Removing the Primary Horizon in Canadian Culture: MNY and Wyman

In his talk on May 16th, 2017, Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ proved that an artist, no matter how globally celebrated, could be authentic and accessible. He expressed worry that the art might lead art gallery patrons to feel diminished because of the literal scale and figurative power of the art. Arguing for dialogue between artist and audience, he gave us permission to remove the artist’s authoritative position. He argued for the removal of a primary horizon in art.

Yahgulanaas’ attempt to undermine a primary horizon is best expressed in the interactive “Bone Box” piece he exhibited at MOA. This piece’s playful form mirrors its playful content, since it encourages interaction while featuring the Trickster character and visual puns. Still “Bone Box” addresses the dark colonial realities of cultural appropriation and desecration of graves, since the material likely held the looted remains of First Peoples. Yahgulanaas finds the thin edge between playfulness (which he believes is primary to artistic engagement) and serious issues of colonialism; he allows us to have works with multiple horizons and multiple tones.

Yahgulanaas’ consistent iteration that some stories are his to tell and others are not, acknowledges the issue of appropriation which has become a key concern within and alongside the Aboriginal communities. Throughout, Yahgulanaas continually acknowledged the coexistence of multiple cultures within Canada.  He expressed worry that Haida art’s scale might diminish observers as though they were visiting a cathedral. His egalitarian and irreverent approach to art was a huge relief and profoundly charming. His ability to acknowledge privilege and exclusivity, while also discussing the display of his works at the British Museum and MOMA dampened my cynicism.After reading our excerpts from Wyman’s The Defiant Imagination, I noticed a distinct contrast to Yahgulanaas’ tone. While Yahgulanaas and Wyman both address society at large, Wyman’s text evokes the Royal We. He seems conflicted in his aims- at once trying to inspire unity (and cultural allegiance against the American “threat”) and dignifying the diversity of voices within Canada (23). Unfortunately, in Wyman’s work this paradoxical stance is not identified, and thus the text’s approach appears muddled.

Some of the assumptions upon which the The Defiant Imagination relies are plain inaccurate. When Wyman claims that Canada is a society “built” upon “compassion and shared values” (8), he perpetuates Canada’s identity as a nation of peace, order and good government. The characterization of Canada as a cooperative bastion in a sea of human rights abuses is simply historical revisionism. Participating in these narratives, dismisses the myriad groups who have been mistreated and abused throughout our history, and upon whose suffering Canada was built. In contrast, Yahgulanaas’ talk acknowledged the paradox of commonality coexisting with individuality. In his narratives, he addressed the ugly underbelly of his own heritage arguing that he needed to own the fact that his own ancestors traded slaves. Rather than historicizing fascism (as Wyman does) Yahgulanaas acknowledges Canada’s current fascistic tendencies. Wyman’s overarching aim may be cultural inclusion, but positioning Canada inaccurately may have the unintended effect of further alienating Canadians who feel marginalized from the arts. In contrast, acknowledging historical wrongs and conflicting identities offers a more authentic entry point into cultural expressions.



2 thoughts on “Removing the Primary Horizon in Canadian Culture: MNY and Wyman

  1. I had not thought to contrast these two and am glad you opened up this line of questioning. I too have serious reservations about the notion that art should be used to forge or define a national identity, mostly because I am uncomfortable with the idea of a national identity at all. Nationalism has been a pretty dangerous force in this world. I’m much more interested in internationalism than nationalism, dialogue than declaration, plurality and diversity than monoculture, inclusion than exclusion, and how art contributes to and fosters these ideals. But do any of these values play into our notion of Canadian art? Do we need an understanding of “Canadian art” to advocate for national support and encouragement of Canadian artists and industries, artists and industries that are frequently disadvantaged on the world stage? I think whenever people talk about art and national identity, my brain leaps straight to filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl and her relationship with the Nazis, that sort of propaganda that feeds into an identity myth that excludes and marginalizes more people than it includes. But what about the National Film Board, the Canada Council for the Arts? These too are aimed at encouraging and developing “national” culture and both are approaching this (at least now, if not always historically) with an emphasis on diversity and on a plurality of definitions of what Canadian means. I think this was where Max Wyman was headed with this too. Is that emphasis historically revisionist or corrective?

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  2. Interesting discussion and thank you Veronica for getting us started on it. It is my observation as well that the Wyman position on “Canadian society” is representative of the political and cultural views of my generation (Canada, the nation of “peace order and good government”; Lester B Pearson, medicare, the Canadian flag, Canadian peace keepers, Centennial celebrations, Expo ’67, Habitat ’76, Moishe Safde, Greenpeace, Trudeau, Margaret, Karen Kain, Winnipeg Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion, Bruce Cockburn, Blue Rodeo, Neil Young, Bachman-Turner Overdrive; Burton Cummings, Lighthouse; (help me out here “memory lane”!)…John and Yoko in Montreal hotel bed for peace, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and all the other exciting proofs in music and arts of a young nation beginning to flex its artistic muscle; we were either participants or observers and invariably excited by the potential extended to us all. I too basically grew up embracing this world view, feeling extremely fortunate to be Canadian, very much a part of that smug contingent of young Canadians wearing the flag on our backpacks or embroidered on our jeans as we explored the globe. The Arts? There seemed to be plenty of Canadian arts and there was a “scene”, albeit very much in keeping with “culture” as defined by the colonial past (as was so well discussed by James Hoffman, “Shedding the Colonial Past, Rethinking British Columbia Theatre”, Week 2, GLS 2017). We had a Canadian dance season, although in hindsight, it certainly was almost entirely classical and European movement based; opera society (again, the well known big productions) and contemporary music; folk, and the emerging, primarily blues and rock scene of San Francisco and Pacific North West. We opined on nationalism (good – as compared to threat posed by the USA on our arts and political/financial autonomy); and embraced our much vaunted internationalism (the blue helmets of the brave Canadian peacekeepers); however Sarajevo and the atrocities of the Balkan conflict shook our confidence and belief in our much vaunted neutrality.

    Much has changed in recent decades; a political emphasis on the differences in Canadian society; cultural and artistic celebrations, which, while festive and joyful seem more a political attempt to acknowledge and recognize cultural differences than representative of a new unique culture forming. Statistically there is a significantly different physical appearance to mainstream Canadian society yet I would argue the performing arts have been slow to portray this (Wen Wei’s dance “Dialogue” a very welcome departure from that tendency). Another big part of the change in attitudes towards the arts has been the development of a sweeping cynicism with respect to our collective political history as social justice movements, First Nations agendas and environmental issues have moved into the spotlight. Additionally we have witnessed significant changes in the attitudes and financial generosity of governments towards the arts (read drastic decreases in funding and a return to the “trickle down theory of funding; jobs and profits first, maybe something left over for arts, maybe) and concomitant decline in perception of individual spending parameters and decline in optimism about the future.

    Overall I think the National Film Board and Canada Council for the Arts have struggled mightily with these emerging trends and I would argue they are still on the right track (based on some truly extraordinary documentaries, primarily on environmental/First Nations issues affecting the west coast which have been made in recent years, with funding from the NFB). I am thankful however for the talent, wit and unique world view of Haida artists like Michael Yaghulaanas, who is able to address historical and contemporary issues with great wit; leading us to understand how we can laugh at ourselves and with others, moving towards comprehension and understanding and away from divisions. Overall a very interesting time for the arts scene in general; creating inclusion, acknowledging history, and debating the importance and merits of ensuring we can all explore and participate in artistic endeavours throughout our lives.

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