The Canadian Art Database

Victor Coleman

Arts Against Repression

Artspace, Peterborough, Fall 1981

[ 1,341 words ]

Mounted by Artspace's David Bierk as an adjunct to Peterborough's Canadian Images film festival, and curated by Jill Abson, Arts Against Repression is a documentary look at censored and suppressed Canadian works in a number of different disciplines. Going as far back as 1960-61 with the controversial canning of This Hour Has Seven Days by the CBC and up to the Ontario Censor Board's banning of Al Razutis's short film A Message From Our Sponsor, this 'exhibition in embryo' includes suppressed or censored writing by bill bissett and Margaret Laurence, music deemed unsuitable for air play by Rough Trade, repressed public works such as Greg Curnoe's mural for Dorval Airport and the Olympic debacle of Corridart, censored or banned films by Razutis, Michael Snow, and Bruce Elder, and visual art by Lynn Donoghue, John Boyle, Jennifer Dickson, Noel Harding, Richard Nigro and Mark Prent, that was judged unsuitable for small town sensibilities.

Censorship of films, both commercial and non-commercial, has been a hot issue in Ontario of late, due to the stalwart defense of community standards performed by Mary Brown and her 75 new censors, who have vowed to protect us from violence and vaginal penetration at all costs, no matter the hue and cry. But Mrs. Brown didn't count on the feistiness of Ontario's inde-pendent filmmakers and video artists.

When the organisers of last year's Canadian Images film festival defied the Censor Board's directive not to screen Razutis's A Message From our Sponsor, the Board laid charges against Ian MacLachlan of Trent University, David Bierk of Artspace, and others, under The Theatres Act. Recently the trial was remanded to June 22 (1982) largely, I hear, because the local crown counsel and the Peterborough constabulary are reluctant to wave Mary Brown's fanatic flag against legitimate cultural and educational institutions in this quiet city of 60,000.

The Canadian Images organisers, on the other hand, have been kindly looked upon by Toronto lawyer Charles Campbell and an avid team of researchers who are anxious to fight the Ontario Censor Board on the basis of the newly proclaimed Canadian constitution. Campbell argues, in an Op-Ed page article in the February 18 issue of The Globe & Mail: 'The day the Charter is declared, the provisions of The Theatres Act requiring films to be submitted to the Board of Censors for cuts will be arguably unconstitu-tional. Why? Because there is literally no standard in the act or its regula-tions establishing a standard of censorship.'

The refreshing thing about this exhibition, as Ian McLachlan told me, is that 'It's not just a show of cocks.' It deals with repression, suppression, and censorship of political, sexual, and aesthetic statements, and as such avoids the usual shouts of 'This is just an excuse to titillate a repressed audience.'

The examples of Corridart and Greg Curnoe's Dorval Airport mural put Que-bec solidly in second place to Ontario in the Repression Race; but in Quebec it's not sexually explicit material that the forces of morality are attacking, it's political (and aesthetic) statement. Corridart is well documented, a large blight on the otherwise culturally rich and responsive record of official post-Duplessis Quebec. Recent court rulings against the artists in the Corri-dart case shocked the art community. The costs of appealing this myopic decision to a higher court have proved prohibitive for most of the artists involved, so the case may be closed, but it will be some time before this embarrassment can be swept under the rug. In this case the works of art, commissioned by the Olympic cultural activities committee, were torn down the night after they went up. Seems M. Drapeau was offended by some works which were not-too-subtly critical of the city's development of its downtown core. Many works were destroyed beyond repair and the artists have no recourse to any compensation. Drapeau's argument was that he didn't think the show was suitable for the thousands of out-of-town visitors during the Olympics. A similar argument was used by officials who removed Greg Curnoe's mural commissioned for the airport at Dorval, which has been in storage ever since it too was removed shortly after its unveiling. Curnoe's mural was rife with critical stances against American imperialism, both cultural and economic, and airport officials expressed doubts that international visitors would be amused by Curnoe's political puns. Seems they wanted a somewhat more Disneyfied history to blend in with the musak.

Art in public spaces has always been a thorny issue. Just about every fair-sized town in Canada has run into problems when attempting to erect sculptured nudes, or exhibit painted or photographed nudes in public galleries. One can only surmise that those responsible for awarding the commissions are either out of touch with the artists commissioned or not in close communication with the Boards that authorize such works to be placed in their public buildings and parks.

The rather vague definitions by which art is repressed are repressive in themselves, in that there is seldom a clear set of guidelines by which the art-ist can create. As Ian McLachlan said, 'The exercise of arbitrary power intrudes into the natural balance between the leading edge of art and politics and the "normal", conventional forms of expression.' The sense of 'normal' here expressed must be seen to be constantly in flux. Some times are more repressive than others. Community attitudes tend to grow with new awarenesses, making objects and statements more acceptable as the com-munication of new, even strange, ideas is disseminated to a broader base of general public.

Attacks against writers, such as bill bissett, whose 'warm place to shit' poem offended some parliamentarians a few years ago, and Margaret Lawrence, whose novel The Diviners was attacked by School Boards and Librarians for some frank sexual passages that were taken out of context to support repressive arguments against the book's use by school children. In the bissett case there was a concerted effort by some MPs to insure that the Canada Council be made directly responsible to Parliament in order to avoid the funding of obscene works (and by inference of politically left-leaning arts and humanities activity). Happily this attempt to destroy the Council's arm's-length relationship with government failed.

The inability of certain persons and groups in positions of power to dis-tinguish between reality and fantasy always signals a return of the repressed in our society. The argument that hockey rinks are more viable cultural institutions than artist-run centres reflects the hatred that many power mongers have of the more arcane or fringe activities inherent in any culture.

As much as I personally support any attempt to deal with the legality of such repression, the record of Canada's judicial system is not much to give one hope. Artists faced with legal costs are as likely to run and hide as stand up for their so-called 'rights'. The foreknowledge of delays in the courtroom takes the spunk out of what might seem like a good fight at the time. Of course there are political solutions. As Charles Campbell suggests: 'It seems the Charter [of Rights] asks the courts to take on a profoundly political task which is at odds with legal tradition.' and 'We must give our senior judicial appointments serious political, not just professional, scrutiny before appointment.'

John Boyle's statement, which accompanies his Seated Nude: 'When my prudish, hypocritical neighbours come to visit, mean minded, unforgiving gossips, nasty and self-righteous, I remove all of my pornographic paintings from my walls. When my parents come to sit in judgment for a weekend or a week, I hide everything. When my American friends and relatives come to observe and to teach I suppress all of my anti-American convictions. I feign interest in their culture, their politics, their opinions. Censorship is obscene and must be rooted out and destroyed in all of its forms, in all of its sundry dens. And I embody censorial obscenity in its most insidious and despicable manifestations. I must be stopped!'

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.