Three years ago, an esteemed Canadian magazine published a fine essay entitled What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone?, in which author Jason Guriel noted that the idea of the writer as an individualistic outsider has acquired a layer of dust. We used to be OK with literary types asserting independent, fortified egos. Poets and novelists were almost expected to be aloof, even anti-social. But today, were too savvy to indulge such a romantic myth. The aloof rebel is nothing more than an affectation.
Anyone who has tried to produce art, or even write a half-decent essay, will recognize the almost tautological truth of Guriels argument. It is absolutely correct that there are plenty of people who write important tracts dedicated to the interests of this or that community. Those tracts are laws, press releases, pamphlets and tweets. If youre trying to write something fresh and original while also bending the knee to this or that community, on the other hand, youre certain to fail at the former, and likely the latter as well.
Long before it was co-opted by the likes of Ayn Rand, this truth was anchored within the foundations of the hell-raising Jacobin left. Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself famously announced his scandalous La Nouvelle Hlose by warning that this book is not made to circulate in society and is suitable for very few readers. As Nicole Fermon commented, Rousseau despised the society of Paris, which he judged to be almost completely vitiated by never-ending demands of self-interest or amour propre. And in adapted form, his bold individualistic spirit came to infuse every countercultural movement tilting at establishment conventions, from beat poetry to postmodern literary subcultures.
But now that the central fixation of salon society is an insistence on salon societys own irredeemable bigotry, Rousseaus countercultural postures have turned in on themselves like an ouroboros. And so the highest calling in literature and art now is imagined to be a retelling of the same stencil-set messages about privilege and victimhood, dogmas that have come to be enforced by a salon establishment that still masquerades as a Rousseauvian insurgency. Which is why What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone? attracted so much controversy, by suggesting that people should simply write what they want. In a rebuttal published in the same magazine, English professor Paul Barrett argued that Guriels putative lone genius is but the unknowing heir to an invisible community of privilege, since the history of Canadian literature is the forgery of a white Canadian definition of literary excellence. By contrast, non-white writers simply dont have the luxury of believing that there is a voice outside of community; community participation and esthetic excellence are not merely related they are politically and culturally inextricable.
Now the central fixation of salon society is an insistence on salon societys own irredeemable bigotry
Ive met Guriel, and can attest that hes almost as white as me. And based on his university webpage photo, Paul Barrett seems to have us both beat. And so I dont really expect many Indigenous and black writers and artists to be particularly interested in this lily-white forge-o-rama three-way. But for what its worth, Id say that Barrett might have things backwards: as the recent furor surrounding Cree artist Kent Monkman attests, the strictures imposed by community can, in some instances, be even more stifling when theyre applied to minority artists.
As some of my regular readers know, I often like having a bash at the government-subsidized amateurs who populate the field of Canadian arts and letters. (Its not their fault: When the government pays for something, you often get too much of it.) But Kent Monkman is very, very much not in that category. He produces big, colourful epics that dramatically mash up the visual idioms of Judeo-Christian historical tradition with Indigenous characters and narratives. He often inserts an alter ego he names Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to (as he puts it) reverse the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples. This all sounds rather pretentious, I realize, but art either works or it doesnt. And Monkmans works well enough that he can charge $175,000 a pop, which is approximately $175,000 more than your average art-school grad. Whats more, he is a living, breathing advertisement for the value of diversity in art by which I dont mean diversity of bloodline, which is meaningless, but diversity of perspective. No white person could have produced his masterpieces any more than Mordecai Richler could have written The Handmaids Tale.
No white person could have produced his masterpieces any more than Mordecai Richler could have written The Handmaid's Tale
Great art often is produced by outsiders as, either by choice or necessity, they are the ones who can stand back from a societys accepted conventions, and who assign themselves the most moral latitude in defining or satirizing them. This not only explains how My People took over Hollywood, but also why Rosedale hedge-fund managers are climbing over each other to plunk down the cost of an Audi R8 so that dinner-party guests can enjoy the image of if you will forgive my lapse into sophisticated gallerist parlance Justin Trudeau on all fours after taking it hard and bloody.
What I am describing here is Monkmans new painting Hanky Panky, an image of which, I am hoping, accompanies this column. (For reasons described below, certain other media outlets are treating it like those 2005-era Muhammad cartoons that were originally published in Jyllands-Posten. But I give my own National Post editors marginally more credit.) The thing is classic Monkman: violent, shocking, subversive and brutally original. It also fulfills that trite but true definition of art as that which makes you think. And much will be thunk by those who gaze upon dozens of Indigenous women laughing hysterically as sallow white patriarchs from out of Canadas past look on at the MeToo-ing of a none-too-pleased-looking Justin Trudeau.
Over time, we have become numb to the endless calls for solemnity and contrition over the legacy of Residential Schools, MMIWG, and the rest of the horrors that whites have visited upon Indigenous people. Its all become predictable and performatively morose, which is why every new commission or inquiry has to keep ramping up the genocide rhetoric to keep our attention. It takes a true artist to find new ways to shock the conscience, to elevate our focus from the tragedy of each brutalized life to the dark comedy of a confused Canadian nation that remains caught between proud old fables of Macdonald and Laurier and lacerating self-loathing. Like every country on Earth, Canada is a bolted-together gag-ball of hypocrisy and myth. And the women in the picture are absolutely right to laugh at us insofar as we are metaphorically represented by the humiliated PM and the passed-out victim in red serge. (Oh right, forgot to mention: An RCMP dude also gets the MeToo treatment.)
But of course, the first rule of social justice is Thats Not Funny. And on Canadian Twitter, fury predictably erupted. Not among progressive white Canadians alarmed at seeing their PM sexually humiliated on canvas. Rather, the hue and cry was raised in the rarified cancel-culture circles presided over by the likes of Indigenous author Alicia Elliott, the unofficial church lady of Canadian arts and letters. Before retiring in a state of claimed emotional exhaustion, Elliott declared on Twitter last weekend that Monkman took Indigenous womens laughter, which is one of the most healing sounds in the world, into a weapon he could utilize to titillate and shock white folks. I dont care if he claims the Trudeau lookalike was consenting.
She then went on, in all-caps, like some CanLit version of Donald Trump, HE USED A MMIWG2S SYMBOL THAT IS ABOUT GIVING WOMEN A VOICE AS A BUTT PLUG, THEN DISMISSED INDIGENOUS WOMEN AND 2SQ FOLKS WHO COMPLAINED. AKA SILENCED THEM. AND DOESNT UNDERSTAND THE IRONY. (Yeah, this is definitely someone we want deciding what art gets produced.)
Like every country on Earth, Canada is a bolted-together gag-ball of hypocrisy and myth
In my ideal world, Monkman would have dashed off a new painting, indicating to Elliott exactly where she could stick her complaints. But Monkman is in a tough place, as he is not only a successful artist but also a much-admired member of the Indigenous community, a community that, as he is constantly told, he must listen to and support. And so he walks a fine line.
The Globe & Mail headlined its Thursday coverage, Provocateur artist Kent Monkman apologizes for painting depicting sex assault. But thats actually not true. In a statement posted to Facebook on May 18, he did say he deeply regret(s) any harm that was caused by the work, and acknowledge(s) that the elements I had included to indicate consent are not prominent enough. But he isnt destroying or renouncing the work. I know this for a fact because I inquired about buying it, figuring that the controversy surrounding the piece might lower its price and provide me with a singular opportunity to get a real Monkman at a big discount, this being the way of My People. But this hope proved to be very much misguided. So the Hang in There! poster with the cat on the tree branch wont be coming down anytime soon.
Perhaps the surest sign that Monkman sits at the absolute pinnacle of Canadian artistic excellence is that he is now being treated to the same tall-poppy-cutting treatment as the few non-Indigenous Canadians who have risen to his level of fame and influence. In its old-stock national soul, Canada embraces a cult of mediocrity when it comes to artists and writers. Having worked (as a fraud) in the boiler room of one particular CanLit institution, I can attest that the most venerated figures among the toiling acolytes often are righteous obscurities who subsist on grants and church-basement vernissages. Once someone shows true skill and gets feted in New York and London, Canadas great and good worry that hell overshadow everyone else (take up too much space, in the Twitter parlance), and, possessing the financial means necessary to shake off the constraints imposed by funding councils, go ideologically rogue.
And so it is no coincidence that almost every Canadian whose work is culturally influential outside Canadas borders Margaret Atwood, Steven Galloway, Jordan Peterson, Joseph Boyden has at one time or another attracted a mob of pious nobodies seeking to take them down. Until now, Monkmans Indigenous identity had protected him somewhat. But no longer. Indeed, his perceived obligations to community make things more complicated, as all it takes is one slip-up to get smeared as a two-spirited Judas. According to one Indigenous poet on Twitter: Its become disturbing clear that (Monkmans) work was never for us. It was never intended to keep us safe, nor empower us. In fact, it trivializes many of our experiences with sexual assault.
Canada embraces a cult of mediocrity when it comes to artists and writers
Such critiques, widely retweeted over social media in recent days, show how a fixation on community can be just one more burden on non-white artists and writers: Despite all the dumb things Ive written over my career, never once did a white guy ever respond by tweeting that Jonathan Kays work was never for us.
Three weeks ago, well before the controversy over Hanky Panky began, Canadian Art magazine ran a scathing attack on Monkman, bitterly denouncing the installation of two of his paintings in the central interior entrance area of New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art. When it comes to identity politics, Canadian Art is well known to exist in a land beyond parody. But this article particularly stood out because of the absurd Jaccuse question embedded in the headline: Who is the audience for these works?
After dispensing with the pro forma bafflegab about Monkmans failure to question art-historical inequalities between settlers and Indigenous peoples, the author proceeded on a tedious brushstroke-by-brushstroke hunt for neo-colonial esthetic heresies, like an old Papist inquisitor rifling through a Portuguese merchants ledger-book for a doodled penis or boob. Only at the end did we get to the main indictment that these paintings are made for a predominantly white audience, presented in an institution historically composed of white cultural workers and displayed in harmony with, rather than in contradiction of, a colonial institution. Oh, how much more pure the world would be if Monkman had instead burned these masterpieces and focused instead on putting on culturally authentic Cree-language puppet shows outside his home in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Hey, maybe hed even get a grant for it.
For those whove never been to the Met, I can attest that its full of white people. A lot of museums are even, horror of horrors, right here in Canada. If you tell an Indigenous artist that he shouldnt be pitching his work to this audience, youre basically telling him to go live off charity for the rest of his life, just like all those downwardly mobile white kids churning out triptychs about their pronouns from the rec-room space over their parents Woodbridge garage.
I, too, belong to a community. Its the community of white cultural workers that Canadian Art dislikes so much (even if most of the magazines own staff resemble the standing-room section at a David Sedaris book reading). And if I may presume to speak on behalf of this community, Id like to say that Hanky Panky suits our colonial white gaze just fine. By which I mean that it makes us think about our country in a different and more honest way, and that it challenges a lot of what we think we know. These are the things that a great artist does, notwithstanding the spirit of self-interest and amour propre that suffuse the hectoring of lesser talents.
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