Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Strange World of Culture in Canada

As an only marginally socialized young person, much of the world of art and culture puzzled the heck out of me, growing up. A lot of this was an incapacity to realize that simple evil and nastiness was present even in the most prestigious arts institutions. As Solzhenitsyn said:
"the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being"
 But this truth was one omitted from most of the books I read about the arts which concerned themselves with uncontroversial topics like the technical progress of the arts, or the history of the arts (which they took to be the same thing) or personalities in the arts or, in music, style and repertoire. All very useful things to know, but only part of the story and the most flattering part at that. The more interesting story is perhaps how truly creative artists are often frustrated or ignored by the "arts community" which is, sadly, to a great part comprised of self-serving, narcissistic, careerist mediocrities who spend all their time puffing up their own meagre accomplishments.

Canada, with its naive devotion to dangerous abstractions like "arts policy", which is really nothing more than the arts establishment's attempt to control arts expression to further its own political aims, is a particularly supportive environment for arts careerism as it is for elite oligarchies. We find both these unpleasant characteristics in the sordid tale of "The heiress, the impresario and the juiciest divorce ever" in Maclean's Magazine. Here is an excerpt, but you really need to read the whole thing:
On April 28, 2014, a joyful Eleanor McCain shared her love for Jeff Melanson on Facebook, posting a photo of the two of them sitting next to one another on a stone bench. The daughter of the late frozen french-fry titan Wallace McCain, who has carved out a career as a singer, is wearing a pink dress and vintage jacket while smiling adoringly at the man she called her “fiancé.” He’s attired in a dark blue suit, looking away from her, into the distance, a beatific smile on his face. The accompanying message—a hybrid love-letter/PR statement—pays tribute to Melanson, citing his 2½ years running the Banff Centre and his recently announced position as president and CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra: “I am very proud of Jeff for his recent appointments, all of his accomplishments and most of all the integrity, character and grace with which he handles everything in his life. Congratulations my love!” she wrote, attaching links to media stories celebrating Melanson’s return: The TSO “needs a miracle worker and it has found one,” the Toronto Star gushed in one.
But the combatants also represent the extremes of the insular Canadian art world—buyer and seller, donor and visionary—and at least some of what’s wrong with it. If McCain bought her way into the arts scene, “[losing] money on her ‘artistic’ endeavours,” as her estranged husband alleges in his claim that she “buys opportunities for herself and loses money on her ‘artistic’ endeavours’,” Melanson sold his way in: catapulting to celebrity status, particularly among the philanthropic elite, with a compelling, marketable vision of how the arts enrich communities, nations and economies. Such was Melanson’s charisma and celebrity that this is a world in which the hare, not the tortoise, gets the spotlight even if he doesn’t finish the race. It’s seldom acknowledged that his near-$1-billion plan for the Banff Centre was abandoned 2½ years in, and his epic $166.4-million plan for the money-losing TSO to build a recording studio and media lab went unquestioned publicly.
Let's just have a listen to the artistic side of Eleanor McCain. I choose this excerpt only because I performed the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo on this same stage with the same orchestra--and they weren't nearly as bored as they appear here:

What about Jeff Melanson, her ex? He is the other side of the Canadian arts scene, not the trust fund amateur, but the snake-oil salesman. Here are some excerpts from a fawning puff-piece in the Globe and Mail:
The term rock-star arts administrator is not used with great regularity – even less so with “Canadian” tacked on in front of it – but this is a story about one. Jeff Melanson shocked the Canadian arts establishment last month when he announced that he was leaving the Banff Centre, the renowned creativity incubator and performance hub, where he has been president since 2012. Two weeks later, another announcement: He would be, come the fall, president and CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Melanson has been Canada's leading arts administrator, at least in music, with stints at the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School in Toronto, the National Ballet School, arts advisor to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the Banff Centre and finally the Toronto Symphony. These are the leading performing arts institutions in English Canada. Maclean's mentions some of his accomplishments:
Melanson checked all the boxes, appealing to a younger audience in a way older donors could appreciate. At Banff, to the consternation of some, he shifted focus from classical music to jazz, world music and indie bands. Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew was given a residency; Melanson sang backup on a recording project. He reached out to First Nations, staging a Banff first: an all-night ceremony that saw elders bless the campus. It was a pattern repeated at the TSO; partnerships included one with the Polaris Music Prize that saw the orchestra cover Drake’s Know Yourself and DJ Skratch Bastid headline a show.
After he left Banff to take up the position at the Toronto Symphony:
At Banff, where the expansion plan has been downsized and the digital radio station shuttered, there’s a sense of embarrassment. “After the shock, I think the general feeling was one of being used. It was more a sense of shame that they had been duped into submission by this fast-talking guy and then abandoned,” says one insider. “Eleanor McCain is not the only one jilted here,” said another. At the TSO, the Studio Project is “on the back burner,” says a spokesman.
This is the sad tale of arts in Canada: it is dominated by an incestuous ring of insiders who merely use the arts for their own career ambitions. They are mediocrities and worse: scam artists and slick talkers. People with no understanding or interest in actual aesthetic value, but only what public and patron funds they can cream off for themselves. It is a dark and depressing tale, but one that the public has little sense of because the media keep shining, forgive me, the shit and blowing pixie dust over everything.

Of course there are real artists in Canada. But they get little credit and are hugely overshadowed by people like this. After a while, they either move away or give up in discouragement because it is the mediocrities and scam artists that set the standards and make the important decisions.

Let's see if we can clear the palate with some good music. This is young Canadian guitarist Drew Henderson, whom I just discovered recently. He is playing the Zapateado from the Three Spanish Pieces by Joaquin Rodrigo:


Will Wilkin said...

So you're even a muck-raker too? Bryan you have a talent for combining many interesting issues into a short, pithy article. Here you pose questions of the relationship of "art" to the market and public taste, human judgement, romance, personal integrity, corruption, organizational management, journalism....

In your recent article on Monteverdi in historical context, I commented that "Artistically speaking, its been steadily downhill since the end of the baroque, or whatever one wants to call it. Morally-speaking, the rot of commerce has been eroding human character a few centuries longer." Of course dating the decline of music was my arbitrary and technically ridiculous way of making a more serious point: greed and even just "blind" market forces are contrary to good taste, good morals, human relationships and all the things (except perhaps material comforts --with obvious appeal!) that make for genuine quality of life and culture.

And so we are not surprised that the problems you describe in the Canadian Art "establishment" are precisely the same problems we find in the corporate and political worlds, and if we move back to a pre-capitalist age, we still find the same problems in the medieval (church melding with political power and aggregation of wealth) and ancient societies (republics built on slavery and conquest, etc).

One could found a religion on a small core set of principles absolutely contrary to the way the world works. In fact, Jesus did that, or at least St. Paul and the other leaders of the early church used the ethical teachings of Jesus to do it. And of course as it grew into a real social force, it was co-opted by emperors and money-men.

Anonymous said...

The orchestration for Silent Night does a magnificent job snuffing all the life out of that prettiest of tunes.

Bryan Townsend said...

@ Anonymous: And Eleanor McCain's lifeless performance finishes it off!

@ Will: I'm basically a pretty happy and optimistic person, so even while I am critiquing some situation that I see as reprehensible, I think I can see all sorts of good things also going on. There are some fantastically good musicians around these days and the technical standards are higher than ever. There are a few good composers (Steve Reich, Esa-Pekka Salonen just for example), we have wonderful material prosperity, great dental and medical care (what people in previous centuries would not have given for that!), information technology that makes it possible for me to write these little posts and people all over the world to read them, and a host of other things.

But yes, the line between good and evil still runs through every human heart and always will. But despair is not the answer. And doesn't Christianity have something to say about despair?