Zapping the Communities


A response to the exhibition Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, curated by Philip Monk at Power Plant, Sept.25-Nov. 20, 1998.




Andy decided he couldn’t tolerate Hana Gartner and The National, so he seized the remote control and began zapping. The commercials and the programmes were indistinguishable and uninteresting. It wasn’t until he recognized his alter-ego Professor Wordsworth that he decided that remaining on one channel might be worthwhile.


Hello. My name is Professor Wordsworth and my selected word for today is community. The word community derives from the verb commune - meaning to join together for some or other constructive purpose, to realize that one belongs in a group, or to realize that a group is more effective at particular assignments or missions than any one individual could possibly hope to be. There is, let’s not forget, strength in numbers. United we stand and divided we fall.


Not that communities are necessarily militaristic in origin. Communities are supposed to co-exist peacefully. Respectful of differences and therefore harmonious. Dissonant voices are supposed to be tolerated and even encouraged as long as they are not too abrasive. Within a community, contradictions or contradictory ideologies are also tolerated. In fact, they are benignly and not necessarily cynically manipulated in order to maintain checks and balances within or among “the community”.


But…the use of the definite article is where problems develop. The definite article implies that there is “one “community, and therefore counterfeit or inferior communities as well as individuals who “do not belong”. A word that is supposedly inclusive has now become exclusive…


Andy decided to zap the professor. His analysis wasn’t fresh but rather over-familiar. He knew the professor would start talking about gated communities - this new pseudo-invention pf protectionist and predominantly white suburbanites. Gatekeeping wasn’t exactly born yesterday.


He flashed momentarily on an exhibition he’d recently seen at Toronto’s Power Plant which “pictured” the Toronto art community of the late 70a and early 80s - a period the exhibition designated “the Queen Street Years”. His own face had been here, there and everywhere and he recalled that, even back then before “political correctness” and before issues of representation or inclusion were seriously debated, the idea of any singular art community was ridiculous. Even then “community” was as much a marketing term as it was nay kind of unifying force. A lot of the individuals in these portraits and documentations - not to mention their organizations, their galleries, and maybe even their politics - were like apples and oranges. There were a lot of fault lines then just as there are now. When censorship, coercion, development, funding cuts or AIDS reared their faces, the “community’s” responses were all over the map.


There is a lot of nostalgia happening here - nostalgia masquerading as history. The overall tone of the exhibition was celebratory rather than analytical. It was nostalgic for an era untainted by cumbersome intrusions such as analysis, reflexivity, or theory. Admittedly, Andy himself felt a nostalgia for many of the exhibiting artists, artists’ models and people in the photographs who were now deceased.


While the Power Plant exhibition depicts a downtown Toronto arts community both echoing and parodying an apolitical celebrity-fixated Warholian scene, it also hints at, but foes not effectively contextualize, another definition of community. This definition is oppositional to narcissistic individualism and references social realism rather than exaggerated artifice. It is against camp and for interpretation.


Among parallel and public galleries anxious that their programming not be seen as elitist or hermetic, the notion of “community” was frequently deployed to refer to something “real” or “authentic” as opposed to something elite or self-serving. Galleries and their funders became intensely concerned that their programming should have audiences beyond a small art community. And these concerns influenced both programming and promotional outreach, where “the communities” to be reached were those who were unaware of, or alienated from. Galleries and “the art world”. The galleries saw their venture as political or at least as something they conveniently labelled “activist” or “political”. Bit who determines who is really representative of “their communities” and who is merely an ambitious artist, an apolitical formalist or whatever? Who or what works are all too easily co-opted by “the art community”?


He thought about labelling. Not necessarily his own and everybody else’s tendency to arbitrarily label people and then refuse to reconsider those designations, but rather the issue of recognition and acknowledgement. Like, who was an artist and who was strictly a poseur? Who made these images - only the photographers? Perhaps the subjects were themselves images? So who’s an artist and who isn’t? Who didn’t “qualify” because their work wasn’t about dressing up or portraiture? Because they themselves. Or their works, were either too working-class, too academic, too politically-engaged, too racially charged, or to queer to be homogenised or safely formalized?


Some people, who are arguably artists, don’t call themselves artists and frown upon the word. Some people, like the board of the Ontario Arts Council perhaps, see “art” as something distinct from “culture” or anything sociopolitical. The recent strikes against several periodicals on the grounds that they don’t contain enough writing about “art” smacks of this antiquated gatekeeping. What sort of writing is the Council expecting to flourish… unreflexive (and therefore promotional) journalism? Aestheticism might have been radical in the days of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde because it claimed that beauty existed and transgressed class boundaries. However, aestheticism has since been neutralized and only serves as a device to marginalize any possible sociopolitical interpretations of “art”.


Andy sighed. It wasn’t exactly a revelation that the mad artist is ultimately just a liberal who refuses to be anything more than an individualist. But isn’t the notion of community oppositional to the tenets of dog-eat-dog or survival of the fittest? Well, not if “the community” primarily consists of competing individuals or organizations who get stuck in the same old policy arguments and fail to form coherent working alliances that might propose dynamic changes or alternatives.


Andy growled at the television. The same old news was perpetuating migraines. And the trouble with the leftist critique of artists and art elitism was that it had long been appropriated and cynically manipulated by populist capitalists like Ralph Klein and Mike Harris (or Newt Gingrich) or take your pick. Pseudo class-fuelled anger at elite “special interest” groups had always been characteristic of divide and conquer strategies. Why play into such hands by signifying philistinism?


Hello. I’m Professor Wordsworth and my selected word for today is neighbourhood.


It was time to call it a night. Andy wished nothing better than to wake up with a fresh vocabulary and fresh references. The old ones were tired and just did not work.


Published in MIX, winter 1998/1999, Vol. 24.3, p.55