As a rejoinder to those critics who find Canadian culture boring (or non-existent), Jonathan Vance’s ambitious, insightful new book provides proof that this country has a rich and often under-appreciated cultural heritage.
Defining “culture” as a “synonym for the arts,” Vance provides a chronological record of Canadian artistic activity, including material that is both descriptive and analytical. The issues he raises clearly illuminate the reasons behind the frequent “boom-and-bust” shifts and the often-precarious nature of Canadian artistic practice. For instance, Vance contends that the need for the elite to control the cultural agenda, as a way both to uplift the working populace and to express Canadian nationalism, butts up against the populist craving for art as pure entertainment. At the same time, the wary distrust between the amateur practitioner or folk-art craftsperson and the professional artist, as well as the classic battle between traditional and experimental artistic tastes, help define the cultural landscape.
Added to the mix, Vance argues, is long-time government disinterest, juxtaposed with unapologetic interference when the governing party of the day requires artistic organizations for propaganda and other political purposes. Finally, the issue of cultural protectionism against the threat of foreign-dominated product frequently collides with the forces of private interests and the market economy.
For the most part, Vance succeeds at creating a friendly yet astute take on what could be a deadly dull subject. The best moments involve the biographies of various individuals. Less interesting are the summaries of minutiae such as government statistics and labyrinthine legal procedures, where the author jettisons the role of storyteller and dons the mantle of the dry historian.
Vance concludes the book on a cautionary note, by comparing the attempted absorption of aboriginal art by European imperialists to the potential destruction of Canadian culture by the American behemoth. Given the recent cutbacks to arts funding by the federal Conservative government, combined with the vulnerability fostered by the current economic downturn, Vance’s warning, though not new, is very timely.