Arts & Culture

Aristotle Got It

The necessity of funding contemporary art, even if you don’t like it

Photograph by Hank Bull/courtesy of Sharla SavaPhotograph by Hank Bull/courtesy of Sharla SavaKate Craig performs Flying Leopard (1974) over Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.

In 1973, a group of young Vancouver artists, including Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe, bought a ramshackle wood frame building on gritty East 8th Avenue, built in the 1920s for a fraternal order called the Knights of Pythias, and converted it into spaces where they could live, work, exhibit, and perform. None of them employed traditional media, such as painting and drawing, suitable for commercial galleries; they explored multimedia, video, performance, music, and poetry. They were part of an avant-garde for whom existing on the margins of the mainstream art world was a matter of pride. And they were not alone. Most of the country’s artist-run spaces were created during the ’70s and ’80s: A Space in Toronto in 1969, Plug In in Winnipeg in 1972, Eyelevel Gallery in Halifax in 1974, Articule in Montreal in 1979, Eastern Edge in St. John’s in 1984, Stride in Calgary in 1985. The East 8th Avenue building in Vancouver eventually became the home of the Western Front, one of Canada’s first and oldest artist-run centres, which it remains to this day.

In the early years, artists’ centres provided opportunities for experimentation in the visual arts, and focal points for creative communities in regions cut off from cultural centres like New York. Events at the Western Front included a celebration of the 1,000,011th anniversary of the invention of art; the first British Columbia art race, in which participants ran along Georgia Street with their art strapped on their backs; and a performance in which Kate Craig, decked out in faux leopard skin and wings, flew along a cable stretched from a beached freighter. There were performances and installations by such now famous collectives as General Idea, and there were visits from international artists like French Fluxus pioneer Robert Filliou. Everyone seemed to be having a remarkably good time; we can only imagine what went on at the parties. And who paid for it? We did. It is unlikely any of this would have happened without public investment in contemporary art—that is, without your tax dollars.

In a speech last November at the University of Toronto Art Centre, Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, recalled a story his brother had told him about a Saturday night poker game in Halifax. Amid the usual banter, someone brought up Mayer’s profession, and the others immediately vented their contempt: contemporary art is a scam; children could make it; it’s just a way for elitist dilettantes who can’t draw to get rich off taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

Mayer had heard it all before. Indeed, he had been hearing it since he was a teenager in Sudbury, Ontario, with Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian posters on his bedroom walls. Attacks on the legitimacy of modern art have been common since the great Paris salons of the nineteenth century, and Mayer believes they result from broad public ignorance. The players at the poker table included a doctor, a university professor, a police officer, and a contractor, all of whom read books and none of whom would have considered himself culturally illiterate. But then, most educated Canadians are uninformed about visual art. If they understood its context, depth, and beauty, argued Mayer, they would be far more likely to think public investment in it is a good idea.

Delivered some four months before Stephen Harper’s 2012 budget, Mayer’s speech was a shot across the government’s bow by one of the country’s most savvy cultural bureaucrats. Ever since the Conservatives won a solid parliamentary majority in the spring of 2011, the arts sector has been gripped by something verging on hysteria, over the possibility of across-the-board cuts. (The National Gallery receives 82 percent of its annual budget from the federal government.) Harper had already won points for fiscal responsibility through deep cuts to the arts, and, despite periodic reveries about his love of playing piano, was on the record with views similar to those of Mayer’s brother’s friends: to subsidize the arts is to subsidize a rich elite that creates work in which “ordinary working people” have no interest. As it turned out, the CBC, the National Film Board, and other cultural institutions sustained dramatic cuts in the 2012 budget, but both the National Gallery and the Canada Council for the Arts were spared. And yet the majority of Canadians—and the politicians who represent them—remain ambivalent about contemporary art, hard pressed to understand, let alone sympathize with, Istvan Kantor hurling phials of his own blood on gallery walls, or Jana Sterbak fashioning dresses out of raw meat, or Attila Richard Lukacs painting hot, naked skinhead boys. Some of this, as Mayer suggests, may result from ignorance, although its roots probably run deeper.

FFrom antiquity until the advent of Modernism, the public function of art, and the role of the artist, was relatively clear, even if the meaning of individual works was not. The legendary Greek sculptor Praxiteles is thought to have made statues for mausoleums, temples, and palaces; Fra Angelico, Duccio, Giotto, and Jan van Eyck designed their masterpieces to be viewed in churches; Diego Velázquez painted elaborate historical scenes and portraits to celebrate the Spanish king and queen. They made works, based on well-known people and narratives, that were beautiful in a way that nearly everyone responds to. Then, in the mid–nineteenth century, in a moment often associated with the exhibition of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) at the 1865 Paris Salon, artists began creating pieces that aspired to represent not only the physical world but also its values. Modernist artworks quickly became difficult to look at—think of Picasso’s aggressively ugly, dirt-coloured analytic cubist works—and difficult to understand. And they were often at odds with mainstream values.

The modern artists Marc Mayer loved as a teenager were openly revolutionary in their intent, as were influential Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. Even the more aesthetic movements, like Surrealism, de Stijl, and Bauhaus, envisaged art as a way of changing how we see the world and, indeed, the way we live. By the time Marcel Duchamp offered his divisive Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal signed by the artist, to the Society of Independent Artists in New York (which rejected it), the very idea of what counts as art had been blown apart, paving the way for the multitudinous approaches that have thrived since the ’60s, including most of what has been exhibited at artists’ centres like the Western Front.

Mayer believes the solution is education, and yet such institutions as the National Gallery, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Art Gallery of Alberta, as well as major American museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, already devote substantial resources to education departments whose main purpose is to market their collections and exhibitions to an often bewildered public—to make even difficult art seem like something that would make for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon with the kids.

It is unlikely, however, that the avant-garde in the visual arts will ever achieve mass appeal, any more than the cacophonous scores of musical innovators such as Iannis Xenakis will ever draw crowds to the symphony. This is why most major museums rely on blockbuster exhibits of established masters like Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso for their bread and butter, just as the bread and butter of most symphony orchestras remains the crowd-pleasing creations of Beethoven and Brahms. At its best, contemporary art is less a form of entertainment (many serious artists are horrified by the notion that they are part of the “entertainment industry”) than an inquiry into the nature of art and the values of our society, and no amount of education will change that.

So the question remains, why should Canadians invest in contemporary art when it doesn’t even pretend to be populist and often questions or outright rejects their values? Why shouldn’t they leave the funding of such work to enthusiastic philanthropists and sponsors like the Bank of Nova Scotia, the Bank of Montreal, and L’Oréal?

One of the main arguments in favour of public support for the arts is also used by the technology industry: return on investment. “Art is a multibillion-dollar industry that has lots of spillover effects in other industries,” says Sara Diamond, the flamboyant president of the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto. “Data suggests that artists amortize their value by one to seventeen.” Thus, a thriving art world is said to produce a host of economic benefits: it employs museum directors, curators, gallery owners, installers, and publicists; it attracts people to cities, where they not only visit galleries and museums but also patronize bars and restaurants; and it motivates young people to attend schools like OCAD University, which employ professors, administrators, and maintenance staff. The art economy, like all economies, radiates outward, dispersing benefits along the way.

A softer, though still economic, argument asserts that in addition to creating jobs the art world helps us become better and more productive citizens. “Contemporary art relates to the kind of society we live in,” says Diamond. “It allows us to have a window into our identities and to look at the world in new ways. Research suggests that a thriving art world helps societies negotiate change, and that exposure to art facilitates creative problem solving and encourages innovation, both important values that twenty-first-century society needs.” So public investment in art is defensible because art helps people function in our wildly unpredictable twenty-first-century society, which implies that those exposed to art will be less likely to promote social instability and better equipped to negotiate the vagaries of the job market.

A third argument is what one might call the “Team Canada” approach, which undoubtedly led to the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as such institutions as the National Film Board: that in addition to enhancing Canada’s reputation internationally, developing and maintaining a living national culture provides a source of pride and cohesion that is all the more vital in a world where states have a diminishing hold on people’s imaginations. Even countries with deeper histories than ours need to reinvent their images of themselves from generation to generation, to be more than just geographical entities where people happen to live, and artists seem well suited to help perform that job.

While this way of thinking may appeal to political and corporate boosters, it has little to do with the reality of contemporary artists. Canadian artists today are highly mobile, pick and choose their influences from the whole world, and participate in a global conversation that may or may not have anything to do with Canada, which is why exhibits such as this year’s Oh, Canada, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, feel dated. Canadian artists are less concerned with national identity than they were forty years ago, partly because the culture-building projects of the ’70s, of which artists’ centres formed an integral part, succeeded so well. Besides, artists are dubious and unreliable national spokespersons. John Scott’s Trans-Am Apocalypse No. 2 (1993), in which St. John the Evangelist’s visions of apocalypse and final judgment are scrawled on the black surface of a souped-up Pontiac, will probably never appear in a Government of Canada publicity campaign, though the work is owned by the National Gallery.

What all of these arguments lack is the idea that investment in art is important because art is important. The question has never been whether contemporary art can survive in the absence of public investment. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven worked without public support, and Paul-Émile Borduas and other signatories to the Refus Global in Montreal in the late ’40s did not do a whole lot better. Notable avant-garde movements existed in Poland and other Soviet bloc countries in the ’60s and ’70s, and in China from the ’80s to the present, without government funding and often in the face of outright government hostility. The recent incarceration of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei serves as just one reminder that governments have often viewed artists as threats rather than annoyances. But even in adverse circumstances, they can be expected to demonstrate resourcefulness and even entrepreneurial abilities to ensure that they can continue making their work.

The survival of contemporary art is not the issue; rather, it is whether an active, forward-looking cultural life should depend upon its economic impact or on its role in promoting a national brand. “Even if we concede that there is no higher purpose in life,” Tony Judt writes in his melancholy Ill Fares the Land, “we need to ascribe meaning to our actions in a way that transcends them. Merely asserting that something is or is not in our material interest will not satisfy most of us most of the time. To convince others that something is right or wrong we need a language of ends, not means.”

What has been lacking in public discussion about the role of the arts, and much else besides, are the ends we think our society should embody, not just the means by which we might manage to sustain our way of life.

The three foundational texts of Western moral and political thought, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, all concern themselves significantly with ends rather than means. What kind of political order is proper for human beings? What virtues should a person and a citizen have? What is justice? For Aristotle, human beings are political animals who can best achieve some level of happiness within a stable and open political community. But happiness, the standard if misleading translation of the Greek word eudaimonia, is not exclusively a form of pleasure or a feeling of personal well-being; it is the state arrived at through the realization of such virtues as courage, justice, and wisdom that are good in and of themselves. Aristotle is careful to point out that external and bodily goods, like affluence, security, and health, are only good to the extent that they support these “goods of the soul.” He writes in Politics, “Mankind does not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods… and happiness, whether consisting of pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found in those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and their character.”

Aristotle’s ideas about the purpose of politics may seem alien to contemporary ears, and not a little elitist, but that results partly from the kidnapping of our political discourse by an instrumental ethos that derives from a distortion of such writings as those of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Aristotle was less concerned with a calculus of pleasure and well-being than with the possibility of fulfilling higher ends. Even stranger for us is his insistence that the highest form of happiness is the “contemplative life.” Near the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, he writes, “Firstly, this activity is the best, since not only is reason the best thing in us, but the objects of reason are the best of knowable objects… [and] it is the most continuous, since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything.”

The contemplative life is important because the pursuit of knowledge and truth for its own sake is a distinguishing trait of what it means to be human. Whereas for ancient philosophers the pursuit of knowledge and truth was the domain of philosophy (Aristotle composed texts on everything from physics and embryology to aesthetics), we regard it as distributed across a wide variety of activities: physics, mathematics, history, literature, and, yes, art. Despite our distance from the ancients, we still understand what it means to pursue knowledge and truth as ends in themselves: it is to regard the results of such pursuits, to use the distinction made by Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift, as offerings that circulate in society at large rather than commodities to be bought and sold.

If we want to consider art as part of the larger human project of seeking knowledge and truth—which includes other, impractical pursuits such as investigating the origins of the cosmos—and if we still consider that a core value, one of the ways we distinguish ourselves as human beings, then we need to support the creation of art, whether or not it has a wide audience, or contradicts mainstream values, or promotes economic growth. We need to think of it as a gift instead of a commodity. Aristotle understood something that we, obsessed with “external goods” like security and health, comfort and convenience, seem to have forgotten: the basic nobility of certain human pursuits.

Museum directors such as Marc Mayer expend considerable energy trying to create popular audiences for costly blockbuster exhibitions, for example Van Gogh: Up Close at the National Gallery, or Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, at the Art Gallery of Ontario; hence the aggressive advertising campaigns, the family-oriented educational programs and audio tours, the dining and hotel packages, the sprawling gift shops. Even formerly anarchic, bohemian enclaves like the Western Front are now staffed by slick, credentialed professionals, their often dry programming carefully modulated to fulfill their mandates. The do-it-yourself artists’ centres of the ’70s have become a thing of the past; art is, as Sara Diamond points out, big business, a multibillion-dollar industry.

But none of this really has anything to do with art or why we have a collective stake in its ongoing creation. We have a stake in art because it is one of the ways in which we think about who we are: inventively, provocatively, recklessly. We have a stake in it even if it seeks to undermine everything we believe and value, even if it makes us less well suited to be productive economic actors in twenty-first-century society. And we may especially need it in Canada because it runs against our natural, and in most instances valuable, tendency toward moderation and pragmatism.

Contemporary art is a kind of speculative research into what it means to be human, and since it thrives on unconditional freedom, there will be failures, irresponsibility and embarrassment, all of which finally pale in the face of the importance and nobility of the project as whole. Aristotle again: “We must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with what is best in us; for even if it is small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.” If we can no longer bring ourselves to invest in what is best in us, then who are we?

This appeared in the October 2012 issue.

Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.