By Paul Gessell
These are the people Stephen Harper warned us about a few elections ago. They are the Gala Goers, the well-heeled crowd partying in grand public buildings and talking about art while all around them the economy sputters, public servants lose their jobs, and yachts will increasingly find locks shuttered on the Rideau Canal.
The event was the third annual debate at the National Gallery of Canada sponsored by Walrus Magazine and held May 2. This year’s topic was billed as Art in Daily Life: Essential or Irrelevant? Who decides? Who pays? Who cares?
It was definitely a provocative subject and the house was packed with 400 people who were as art-friendly an audience as one can find: Executives from the National Arts Centre and Canada Council for the Arts, at least three former residents of Rideau Hall, a clutch of former deputy ministers, prominent art collectors Joe Friday and John Cook, author Charlotte Gray and a handful of visual artists, including Jerry Grey, Marion Fischer and Andrew Morrow.
Now, if the organizers don’t mind a little criticism, it should be said here that the debate would have been livelier had there actually been some people to put on stage to declare with passion that art is neither essential, nor relevant. Or maybe a few Philistines or newly elected Wildrose MLAs from Alberta could have been given free tickets to sit in the audience and boo the art-positive debaters.
Alas, left to argue the point that art is neither essential nor relevant were unfortunately two of the most important pro-art voices in Canada: Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery, and Sarah Milroy, the former editor of Canadian Art magazine. They were matched against Stephen Borys, executive director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and Kate Taylor, a Globe and Mail arts writer.
Getting Mayer and Milroy to dismiss art is like asking former astronaut Marc Garneau to make the case for the Flat Earth Society. Garneau might be up for such a challenge but would anybody believe him? We’ve all seen the pictures of Garneau peering through a spaceship window at a very round Earth. Likewise, we have all seen Mayer and Milroy swooning over pictures that they call art but none of us would allow into our home.
Coincidentally, I ran into Mayer earlier that day at a media preview for the Arnaud Maggs exhibition at the National Gallery. I told Mayer, tongue in cheek, I was dying to hear his talk on why art is irrelevant.
“I do not think art is irrelevant,” he snapped. “However, I will argue it is not essential to daily life.”
And that is what he tried to do later that evening. He was funny, even hilarious at times. But he was not convincing. Alas, Mayer and Milroy did not engage in the “savage debate” that had been promised by the on-stage moderator, CBC broadcaster Carol Off.
Borys noted that humans were drawing pictures on the walls of caves even before they had language. This shows how important art was to their lives. Taylor agreed: “Even when people are trying to kill dinner, they’re making art.”
Pooh-poohing that notion was Mayer, who began as aggressively as a sprinter from the starting blocks. “Art is not essential. You can’t eat it, drink it or sleep with it, unless you’re quite mad.” And he added: “Does it make anyone rich other than Damien Hirst?”
Milroy showed two slides to make her point. One was of Benjamin West’s famous, albeit historically inaccurate, painting The Death of General Wolfe. The other slide showed a photograph of President Barrack Obama, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and other senior U.S. officials looking stunned as they watch, live on a video screen, American troops closing in on the Pakistani compound of Osama Bin Laden a year ago.
Which of these two images tells the real story? “Art has been pushed out of the centre,” declared Milroy. “We’re done.”
Well, not really, not in a venue about to welcome crates of Van Gogh paintings later this month.
Virtually everybody I spoke to after the debate said it was a fine discussion. So, I may be the lone dissenting voice here. Maybe I lack the same sense of humour as Gala Goers.
Last year, the debate was about the relevance of the Group of Seven. That time, all the debaters could presumably speak from the heart and say what they really believed. It wasn’t just an excuse to hear a few funny one-liners, head for the canapé table and catch up on the gossip about the incredible shrinking public service.
Many in the crowd noted that they also planned to attend another gala a few days later at the National Arts Centre in conjunction with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards
Organizers say they are planning some “big surprises,” even bigger than the already leaked surprise appearance of Salman Rushdie to honour one of the award recipients, film-maker Deepa Mehta.
So, what could be bigger than Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses resulted in a years of death threats against him from angry Muslim clerics?
How about Stephen Harper? Is he bigger than Rushdie? Maybe Harper could be put on stage at the NAC to present an award to another GG recipient, Mary Walsh, a.k.a. Marg Delahunty, Princess Warrior, the scourge of all politicians without a sense of humour. Is it not time for Harper to give Walsh a big kiss of forgiveness and end, forever, his fatwa against Gala Goers?