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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

The Artropolis Syndrome

C Magazine #22, Summer 1989.
[ 3,534 words ]

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Esko and Lasko are two fictional companions; I first met them when I lived in Alberta. They discussed with me a weeklong trip that I made to Vancouver to listen to some of the discussion that has gone on in the months since Artropolis took place in November 1987 (1) 

Esko: The Department of Communications paid you to go to Vancouver?

Charlotte Townsend-Gault: Yes. Funding from the DOC was used to bring writers from 'outside' Vancouver to get other perspectives on the causes and effects of Artropolis, and also to reach other audiences. (2)  It was part of the fall-out from Artropolis. The organizers — and they were organized — successfully persuaded the Department and other funding sources that they were staging more than just another large scale exhibition: that Artropolis was the focus for a raft of issues affecting the lives and works of artists in B.C.

Lasko: What's the point of more thumbnail aperçus about another art centre? They're all the same. You could only come up with variations on a theme.

CTG: Well, no, they're not the same. Not if it's seen as a sort of running engagement between city and provincial politicians and bureaucrats on funding, taxation, work-space; on trying to build what is touchingly described as a 'creative environment'; and then, on how democracy can be reconciled with 'critical standards' — if at all, finally. And it's about what makes the place count. As Annette Hurtig, Director of the Western Front, wrote in the Artropolis catalogue: 'Vancouver is elsewhere recognized as an international art centre, yet this city's artists, writers, curators and publishers are primarily dependent on other audiences, on Canada Council funding and, aside from Vanguard, on publications in eastern Canada. It is a confounding situation. Surely our efforts (too often in the face of adversity), our considerable accomplishments and the exodus of major cultural contributors are evidence that something must be done.'

The Artropoplis exhibition was a carefully staged spectacle; but it was just part of an argument, an argument about art and the relevance to art of the socio-economic conditions of its production.

Lasko: Call it the Artropolis syndrome.

CTG: OK. It's an argument with a local history since it goes back to before the October Show, that quasi-alternative to the show that opened in the new Vancouver Art Gallery. But Vancouver has a history as a contemporary art centre: Emily Carr, Intermedia and the VAG's programming in the 60s; Video In; significant contributions to feminism in the arts; people like Michael Morris and Jeff Wall who have used their contacts, especially in Europe, to help others on and out; the issue of contemporary native art sharpened by the longevity of the Northwest Coast traditions . . . Many people feel that this history is being betrayed.

Esko: Did they moan?

CTG: No, I wouldn't say moan. The people I spoke to, what Hurtig calls our 'vocal constituency,' were well-briefed, took advice from many quarters, knew their facts and figures, knew the history of support and negotiation and were prepared to attend endless meetings to make their case in a reasonable way. They have kept a painstaking record of their efforts for future reference.

Lasko: There's nothing unique about artists wanting more money.

CTG: But that's not what it's about. It's about the Vancouver Art Gallery, exhibition spaces, places to live and work in the city, taxation as it affects artists, coverage of the arts in local newspapers and magazines, or lack thereof. It's the old story of artists wondering where they fit in, officially — their 'status'. They don't want to be marginalized, but they'd hate to be integrated.

Lasko: There used to be psychobabble; now we have socio-speak and succumbing to the inevitability of Weberian bureaucracy. They've had to learn the language of the bureaucrats and now can't manage without it.

CTG: Well, yes. Distain for the 'bureaucratization of the avant-garde' takes several forms right there in Vancouver. There's personal distancing through participation in the international art world.

Lasko: You mean success?

Esko: Not if legitimacy begins at home.

Lasko: The green-eyed monster speaks.

CTG: There's a die-hard bohemia, a 60s style communal freedom which doesn't favour organization.

Lasko: That's right. And it keeps them marginalized.

Esko: But the 60s is where a lot of people inherit their political education , the possibility of citizen action.

CTG: Vancouver has alternative galleries that aim to remain just that. They are determinedly scruffy, judged by standards set by the exposed-brick school of commercial renovation or the lofty columned spaciousness / whiteness of parallel galleries in the east. Their coffee mugs are chipped, their couches are uncomfortable, the places smell of dirty synthetic carpet and the art is meant to shock.

Lasko: But it can't. It's a pose, the last gasp of flakey kitsch.

CTG: As they realize, and that is exactly why the denizens of these places are, after all, out there organizing and arguing too.

Lasko: What else?

CTG: Retreat to the academy — a word I heard a lot. Very divisive. The self-appointed torchbearers of culture and the academics often perceive themselves at odds.

Esko: Simple misunderstanding. Neither side finds it particularly easy to think or talk clearly about art.

Lasko: Clarity can't be much of a criterion, to judge from most of the writing produced.

CTG: It isn't easy. There's always a huge public ready to jump on what they see as the highfalutin' ways of the art world. Look at the success of Peter Fuller's magazine Modern Painters, which panders to traditional British visual Philistinism with a mixture of assertion and vitriol as a replacement for the struggles of art theory to express itself. Canada has John Crosbie. B.C. has most of Van der Zalm's cabinet.

Esko: So Vancouver 'cultural producers' don't speak as one?

CTG: No. There's a lot of difference; not everyone talks to everyone else, but enough people talked to me to convince me that there are shared issues and a recognition that they need to be articulated and dispersed. But the point is that they've managed to sink some of the differences in order to present a united front. They've learned that, as Margot Butler put it to me, 'the media love to criticize a group for not having their shit together.'

Lasko: Right, so they have prepared positions, they had planned what they wanted you to hear.

CTG: Well, recognizing that one is implicated in what one observes, it still seems worth reporting, making a compromise between critique and advocacy. Artropolis syndrome is thick with compromise spread over controversies, old and new.

Lasko: Are you going to articulate the syndrome in terms other than those in which it was expressed to you? And if so, whose? The terms of the academy? of bohemia? of the internationalist?

CTG: A bit of each. The debate is a combination of these terms. In a sense it's a collective endeavour, the protagonists being both the Artropolis committee, their supporters and their detractors. They're all implicated in one way or another as far as I could see. It took into account some of the most vexed problems, but proposed no solutions. In fact, the Artropolis syndrome compounded the contradictions.

Lasko: I still don't see why you call it a 'debate'. It's just position taking; what 'discourse', outside of the journals, do you kid yourselves about?

CTG: When it comes to the visual arts, although 'it's too depressing to think about' (as the photographer, Donna Hagerman, scribbled in the margin when she sent me some unsupportive press clippings), they think about it all the time.

Lasko: Some would shrug at that. Talk to people about the days before the Canada Council.

CTG: Yes, but many would nod. The country is alive with cultural coalitions and collective efforts, including the new Ad Hoc Coalition for B.C. Artists.

Lasko: All of which are frequently opposed on two grounds: that they're politically naive and inimical to serious art making.

Esko: Predictable that the loudest debates about the morality and wisdom of funding the arts should take place on the initiative of the least-funded part of the country. The main publication to come out of all this is You've got ten minutes to get that flag down, the proceedings of the Halifax Conference in 1986.

I still don't get what's so special about Vancouver.

CTG: OK, maybe the debate that the exhibition was part of encompasses issues you can hear being discussed anywhere in the country: whether cultural workers should organize their efforts and how; how art should be promoted, audiences reached, politicians converted. But in Vancouver the real issue that underlies the rest is whether this city, or any place that isn't the place, can authenticate its own art production. Can it manufacture its own critical context?

Esko: Sounds like riffling through the Essential Frankfurt School Reader.

CTG: It was. Let's see: For a start, there's a general analogy between art and social theory, so you get culture conceived of as a critique of political economy, done with a combination of reforming optimism and critical pessimism. Then of course, there's the extreme discomfort of the individual in mass, urban society; the powerlessness of people in a system where personal and social relationships have become thing-like; and the possible instrumentality of works of art in such a society. Above all, there is the contradiction of trying to re-aestheticize a present that is identified as a crisis for art and culture. I heard all this in conversations and found it in the catalogue essays. It's there in other contributing documents, like the catalogues produced by Artspeak and by the VAG for Christos Dikeakos and Ian Wallace.

Esko: It seems to be easier to find a pedigree for the Artropolis problems than a solution. What Australians call their 'cultural cringe' is still extant here and it's only worsened by cultural amnesia, forgetting the pedigree.

CTG: It's clear enough that Adorno, Habermas, Lukacs and, of course, Benjamin have provided the terminology for a lot of writing about art through the 70s and 80s. In Vancouver the Frankfurt-derived formulations have obviously helped to shape ideas about administration, funding, publicizing and outreach that are being thrashed out, even though the language used is a habitual bureaucratese. And the sticking point is the same one: art can only resist the reality that destroys its potential audience by becoming ever more esoteric, ever more removed from that audience.

Esko: But you're saying that Artropolis attempted to reverse that — to present more, more diverse, qualitatively variable and not necessarily esoteric art, to publicize it, to make it accessible in familiar ways.

CTG: Yes, and then there's a point where Frankfurt meets the Socreds, the Artropolis syndrome cohered in response to an intractable Provincial cultural policy. This is the point about the B.C. situation. The Vancouver Sun ran a face-to-face profile on Lily Munro and Bill Reid, respectively the Culture Ministers for Ontario and B.C., comparing their attitudes on arts funding, which said it all. Munro says 'If you don't take some risks in culture, you get too narrow a focus . . . We're trying to help artists be more creative.' She knows that business and marketing skills can help artists, but to make art with the sole purpose of attracting customers would be a travesty.

Esko: But that is exactly what Reid wants to encourage in B.C. He maintains that marketing is the key to success.

CTG: In B.C. the arts employ 42,000 and put $1.6 billion per annum into the economy. In Ontario, by comparison, 182,000 people are employed and $7.4 billion injected into the province. Put it another way: B.C. spent $3.79 per capita on the arts as compared with Ontario's $6.47. What the newspaper calls 'B.C.'s showpiece', the VAG, receives about $400,000 as compared to the provincial grant of $6 million to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Esko: And the length of the arm?

CTG: Short. Reid makes it clear that he needs to be convinced personally of a project's merits. If an art project brings in little financial return, his response is — 'I'd probably say: you better change your product 'cause I'm not funding it another year. If you're not filling your seats, then either your product's not right or you're not selling it right.'

City fathers in lots of places have seen what happened to Yorkville, Queen Street and Soho . . .

Lasko: ... and their 'infrastructures'.

CTG: . . . in terms of property values. That's the language.

Esko: Alongside this you must set the fundamental assumption, shared by very many cultural workers (viz, the way they have rallied against the Free Trade issue) that in an unregulated, unsupported economy, Canadian culture — what most of our artists do — could not survive.

State subsidy is a way of life in Canada, as the cliché goes.

CTG: Yes, so even while they balk at meeting the Socreds' demand that the box-office profitability of every proposal be demonstrated; the dollar criterion is shared by both.

Lasko: Exactly. The receipt of funding legitimates a project as does relinquishing money to it. Neither position holds up without a cash transaction.

Esko: Only the morally and spiritually bankrupt need to sanctify the profit margin.

Lasko: Ah, the high-minded objection. But it really isn't just Socreds who want to count the costs. There's a widespread tendency to measure the value of art in financial terms; it's easier, for one thing. The more artists organize for their own protection — to ensure they get a fair deal — the more it looks as though they subscribe to it too.

CTG: Artropolis, in so far as it was a way of 'selling' local art, looked like it. The whole showcase idea (loathsome term) suggests a kit of sample products for eventual purchase.

Lasko: Artropolis succeeded on Reid's terms and its own — it sounds as though they were pretty much the same.

CTG: Up to a point that's true. But the Artropolis organizers and participants tend to see themselves as cultural workers, driven by the hope that something can be achieved other than personal dollar gain as a result of their appeals for cash.

Lasko: Of course, but the exhibition itself was a successful spectacle, an event, and because it brought in masses of people, it didn't matter whether the art was any good. It had curatorial categories, but the very fact that it was essentially without critical parameters, suggests that it was the kind of enterprise designed to un-alienate people.

Esko: Frankfurt again. But no matter how many went it is unlikely that it worked in that way.

CTG: Lots of people liked it; many did not. Lots of people were happy to participate, others were not. So, while Artropolis was a tribute to the tenacity of its organizers, a token of their success at having identified the problems that eat away at people's energies, sap a community or prevent one from forming and, although the tone of most of the people I spoke to was determined and reasonably confident, few were able to disguise their awareness that what they are grappling with is something far more troubling than the monetarist policies of the government or their own finances.

Esko: Reid's attitude, philistine as it is, goes straight to the heart of the contradiction — the desire for recognition and authentication.

Lasko: It looks very much as though, from both sides, that can only be achieved in dollar terms.

CTG: Authentication is much complicated under a regime of disparate pluralism — what visual art is supposed to mean and to whom. In this city some works groan with the weight of exegesis while others, everything being possible, are completely evanescent.

There is no one audience. Artropolis was useful in different ways and for more than a 'general public;' artists could see what their contemporaries were doing, curators could see work they otherwise might not find, and so on.

Lasko: But what's the point of getting any public to look at a mass of warmed-over everything that's happened in the last ten years (or more) with critical criteria disavowed as somehow undemocratic?

Esko: That's precisely the trap set by audience response. If people come and look, fine, if they consider buying that's better — you need never actually come to grips with why you think they should look, what they're going to get out of it. Is the health of the soul a saleable commodity? Sell art as a secular religion? as a spectator sport? Clearly it's much easier, and less embarrassing, to sell it as a commodity.

Lasko: Well, there are some people you'll never get to look at culture as anything else, especially while the art fashion now is for a mixture of not so elegant obscurantism, passionate assertion and 'poetic' insight that needs no defence.

CTG: An uneducated public and cynical colleagues are not the real adversaries, but the threat of justification through funding is. That is, funding gives credibility, to get funding you need to get an audience. These are the economics of response. Arts organizations everywhere in the western world are making their accommodations with their funding sources.

Esko: Why be obstructive about sponsorship? It always depends how well you do whatever you do, how much you need to do it.

Lasko: Does it? The Artropolis syndrome appears to have acknowledged the exact reverse: that it depends on how much other people needed it: such things as whether the audience has reached a certain critical mass, what value politicians place on 'culture' ,how much money is available. In other words, they've learnt to assess in terms of response.

CTG: You could call it a smart way out of the impasse of pluralist disparity.

Lasko: And, face it, the audience criterion is about recognition. It's the easiest form of authentication, much easier than thrashing out critical standards.

CTG: Artropolis, and its opposition, gave us the heroics and the mock-heroics and the anti-heroics, and the freedom of seeing them all function in 1988 in a western Canadian city often characterized as unknowing and un-caring.

Esko: Well, we can't say that any longer, can we?

***

Sandy Gow (Member, Artropolis organizing committee): 'We wanted Artropolis to be different from the previous shows, and I think we have succeeded. We wanted to be more accessible, not only to the public but also to the arts community and the business community. We did not want to be confrontational, as the time and needs for confrontation have passed. Artropolis is about cooperation, and any success we achieve with this exhibition is due to the cooperation we have achieved.'

Annette Hurtig (Director, Western Front Gallery): Artropolis intended 'to provide local exposure and a large audience for British Columbia's cultural producers; to challenge the constituents of city and province to a re-examination of their ideas about the state of art; to thus provoke a reaffirmation by the community of current practice and production; and to create an undeniable public call for increased and direct support from municipal and provincial coffers to artists, to artist-run centres, and to the critics, curators, writers, publishers, et al, who provide for a full, productive cultural context.'

Greg Bellerby (Contemporary Art Gallery): 'Even while Artropolis was criticized for lack of critical input, it did bring the community together. We have enough shows with proper focus and strategies'.

Willard Holmes (Director, VAG): 'An ethic of production prevails, rather than one of criticism or preservation . . . we need a level of support for production, but we also need a level of support for asking the why questions — they will lead to giving the production value as culture.'

Trinita Waller (Artists for a Creative Environment — ACE): 'The success of ACE shows that artists have public voices and can act together. It does something to cut the flakey image.'

Diane Farris (Diane Farris Art Gallery): 'Getting to take Vancouver artists to Cologne, Chicago or ARCO is flattering, but bankrupting.'

Phil McCrumb (Director, Or Gallery): 'Artropolis replicated the local hierarchy without thinking about what art criticism really is . . . volunteer burnout, helps to create the collective amnesia to which this community is prey.'

Eric Metcalf (Western Front): 'I like performance art because it is peripheral, you can't quite get a handle on it, it has an underground quality, it is vital, sophisticated. You don't need an MFA or a PhD. You can't learn it and there are no language barriers. I once had a lot of faith in that, but now I'm disheartened, no one seems to be interested.'

Gerry Gilbert (poet): 'The problem is not money or the Canada Council but that the artists are working in a tradition that doesn't address where people in this country are.'

Greg Alteen (Grunt): 'Being an irritant is a Zen exercise for me. I'm not going to let 'them' think that what they found is what there is . . . In Toronto there are ways to sell out, but I'm not sure you could sell out in Vancouver if you tried. A lot of its vitality seems to come from poverty.'

Bill Wood (Vanguard): 'Artropolis was spectacle, playing along with the big event syndrome, modeled on Expo, instead of Monumenta.'


C Magazine #22, Summer 1989.


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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