Saturday, August 6, 2016

Canada's Subaltern Culture

As a longtime expatriate of Canada, I like to keep tabs on events back home. I once got a note from the Canada Council so someone in Canada may even be reading my occasional critiques. There is something to be said for living outside Canada for giving perspective on things.

Let me preface this with a joke that I am afraid I originated, though it is based on an old joke about Europe (in heaven the Swiss run the trains, the British run the government and the Italians are the lovers--in hell the Italians run the government, the British run the trains and the Swiss are the lovers...there are lots of variations). In my joke I note that the idea of Canada, cobbled together from all the British colonies in North America left over after the American war of independence, was to have British style government, French culture and American style know-how, based on the three primary sources of Canadian identity. Sadly, what we seem to have gotten is French style government, British style know-how and American culture! Funny, sure, but rather unkind.

The truth is that Canada is to this day, rather a subaltern culture, that is, a culture that has yet to find its way, one that tends to be mere reflections and echoes of neighboring cultures. The exception to this is likely Quebec where its own culture has had to develop in isolation from France due to the British conquest of the 1700s. But English Canada from the beginning to now is a kind of second-string hybrid of American and British influences.

An anecdote from my own history might illustrate this. Back in the 1970s when I was arranging to go to Spain to study the guitar (there being no Canadian masters of any stature) I applied for a passport as I had never left Canada before. You need the signature of some establishment figure like a minister, government official or university professor. No problem, I thought, so I hied myself up to the university where I had recently been a student and looked around for a professor. It was the summer break so many of them were out of town. Of the ones that were available, none were Canadian citizens! They were all Americans except for one Czech bassoonist. Finally we turned up a Canadian, but it was an illuminating experience. I recount this to set up an article in today's Globe and Mail: No Canadians need apply: the worrying trend in arts hiring. It is not a worrying trend, of course, but a long-standing practice. Here is an excerpt:
...this week the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., named Briton Ian Dejardin as its new director...he is also the fifth international appointment to head a major Canadian cultural institution in the past 15 months. He follows two Americans (Joshua Basseches at the Royal Ontario Museum and Stephan Jost at the AGO) and two other Britons (Tim Carroll at the Shaw Festival and Anthony Sargent at the Luminato Festival, where an Australian was also recently appointed as artistic director).
Let me share another personal anecdote. A friend and colleague of mine at McGill when I was doing a Concert Diploma was Tim Hutchins, principal flute with the Montreal Symphony and much sought after by a number of big name US orchestras. When I knew him he was doing his masters in flute and we shared a performance of Hans Werner Henze's El Cimmaron, a chamber opera for baritone, flute, guitar and percussion. At around that time Tim auditioned for the principal flute position with the Montreal Symphony. They were done in two stages, behind a curtain so the judges could not see who was auditioning. The first stage, at which Tim played his usual superb best, resulted in no-one being hired. This was standard procedure as the basic assumption was that no Canadian would be good enough. So they went to the second stage: international, which meant mostly American candidates. Tim returned to audition for this stage as well and he won the audition to the great embarrassment of the jury. Turns out a Canadian was good enough after all!

So what does all this tell us: that Canada has a serious identity problem, I think. Canadians, in their own minds, are never quite good enough, especially in the cultural field, so we have to keep hiring Americans (and Britons and the occasional Australian) to help us with our own culture! Why in hell would we think that? I suspect because Canadians don't really think we have a high culture. Sure, we have lots of pop stars like Justin Bieber and old-time fiddlers and country stars like Stompin' Tom Connors, but high art? That comes from elsewhere. About all we seem to take genuine interest and pride in is the Group of Seven, plus Emily Carr. Who, you ask? Exactly! They were a group of Canadian painters in the early part of the last century.

In music the situation is, if anything, worse. I knew personally a leading composer from the first generation of Canadian composers who were not actually transplanted from Britain: Murray Adaskin. He studied with Darius Milhaud (and some Canadians like John Weinzweig) and was inspired by Igor Stravinsky.

Here is what the problem is: Canada, a nation with too much geography and not enough history, has so little confidence in its unique vision and perspective on the world, that we invite everyone else to teach us about high art! Perhaps this is normal with pioneer cultures, after all, Russia learned about music composition from a few generations of transplanted Italians, but Russians did not start composing Russian music until they stopped listening to them! See the careers of Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky. I'm not sure if any Canadian composer has had the courage to do as they did: defy the conventions of art as practiced by European composers.

Canada is a nation heavily monitored and indoctrinated by the organs of government and media. There are only a few voices heard in the public space and any would-be artist has to somehow win their approval. Arts funding comes from a few sources, mostly government, and it is handed out by juries of peers, that is, established artists who are invested in the current practices. Of course they often give money to artists who demonstrate boldness, but none of this ever seems to coalesce into a uniquely Canadian style or voice. There seems to be the hidden assumption that only Americans or Britons truly have a professional understanding of high art. The question that Canada needs to ask itself is whether art and culture are based on something local and specific, or do they come from some kind of international professionalism?

Like I say, we seem to be a subaltern culture.

As an envoi, I offer a piece by the current grand old man of Canadian composition, R. Murray Schafer. This is a piece for chamber choir titled Miniwanka:

If I were to make an unkind comment, and I will, it sounds and looks rather like George Crumb after a frontal lobotomy.


David said...

Bryan, thank you for your perspectives on the conundrum of Canadian culture. I am not convinced that William Lyon Mackenzie King (the Prime Minister with too many names) was correct about the country not having enough history. We certainly have less recorded history than Europe or Asia. But European incursions into Canada predated Columbus by hundreds of years wi th the Viking settlements in Newfoundland. It is Canada's cultural curse to be overshadowed by the much larger, much more aggressive "culture" of the United States. A situation not unlike that of Mexico. However, Mexico has the benefitof a language difference to identify and defend its local culture. In Canada, only Quebec has a similar situation. As you note, Quebec is the source of a disproportionate share of local Canadian culture.

The task of encouraging and nurturing Canadians' natural nationalistic tendency to seek, promote and protect a local culture has fallen to our governments which do a typically atrocious job: budget allowances are too small and too badly spent. Policy initiatives such as "Cancon" regulations are manipulated to produce content that is Canadian only by technical definition.

Our music and visual artists seem to me to be the sectors most affected (and infected) by the juggernaut of US influence. Our authors have had more success being Canadian in their art. Of course, that accomplishment comes with the price of limited sales and audience if the "Cancon" is too "Canuk" and doesn't appeal to the huge US market.

Canada has, and continues to produce classical music performers of international quality (Gould, Hewitt, Ehnes, Tafelmusik to name those that come to mind immediately) who built their reputations on their mastery of the European classic repertoire.

In the end, I suppose "T'was ever thus". I am not sure there is a solution, at least a short term one. However, the first step in solving any problem is identifying the culprit. Thanks for shining some light in the darker corners of the local culture of the subaltern.


Bryan Townsend said...

Yes David, good point that Canadian writers seem to have more success. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

I added some additional thoughts here: