Traditionally, the story of artmaking in Canada begins with the Baroque church decorations of the early French settlers. It cherishes the scant surviving relics of European culture as it first bloomed in the Canadian wilderness.
From the rustic efforts of seventeenth-century priests, we fade to eighteenth-century soldiers and the quaint topographical watercolours of the conquering British army. Concerning itself mostly with the successors of these pioneers, the chronicle advances to smile warmly upon the homegrown painters and sculptors, French and English, who would eventually return to Europe in search of advanced training. We celebrate the other Europeans who came to depict our already complicated young colony, its people, places and manners. The tale turns dark for a time, as the settlers paint what they mournfully took to be a last look at the new land’s ancient cultures. Soon enough though, we begin to revel in the painted vistas of the land itself and the bold prospects we appended to Europe’s grand tradition. The story marches forward, telling of our industries, our growing cities and foreign victories, while relishing the local flavours we imparted to succeeding international styles; it heralds the waning of our brief academy against unstoppable modernism; it cheers energizing liberation from old media, skills and subject matter; it applauds the exuberant experiments and the strident, reformist dissent that replaced the old ways. Finally, the rousing legend leaves us rapt in the drama of our confident present, an exciting time for a diverse community of multi-ethnic, multi-disciplinary, worldly, eclectic and autonomous professional artists whose names, at long last, are repeated beyond our borders.
The conventional art history of Canada is an optimistic adventure that should fill us with satisfaction. Unfortunately, it has problems. Aside from the constraints of space, an important difficulty we face in an art museum like ours is how to account for the present with the objects in our collections and with the sequence of artists who populate the standard narrative. Generally, art historians are preoccupied with the task of analyzing and cataloguing the work of exceptional figures from the past, the most generative of our creators, the outliers. But many of the exceptional figures of the present – such as women, Indigenous artists, Canadians of non-European descent, photographers, video artists – appear like erratic boulders on the land, unaccountable. The histories that might explain them are not part of the conventional narrative of Canadian art because canons are not inductive; they wait for brilliance and spurn the intervals. This gives the impression that much of our present culture is orphaned, while the legacies of the past are extinct. Given what we know of human nature and of how history actually works, neither can be true.
From the very first pages of our art history books, we sense trouble ahead. For example, the canonical version usually ignores the astonishing work of the highly skilled nuns who also decorated Canada’s early colonial churches, women who suffered similar deprivations and equally grave risks. They were clearly more competent in their artistry than their brethren priests who, for the most part, improvised as painters and sculptors to fulfill the needs of the Catholic ritual. The traditional division of cultural labour between men and women explains art history’s omission of surpassing talents like Marie Lemaire des Anges. Since the Renaissance, the promotion of painting and sculpture as the most serious supports for art was at the expense of the other artistic crafts, notably those practised by women and non-Europeans. This is not only a Canadian problem, of course, but it has the awkward manifestation here that places outstanding examples of Baroque embroidery in history museums, while the cruder handiwork of contemporaneous men is presented in art galleries.
More awkward still is the bald fact that artmaking in Canada does not go back a few hundred years, but untold thousands. We cannot simply dismiss this fact by calling it so much Indigenous pre-history lost in time, reducing the finest examples of continuous Aboriginal culture to the status of ethnographic material, irrelevant to the purposes of art. Nor should we accept the old-school anthropological argument that art is a recent Western invention without legitimate application to non-Western peoples. Genetics is even more recent but no one claims that geneticists invented our genes. And the scarcity of Indigenous art historians proves nothing more than unjustified neglect.
It is true that the once-superior Indigenous populations were ravaged into a small minority by the consequences of contact and colonization. It is true that their unique cultures and languages were devastated by the racism and ignorance of the settlers. The survival in Canada of Indigenous peoples, along with their cultural distinction, is a miracle that we should all hail with great relief, while forever regretting what has been lost. We must acknowledge the work of Indigenous artists past and present from across this land, makers of a living culture with universal relevance. The rich and complex Canadian scene that benefits us all, indeed that helps define us, would be unthinkable without the constant presence of Indigenous art. It must be celebrated in the pantheon of Canadian artistic genius.
In every material expression of human culture there are typical examples, and a handful of exceptional examples, that emerge from larger pools of objects. With their different missions, museums of ethnography are interested in the typical; art museums were created to honour the extraordinary. Not only do the arguments for separating the Indigenous art made in Canada from the notion of “Canadian art” smell quite musty, in my opinion they also reveal misunderstanding about the point of artmaking, identical in both cases. Moreover, they grudge the plain and easily demonstrated fact that some things, typically the products of surpassing concentration and experience, exhibit more emotional power, more refinement and consequently more beauty than other things like them. For me, such power needs hardly any context to be keenly felt.
Perpetuating the typological hierarchies of art history and the segregationist taxonomies of anthropology masks a bias against women in the first case, and against Indigenous excellence in the second. It also disconnects too many fine artists of the present from the heritage that would illuminate their work, especially in its non-traditional manifestations where links to the past are less obvious. Unfairly, this leaves them at an interpretive disadvantage and shades their brilliance.
No matter our origin or our gender, the aesthetic instinct at the root of art is the source of the empowering human perspective that helped us prosper as a species against long odds. Conveniently, it translated the bewildering mass of natural phenomena into intelligible concepts that could be expressed in shapes and symbols, patterns and pictures. Unlike science, we did not start out making art to help us understand the world; we used it to invent a world that we could understand.
Art belongs to the set of tools we humans have used to communicate, to persuade and even to dominate each other; a vehicle for myths and histories, symbols and information; an instrument of both enculturation and socialization used to build strong, centralized, coherent communities; a means to achieve collective and personal confidence. Without art, we could not have created the human sphere that has now overtaken our global habitat, and we will need it to survive our increasingly anxious triumph. From this view, the difference in the use of art, artifice and decoration between the Indigenous peoples and the Europeans who first encountered each other here so long ago can seem superficial.
In art, however, surface is everything. If their differences are superficial from a philosophical remove, few things could be more dissimilar than the surfaces of the land’s autochthonous cultures and those of the European artistic traditions that took root here four centuries ago. The will to elegant stylization governed the former, while the latter honed shifting conventions of verisimilitude. The first valued a prudent stability of forms, whereas each succeeding generation of the other sought its own. The Indigenous aesthetic focus was on the body facing the world, an outward-looking ritual of human distinction endlessly rehearsing its integration with nature. With an ethos rooted in sustainability, the First Peoples decorated themselves and their things to charm animal spirits by honouring them with the courtesy of beauty. On the other hand, the first European settlers brought inward-looking customs, decorating not so much themselves as the gilded refuges they built against a nature that they hastened to subdue and to spiritually escape; their ethos was anchored in the construction and expansion of an artificial habitat of total control, inspired by a “heavenly Jerusalem.” For Indigenous peoples, what Europeans called a “wilderness” was, in fact, the bountiful and mystical realm that constitutes the world: “What wilderness?!”
Incompatibility is the gist of this long story; would that complementarity had guided us instead. Despite their stark asymmetries, to understand Canada one needs to know both of these cultures, their differences and their influence on each other, the inclusion of many other cultures over time, and where we are now. From the perspective of a long-established cultural institution that should provide such understanding, this is easier said than done, but it is high time we broadened our perspective.