Canadian Art Magazine was 78 years old, b1943 – d2021. The Board of Directors blamed Covid-19 for a drop in readers and advertising, despite a newly energized editorial staff of postmodern, politically aware and socially conscious writers and editors. That statement may hold a clue to why things went south, while rival magazine MOMUS gained both readers and advertising.
Red flags appear as we turn the pages. Two years prior, in a call for submissions to their “Undoing Painting” issue, the editors explained why painting’s demise was called for, why painting must be undone. It didn’t work out that way. The magazine died while painting lived on.
Canadian Art Magazine, summer 2019, call for submissions, “Undoing Painting” issue. Another painting issue?! Here, we present painting as an issue. Still one of the most marketable art forms out there—and therefore one of the most canonized and institutionalized—painting is a flashpoint for how we think about power, commerce and class in the art world. But what does a painting-focused view of contemporary art leave out—and include? Equally relevant—whom does it leave out and include? Does the market-bound nature of painting restrict its ability to critique? How are painting practices gravitating towards the interdisciplinary and installation-based? Are material-specific practices still valid—and does asking this question elide, say, Indigenous art communities, who have been working with paint across generations? What are all the things that painting can do that remain under-discussed? And how have painting’s histories been received and (mis)understood?
But let’s unpack the baggage. “Does asking this question elide, say, Indigenous art communities, who have been working with paint across generations?” This statement is a cultural blind spot and a real head scratcher; from prehistoric times artists in Asia, Africa, and Europe had also worked with paint across generations. The word elide is used here to veil how a national policy of reconciliation with oppressed and despoiled indigenous communities should not, but obviously did, result in a sacrificium intellectus that eludes common sense.
A superficial attempt to signal virtue by jumping on the social justice platform trivializes the real social and racial inequalities faced by First Nations people. Do humanitarian principles then place Indigenous art above criticism? Does membership in a racial or cultural community raise one’s artwork above judgment? Then how does that change our definition of art, whose etymology is judgmental?
Note the difference in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s recent decision to allocate 1 in 3 exhibitions to First Nation artists; in this case the quality of work still matters. Social justice doesn’t need to sacrifice values and standards to the lowest common denominator. As an artist that decision impacts my own career,, but it is a justified remedy to compensate for centuries of racial bias.
Disclosure: the editors rejected my paper questioning their premise, so we read Canadian Art’s misconception that painting is market driven, when most painters have no market for their work, which is typically done for love of the art. In fact, painting is seen as passé so it’s actually discouraged in the current art ecosystem. We suspect the editorial staff didn’t have a clue, kicked painting when it was down, and reaped the consequence of failing art history.
These failures of logic from Canada’s foremost art magazine are rather disheartening, you know it won’t end well. It didn’t. Logic should prevail; painting is no more market bound than other media, and if the market restricts art’s ability to critique, then every media including writing would merit the same chastisement. Those painters whose motivation is sales are generally known as commercial artists. Or they’ve left art and turned to marketing, like Damien Hirst, who’d never touch a brush and is rarely seen in a studio, unless it’s to meet a well-heeled client. Not an artist but.
“Are material-specific practices still valid…” Tom Wolfe satirized this pose in his novel Back to Blood; “The artist… had no hand at all in making the art. And if he touched drawings or photographs, it was just to put them in an envelope and FedEx them to those hired to produce the work, although I’m sure he has an assistant to do things like that. No Hands—that’s an important concept now. It’s not some artist using his so-called skills to deceive people. It’s not a sleight of hand. It’s no hands at all. That makes it conceptual, of course.”
Roger Scrutton adds: “faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling…” “Anyone can lie. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but the fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.”
When it’s turtles all the way down, we have to speak truth to power. Art is not deceitful. It’s those lacking skill who need to deceive, who need to claim that art is anything you can get away with. An artist does not use skill to deceive, any more than doctors use their skill to deceive patients, or chefs use skill to deceive diners or actors use skill to deceive their audience. Skill takes so long to learn, requires such deep commitment and dedication, that anyone able to make the grade will not waste their life deceiving anyone.
Plato banned artists from his Republic because they cheat with mimesis, conveying imitations of a reality created by the Gods. Of course Plato used the mimesis of language to convey his ideas, but it’s the thought that counts. Should Plato ban himself from his Republic? Would Canadian Art ban painting?
It’s worrisome if that magazine represents the art community, if it’s a canary in the mine. As the magazine’s assumptions were made in a bubble, the feet on the street walked away. A similar dynamic occurred with Gillette’s “Toxic Masculinity” commercial, which caused a 15% drop in market value, a loss of millions. Gillette’s motive for running the ad? Research suggests millennials give more credit to brands showing social responsibility. With that justification, a political enthusiast can go bat-shit crazy and lose sight of reality, forgetting how quickly the political gets personal; it’s not just talk.
Following a talk between an editor and a local galerist, I was informed the Canadian art world is too weak to bear criticism. I thought it was not just weak but moribund, specifically from lack of this kind of criticism, then Canadian Art (the magazine) collapsed to prove the point. Our art can only be superficial, remain juvenilia, if we cannot bear criticism.
The magazine might have survived had had they published my articles years ago, when I first wrote on the science of painting as a visual language, just as we find body language in dance. Or Canadian Art might have survived had they published some controversial views instead of 100% oatmeal. Those who fail art history should not write about art; the Undoing Painting issue was conceived by armchair athletes, and it was soggy.
The story doesn’t end there but gets worse. Many of Canadian Art’s articles were vulnerable for lack of fact check; an ally does not doubt a victim’s words. Fact checking implies a lack of trust, so questionable stories went unquestioned. In every group there are people of deep integrity and high stature, while weaker members are not above stretching the truth. Canadian Art sometimes hung with the wrong crowd and got up with fleas, resulting in a saccharine favoritism shredding any hope of accuracy or credibility.
The demise of this art magazine was at the intersection of sincere intellectuals and well-meaning activists under whose guidance the magazine lost relevance. Such people can lack a sensitivity to the complex iteration of non-verbal languages. Everyone with an eye for culture could see that Canadian Art lost interest in art, and turned to virtue signalling.
Painting can not die, anymore than literature.
Calls for the death of painting surface every few years, perhaps from jealousy on the part of those who can’t. The pen is mightier than the sword, but it won’t draw by itself. It’s hard to paint, just as it’s hard to play music. Having tried and failed, some may want to reset the goalpost to mitigate the pain.
The etymology of art is specifically value-descriptive. It describes an impressive quality of spiritual expression, achieved through an outstanding mastery of skills by extraordinary people.
Miklos Legrady, www.legrady.com