Art history is a cornucopia of knowledge as well as of beauty. Not only does it identify canonical objects to venerate, or recount the lives of great artists and the dynamics of their elective affinities, it can also answer important questions that might explain why artmaking is such a primordial and resilient human activity and how it might be meaningfully connected to our larger historical narratives.
If we relax the focus on the exceptional for a moment and study the broader field of artistic activity, we can gain important insights. For example, what was the impact on Indigenous artistic traditions of the new materials gained through trade with Europeans? Did such trade change these very ancient traditions in significant ways, or only superficially? These and many other such questions can take us well out of the realm of aesthetics, paradoxically, by delving deeper into it. What were the consequences to art of the notorious potlatch and sun dance bans and the residential schools programme? And what are the broader implications suggested by these artistic consequences? Answering such questions forthrightly benefits not only an understanding of art, but might also provide a more substantial understanding of human nature, of the present and of the values that have come to characterize us today.
We can learn about the deeper significance of artmaking by asking such questions as: Why did European artistic traditions take root here so early in our colonial history, from within an almost exclusively resource-based economy and a makeshift social structure often made up of temporary residents? The answer, for example, might indicate the true relationship of art and economics; we may learn that the former can exist despite the lack of the latter. It may also help us to understand the role that art plays in establishing colonies. A related question: What comes first, the need to make beautiful things, or the structuring end purpose such as the religious rituals of New France? There are philosophical, historical, anthropological, sociological and even neurological questions for which the study of art can provide answers with wide-ranging implications. As a basin of raw data and telling anecdotes, art is a precious resource for understanding human nature.
Art can also help us understand Canada, its strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps show us a way forward. We should ask ourselves if there is a deeper merit, beyond patriotic sentiment, to the art made during the rustic phase of European settlement, before the first inklings of nationhood, before a viable art market and before institutions. Indeed, has Canadian art – aside from the rich Indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast and the ever-widening enthusiasm for Inuit art – ever achieved real status in world culture? If so, when? If not, why not? Although we do indeed care quite a bit about such a question, should we? Why is it relevant to us what others think? Why is our interest in Canadian art so often filtered through the enthusiasm or lack thereof of foreigners? Don’t we make it for our own needs above all?
If you wish to glimpse that most elusive of things, Canadian identity, asking questions of Canadian art might be a good approach. How, for instance, have Indigenous and European artists influenced each other over the last four centuries of interaction on this land? Does such influence distinguish us in the world? Would the results of this stocktaking be indicative of the kind of society we have forged, or is it just an anecdotal curiosity among countless other blended cultures that history has forced together over the course of human migration? An indirectly related question that confronts us frequently at the National Gallery leads us to ponder if there is merit in differentiating art production in Canada by the ethnic origin of its makers, their gender or their home region? Or, in the interest of fairness, should a national art museum like ours exercise a single standard of excellence for the whole country? Little about such a question is straightforward. For example, what does excellence mean in art? Given the fact that, almost since our founding, we have tended to prefer the “single standard” model, we might also ask if this has hindered certain minorities from integration and, indeed, whether the single standard approach weakens the project of multiculturalism. Or, put another way, does it tell us anything about the viability of multiculturalism? The Canadian art that we see in our museums and markets does not mirror the demographics of Canada. Why not? Are cultural differences with regard to art the issue? Are the economic priorities of recent immigrants really a valid reason? Or are obstinate Canadian artistic traditions to blame, those recondite qualities of Canadian art that go over the heads of most Canadians, let alone new ones? These are all hard questions to answer, and there may be harder ones still, but we would learn so much about our society by tackling them.
A really tough question to ask would be: How Canadian is Canadian art? Is there such a thing, beyond the Canadian passport of the artists? Strong evidence indicates that, generally speaking, we are an outpost – albeit an eccentric and increasingly prestigious one – of a larger international culture with its roots in Europe. Would it make more sense to talk about art made in Canada rather than presume such a thing as ”Canadian art?” My preliminary answer is suggested by the title of this essay, but it is a provocative question that would require us to first understand what is meant by the adjective “Canadian.”
Bringing questions to art can tell us a lot about who we are. Indeed it can tell us whether or not it is fair to use the words “Canadian society” in the singular. But there are also unanswered, and I believe highly relevant, questions specific to art that could use addressing, questions beyond the standard who, what and when of art history; they tend to be “why” questions. For example: Why has landscape been so prevalent a subject in Canada? Why did abstraction come to us so late? Why has photography been so central an artistic medium for us? Why have some Canadian artists gained prominence in the international art world while equally talented others have not? Why has ethnic identity been less interesting a subject for Canadian artists from the African Diaspora than for African-American artists? Given the intellectual seriousness and originality of Asian-Canadian artists, why aren't they more prominent in the broader art world, notably in art-booming Asia? Might that somehow be the fault of the Canadian art world? Why are there so many prominent Indigenous artists today after so much systematic repression?
You can tell a great deal about a country by looking at its art and even more by analyzing it. In fact it is among the most efficient ways to size up a society, to determine how resourceful it is, how rich, industrious, thoughtful, advanced, tolerant, progressive and inclusive it is. We can assess the extent of our freedom and our confidence by looking at a good cross-section of the art that we make. We can also assess our level of maturity as a unified population by the frankness with which artists are able to explore our shared history. Any way you slice it, seen from the artistic angle, whether through the long parade of “great artists” or the quality of the discourse, through the living legacy of ancient traditions or the cultural interactions that only happened here, Canada is a wonderland of complexity and abundance ripe for exploration.