The Value of Art: A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

There is a posture to fine art that implies that it is only art if it is elevated to a place where few will see it, and even fewer will understand it. Art’s aura, as described by twentieth century cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, is the cult value and relative distance that make it unattainable. How does the fact that it seems just out of reach for most of us make it more valuable? And why does the value of art seem to be intrinsically tied to this inaccessibility, rarity and exotic nature?

The Audain Art Museum opened in March 2016 in Whistler’s Upper Village. This is a not-for-profit institution founded on major donations from Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa. The building, designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver, takes delicious advantage of its forested location and mountainous “nest” with gorgeous views from its walkways. It boasts “one of the world’s most important collections of Northwest Coast masks”, two dozen Emily Carr works and a collection of impressive works by E.J. Hughes on loan from Jacques and Margaret Barbeau. I was able (I will avoid saying “privileged”, even though privilege was exactly what it was) to view the museum with a group under the guidance of Chief Curator, Darrin Martens on a recent Saturday. It is a relatively small, but impressive collection of about 200 works.

James Hart, The Dance Screen (The Scream, Too), detail. Photograph by Casey Hrynkow.

I came away with a feeling of discomfort that I am having trouble resolving. I have less of a problem with this new collection than I do with how it came to be collected and how and where it is being displayed. The works in the Audain Museum cover British Columbia art, from time immemorial to present day, within a narrow window of one collector’s tastes. Everything from Nuu-chah-nulth masks of well in excess of 100 years old, to works barely one year old, made by Rodney Graham. The majority of this collection most recently belonged to one family. They had the wealth and the knowledge to accumulate the works that are now the backbone of the Audain Museum. These pieces were kept in the the private homes and offices of a small group of people until the Audains decided to make this collection a legacy to the public. It is a noble gesture. And if I posit that one of the implied roles of the wealthy is sprinkling bits and pieces of their good fortune down to the common folk, then this is indeed a grand gesture. The ecology of art in western society runs on this top-down feeding of the system, and it also makes it less available to the rank and file. This particular museum is located an hour and a half by car from Vancouver, in Whistler, to be “found” by those who have a level of education that arouses them to seek it out, in a destination known for its expensive accommodations, restaurants and sporting pursuits. And, of course, there is an $18 admission fee to pay. This art is elevated by its inaccessibility, its rarity and its exotic nature. Some of it had been purchased directly from the artists, some (in the case of First Nations art) from other collectors who may originally have acquired it nefariously and then moved it up the value chain through barter and sale.

When we view this art we see it, consciously or unconsciously, through a lens coloured by perceptions of exoticism, rarity and wealth — perhaps even envy. This isn’t unique to the Audain Museum, but the choices that were made in this modern setting do nothing to turn the tide of elitism in art circles in our culture. The true accessibility of art in our society is a discussion worth having.

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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.