National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 23, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Nationalist Aspects of Lawren S. Harris's Aesthetics

by Peter Larisey

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7 

The theme of the relationship between the artist and his people continued to be a frequent one for Harris into the 1950s. Although his ideas on this relationship remained basically the same, he articulated them in greater and more interesting detail. In 1944, he gave artists the advice: "Serve your people and its developing culture first and the benefits of the creative spirit will be added unto you." (21) By thus serving their people Canadian artists would "galvanize into activity" the "real tradition in art" which Harris believed was not found only in museums, but was "innate in us." (22)

But there were difficulties to be faced in this relationship between the artist and his people. Harris quoted " A. E." (George Russell) approvingly on one aspect of the relationship: "I am certain nothing first class came when the artist's mind was fixed on his public rather than on his subject." (23) Harris continued: 

No creative artist paints to please the public....If an artist is to clarify and bring to life what he paints it demands undeviating concentration on the work at hand...there is no other way. (24)

Harris cautioned the public not to attempt to control the artist, for the value of the creative life would depend "on the conviction, devotion, and unswerving aesthetic integrity of the creative artist. And these qualities can only prove creatively fruitful if he is not coerced, dictated to or thwarted in his work." (25)

For in Harris's view, it was only the unhindered artist who could be of service to his people:

The drive of the creative in him leads him to paint at the top of his capacity, always at the forefront of his nature, for it is there and only there that he is receptive to intimations and can begin to visualize and create works that may afford a people an answer to the needs of their developing awareness.... (26)

It is in this context that Harris saw that the creative artist "is one with his people," and that this is "a much deeper thing than any attempt to satisfy public taste." (27) Harris described this service that the artist was to give to his people:

What is vague, unexpressed and unformed in the heart of a people he, that is the artist, can then clarify, organize and project in his work. He thus represents the hidden, not yet known needs slumbering within his fellow men and their responsive potentialities. It is in one sense these two factors working within him that are creative. In this deep sense the artist and the people are interdependent, as necessary for one another for illumination as the negative and positive forces of electricity. (28)

About a year later, in 1955, replying to the charge that artists are out of touch with their public, Harris reiterated his version of the avant-garde position:

Of course they are. They have to be. Every new and significant work of art that is now acclaimed was once out of touch with the public response. It makes such demands on the onlooker at first that he has to bypass his prejudices, transcend his conditioning and go far more than half-war to meet it. But that has always been true of creative work. (29)

It is in this way that Harris understood art "as a social force," (30) and the Canadian artist as an avant-garde leader of his society.

Next Page | The Canadian Artist's People and Race

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