I am afraid the current controversy kicked up by three local art and gift shops on the “proper” role of The Yukon Arts Centre Gallery and Yukon Artists at Work collective is obscuring the bigger (and brighter) picture.
When viewing a fine painting or a sculpture there is a “proper” distance at which the work communicates it deepest meaning — artistically and factually.
Art, common sense, and controversy are all forms of direct action and as such they are most constructive when seen in their proper perspective.
What then is the proper perspective and how do we go about finding it amid the current controversy?
Here are two stories that might help.
The first comes from philosopher, art educator and university president Harold Taylor back in 1960. It is a story about three Indian tortoises — and old one, a middle one and a young one, all out for an early morning stroll.
“The old one said to the other two, ‘Let’s go have a cup of coffee.’ They discussed it for a while and agreed to go.
“Just as they were going into a restaurant, the rain started to fall, and the older one said to the little one, ‘Son, would you mind going home and getting my umbrella?’
“The little one said, ‘Yes, I will, if you will promise not to drink my coffee.’
“They discussed it and agreed. The middle tortoise and the older tortoise went into the restaurant and sat down.
“Two years later, the older one said to the middle one, ‘I guess he’s not coming back. We might as well drink his coffee.’
“Just at that point a piping little voice was heard from the front door saying, ‘If you do, I won’t go.’”
The point of this story for me is fourfold: There are always inherent difficulties in making decisions. We often have to make decision even when we don’t have all the information.
All decisions have need of a certain element of trust, both in ourselves and in others, and finally, in every act of agreement and disagreement, we are all entitled to our own unique perspective.
With this in mind, here is the other story.
In the spring of 1852, Lucius O’Brien took a rather bold step. Trained as a professional draftsman, O’Brien decided to move out of his familiar artistic territory and break new ground.
He entered two of his recently painted watercolours in an Ontario public provincial art exhibition. He won two prizes (and no money) in the professional category.
From there he attracted the attention of local magazines. For six years his work appeared in numerous publications throughout Canada.
In 1858, his life took a more casual turn and he took over a family business in Orilla, Ontario. His business required him to travel and that again rekindled his passion for painting.
In 1872, a recently organized artist collective, the Ontario Society of Artists, caught his imagination.
He joined the collective and began to concentrate in earnest on his landscape painting.
The support of painting in close proximity with other artists and of being able to display his evolving work when he felt he was ready, gave him the courage to dedicate his life to art.
He remained with the Ontario Society of Artists until 1880 when he was elected to serve as the first president of Royal Canadian Academy.
As president of the academy he helped write its mission statement: “To develop, maintain and make known, throughout Canada and internationally, a national collection of works of art, historic and contemporary, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada; and to further knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of art in general among all Canadians.”
The point of this story for me is fourfold: Art and artists need and deserve opportunities to experiment within a setting in which others are prepared to “underwrite the possibility of failure;” that public support of art and artists is, in fact, interventionist, but only in the same way that railroads, highways, libraries and health services are.
And that this sort of intervention is absolutely necessary as a way of creating, defining and inventing our Canadian heritage; and finally, art serves a “higher social good” and as such it is entitled to blur the hard line that some wish to draw between private and public galleries.
The development of art — and culture in general — requires a certain element of risk.
If the risk is willingly shared between public and private sectors it increases the diversity and depth of a culture.
Art is too important to be taken lightly.
It is way too delicate and capricious to be bantered around for personal gain. Its ultimate value is not monetary — though artists, public and private galleries demand it be so at some level.
Max Wyman — Canada’s art critic for forty years — reminds us that, “Simply put, physical health is a necessity for life, but culture, the arts, our expressive heritage, are reason for living, catalysts of our imagination and prompters of our dreams.”
Yukon artists are our catalysts of imagination and the prompters of our dreams – not an easy task. To best serve this function they will require unusual opportunities brought about by strong and trustworthy partnerships undertaken with an element of risk.
Public galleries have an excellent track record of sending art buyers to private galleries.
Artist collectives have an excellent record of providing artists solid footing for the creative enterprise.
Private galleries are the bread and butter for artists and other related businesses.
When it all pulls together, what a bright picture it paints. It’s all just a matter of perspective.