A NATION OF ARTISTS © David Watts 06/02/2010

Of the attributes that describe Canadian people from prehistory to present, one stands out:

Canada is a nation of artists.

Germans are a nation of order and industry. They have also produced great music, and this reflects the interplay between this order and the chaos of their mythology.

The British are a nation of eclectics and innovators. This reflects in an empire that became a commonwealth and monarchy that begat parliamentary government. It reflects in gardens and writers, particularly one whose topics run from Julius Caesar to a Prince of Denmark.

The French are a nation of ideas. Their story is an interplay of opposites: Christendom and the nation state, absolutism and revolution. Theirs is the dialectic of modes and movements: classical/romantic, structural/existential, impressionist/realist—and a host of other isms.

In Canada the arts are less tempered by history. Ideas, Innovation, Industry, take backseat to art that is not displayed in a national museum, Left Bank or private collection but dispersed—like Canadians themselves—throughout the length and breadth of the country.

From Beothuk relics to Inuit sculpture, petroglyphs by the Milk River to totems of Haida Gwai, Canada has a spread of aboriginal art that is impressive: a genuine peoples’ art.

Some may object that these examples are works of First Nations that Canada displaced, that they are not Canadian but something preceding, deserving to stand in their own right.

This would be true if by “Canada”, we mean a geopolitical entity going back to such-and-such a date. But Kanata is an aboriginal word for “village”. And the global village Canada has become encompasses all these and more.

The Canadian art that builds on these roots is, like the country, an evolving one: As the French who explored the interior drew on First Nations, and Britain later adopted the French legacy, Canada is a canvas on which many people and communities have painted.

The late comers of genius who advanced Canadian art recognized this.

While French speaking settlers developed a style canadien in architecture on the Saint Lawrence, their voyageur sons were experiencing First Nations culture farther inland.

What distinguishes art from craft or industry is an element of continual play and experiment.

The tension between adherence to a mould and adventure with a medium has played out between generations of colonials and inhabitants come of age.

It is the difference between the native artist who tells his own story, and the one who serves up mass produced trinkets for tourists.

It was the tension between the French who explored and interacted with their environment, and the bishops and Saint-Jean Baptisters who insisted on defining it.

It is the contrast between Americans, British and other Europeans who tried to impose a “civilization” on the wilderness, and Paul Kane and Cornelius Kreighoff who lived in it.

Sooner or later, each artists goes on his or her own vision quest, experiences the world afresh and comes back to share what may become a new art.

This is the story of the Group of Seven, contemporaries Emily Carr and David Milne and successors Thoreau MacDonald, Sarah Robertson, Yvonne Houusser and Paraskeva Clark. Their subject was the land, their medium, visual, their result: a recognized Canadian school.

Yet some will ask: how can we call Canada a nation of artists when the producers of these works are a tiny percentage of the population? Perhaps First Nations can make this claim.

But can it be applied to the rest of us? The answer is in a wilderness analogy: that of the tree falling in the forest. Can it be said to make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it?

In the specialized societies we live in, art requires an audience: a viewer for the vision. Here Canadians have excelled. We’re not limited to mansions, museums and corporate headquarters. Our founding companies, the Hudson’s Bay and Canadian Pacific Railway, have been promoters and providers for Canadian artists. Their impact has been considerable.

William Van Horne, CPR General Manager and later President, was both an artist and a seasoned collector. His Company underwrote artists who traveled the country to portray it.

His successors recruited Sri Lankan born, Oxford educated John Murray Gibbon to come to Canada as CP’s General Publicity Agent. Under Gibbon a golden age for the artist ensued.

Gibbon, a writer, helped found the Canadian Authors Association. He promoted bilingualism in Company headquarters and multicultural festivals in Canadian Pacific hotels across Canada.

CP’s last transcontinental train “the Canadian,” launched in 1955, contained individually commissioned Group of Seven murals in the lounge of each of its 16 rear observation cars.

This was the spirit by which our corporate leaders sponsored the art of their fellow citizens. Under them the words “sponsorship” and “patronage” took on a benevolent meaning.

As our corporations lost their national identities in an era of trans-nationals, governments have increasingly assumed this role. Our Governor General is now seen as a cultural champion, both in her own right and as Patron of the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Council, which funds artists on the basis of peer review, was set up as the result of a report by the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey before he became our first home-born Governor General. His successors, especially Vanier, Sauvé and Clarkson, continued in this role.

Today’s Vice-Regal representative, Mikhail Jean and her husband Daniel Lafond host an annual “Art Matters” forum in Canada while representing us artistically in world capitals.

Canada’s art is widespread and identifiable. It expresses our land, people and spirit. Like that spirit, it continues to evolve: we don’t know how and where it will turn up next.

Our PM made the mistake recently of deriding artistic galas as elitist. He self-corrected quickly, appearing onstage at one of these galas, proving right the slogan “Art Matters.”

David Suzuki tells how a group of Shinto priests was asked what their beliefs were. “We don’t have any,” they replied. “We dance.”

In a country as diverse as Canada, with people who do not speak each other’s language, and a national spirit that continually eludes and surprises us, we too have no credo that encompasses us all. Words and language are too limiting.

We do have writers—good ones. They are simply artists in one medium. Their medium is a part of our message but it is not the message. Our experience of our land is multi-sensory.

Conveying that experience, each in our own way, is what Canadian art is about.

Descartes wrote: “I think, therefore I am.” Canadians can say, “I am, therefore I create.”

This is what it means to be human: to be a nation of artists in an awakening world.