given grant monies from all levels of government. Consider the massive amount of money that the oil companies receive in investment funds from government. The last time I checked, art didn’t kill a flock of ducks in a toxic pond created by the run off from a spoken word show, or a play. Modern dance has never belched so much smoke into the air that it caused global warming or gave children athsma, nor has a symphony orchestra ever spilled into a remote bay, killing off all the marine life that they came into contact with.

On January 14th, students from Concordia University’s Department of Contemporary Dance presented OCCUPANTS at Concordia’s EV Building at 1515 St. Catherine West in Montreal. The event was made up of site-specific choreography with the intention of interacting with the architecture of the space and intermingle with the building’s occupants.

The challenge here was to create works within an active public environment. As people rushed to and from meetings, work and appointments, the dancers engaged them in what turned out to be a spectacular artistic experiment that not only engaged the public, but shone a light on the daily workings of the city.

The goal, of course, was to engage persons and not alienate them. Amy Blackmore (Assistant Producer of the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival) choreographed a piece that began with her dancers banging on windows and motioning for people to come over to them. While many ignored the entreaties, several walked over and attempted to find out what was going on. With strict instructions from Blackmore to not speak to anyone, the dancers were left with nothing more than hand gestures and movement as their tools of interaction. Most people were confused. Some got upset.

Art often attempts to shine a light on society, but with this experiment, the roles were reversed and the audience began to reveal its nature through the natural course of interaction with an unknown entity. Instead of the dancers performing for the public, the public began to perform for the dancers, giving themselves fully to the performance without even realizing that that’s what they were doing. What could be more natural than a performance of people attempting to go on about their daily tasks and are attempting to understand something that’s happening to them that’s so completely out of the ordinary that they aren’t sure how to react?

At some point, a man that had come over to find out what it was that the dancers wanted of him asked Blackmore what was going on. Giving nothing away, she replied that she wasn’t exactly sure what was happening and simply allowed the man to sit and watch the dancers and quietly assess the situation. Eventually, she walked over to him and told him that the girls were part of a dance piece. His entire focus given to their performance, he found himself surprised by how entertained he was. He felt like he’d been let in on a great secret and the show began to exist for him on entirely different level. Once he had understood what was happening, the show, for him, became much more than just the dancers, but those watching the dancers as well.

As the dancers began to move from social interaction to dance, once again shifting the focus, a man sat on a table in the midst of them and immersed himself in the performance. As the piece came to a close, he shook each performer’s hand and thanked them for their presentation. He walked away into the crowd, beaming.

And that’s really all it takes. Just a few people being given a simple understanding of what art is meant to be. There was no need for any of them to discuss the social ramifications of the experiment, they simply understood that they had been entertained. They realized that they had been given a gift in the midst of what might have been a very ordinary day that turned out to be quite extraordinary, indeed.

Art is easy enough to understand because ALL understanding of art is really up to the viewer, not the artist. Perhaps an artist might attempt to convey a message, but it’s what the audience takes away with them that is the most important thing. Artists exposing themselves and making themselves vulnerable in situations like this will help to give those that might be afraid to approach art an appreciation and understanding of the message that artists are attempting to convey. It will give them a sense of belonging in a world that they might feel that they know nothing about, but are a part of on a daily basis. If people don’t know about art, then it is the artist’s job to bring it to them and let them see how important it is in our daily lives. All we have to do is show them. They will see.

Art is the juice of life. Let’s squeeze out a glass for anyone that looks thirsty.

You can see OCCUPANTS on Thursday January 15 13h-15h & 19h-21h and Friday January 16 13h-17h for FREE at 1515 St. Catherine West (Concordia University’s EV building).

Some Lovely Photos, Darling

Some photographs I took with my 35mm Praktica Super TL.