WHAT IS A CANADIAN ARTIST?

The uniqueness of Canadian artists and their creations is often represented as a comparison or a contrast. The Canadian artist is not an American artist, or a British artist, or a French artist . . . We know what Canadian artists are not; now, we just need to figure out what they are and what makes their creations unique. It is, of course, impossible to give a rigid definition of Canadian culture or identity, as they are both continually evolving and changing, a multi-facetted mosaic.

Our first impulse, the first distinction we make is that our identity and culture are characterized by diversity. In his 1948 book On Being Canadian, Vincent Massey sang the praises of diversity: “We have plenty of colours and lights and shades in our make-up. Canada is no monochrome of uniformity.” I wholeheartedly agree with that great defender of art and literature and believe that Canada’s struggle for identity is also a struggle to ensure the survival of Canadian culture, It is obvious that art and the question of identity are intimately related; we cannot defend the Canadian identity if we do not continually fight, on a daily basis, for the vitality of our culture.

MADE IN CANADA: Just like the labels in our clothes. But we fought hard enough for the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which came into force last year, to know not to compare culture to a product like any other. But of course, you who fight in your communities on a daily basis to defend culture and that which makes it so unique and diverse already know that art is not a product like any other. Naming this session “Made in Canada” is also a means of provoking a reaction; it is thumbing our noses at all those who want to grind culture up and drown it in the magma of soulless commercialism. Naming these discussions on art “Made in Canada” is a means of expressing our pride.

Yes, we should all be proud of the vitality of Canada’s artists and cultural institutions. Proud that there are over 130,000 artists in Canada. Proud that the number of artists has more than tripled since the 1970s. Proud that our artists are recognized all across Canada and around the world. We must recognize the vitality and determination of our artistic community, which makes such a huge contribution despite the often minimum means it is given. We must also recognize the federal, provincial and municipal institutions, as well as those from the private sector, that work together to support creators and their creations.

In our Internet world of quick and easy transportation, protectionist legislation, quotas to guarantee the presence of Canadian works in the media and the distribution of Canadian films are an extreme necessity, but they are not enough. What would encourage someone go to a museum rather than look at reproductions on the Internet? What would encourage someone go to a concert rather than watching it on television? What would encourage someone read a book by a Canadian author rather than rush out to get the book the whole world is reading?

What motivates us—sometimes without us even knowing it—are the dialectics that begin when we come in contact with creation. When we are seduced and feel the need to start a dialogue. Seduced by a work of art, we, the spectators, enter a universe of emotion, reflection and imagination. This contact, this meeting, is also a mirror that reflects the inevitable questions: “Who am I? Who are we?” Creation guides us through this eternal interrogation and leads us toward the answers.

A strong culture is one that welcomes the rich and varied influences of today’s Canada, our country’s past and the past of those who come to live in this land of immigration. A strong culture is one that wants to take its past and its diversity and build a present and a future.

To do that, we must make art the epicentre of political thought in action, as André Malraux, a French writer and de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, pointed out when he said that real culture begins when works of art are no longer simply documents, when Shakespeare is actually present. Real culture, he said, is the mysterious presence in our lives of that which should belong to the dead.

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