- Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual Arts in Canada ed. by Linda Jessop, Erin Morton, and Kirsty Robertson
Canadian art history emerged as a discipline during the 1960s in parallel with the development of Canadian studies. Authors of the foundation survey texts such as J. Russell Harper and Dennis Reid, following on the heels of earlier work by Donald Bichanan, William Colgate, and others, joined with Canadian historians to further the long-running nation-building plot in the narrative of Canada’s emergence as a transcontinental entity. Under this banner curators, graduate students, and even funding institutions (i.e., the Canada Council) fell into line. [End Page 416]
This collection of essays signals a radical turn in the road. And in this case art historical scholarship is finding common cause with a new radical branch of historiography represented by the work of Ian McKay, in particular his seminal December 2000 essay in the Canadian Historical Review, “The Liberal Order Framework.” In short, McKay argues that we should treat Canada, along with other former European colonies, as a process that can be critically examined within a framework that embodies the development of the eighteenth-century Lockean ideals of liberal state-hood.
The book’s title refers to a comment by Prime Minister Mackenzie King that while the 1922 British Empire Exhibition was an “imperialist scheme,” Canada should not be represented by a “vacant lot” and should therefore participate. This metaphor is picked up by most of the contributors, who interrogate the traditional notion of Canadian history, and, within it, Canadian artistic production, as a series of progressive heroic acts that filled up the vacant geography of the Canadian landscape—irrespective, of course, of the indigenous inhabitants already there. The editors set out the terms of reference, situate tasks, and identify challenges in the preface, a general introduction, and short introductions to three thematic sections, which each contain four single-authored chapters. Dutifully, each author opens by considering an aspect of McKay’s thesis. Collectively they bring forward a mix of case studies, focusing their critiques on cultural institutions, works of art, exhibitions, related cultural events, and the traditional narratives as presented over the last fifty years of art historical scholarship.
In Part One Mark A. Cheetham searches out evidence of the rise of individualism, or acknowledgement of “artistic genius,” in the work of Homer Watson, Jack Chambers, and Gerhard Richter. Kristy A. Holmes critiques feminist art scholarship for failing to move beyond the bounds of a nationalist framework of foundational authors such as John Russell Harper and Dennis Reid, suggesting instead a focus on “individual trajectories” as they intersect with more cosmopolitan pursuits. Ming Wai Jim examines the art history curricula of Canadian academic institutions, finding evidence of a hegemonic hold of Eurocentric ethnonationalist discourse over both the canon and the interpretation of art produced by Canadian cultural minorities, including Aboriginal communities. The role of place, and the modern “non-place” of urban malls and airports, in structuring a creative response to site specificity is explored by Annie Gérin.
In Part Two Barbara Jenkins comments on how cultural institutions, from the National Gallery to the Canada Council, have responded to the disintegration of national boundaries under the globalizing influences of the new world economic order, World Bank, North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, and the like. Sarah E.K. Smith extends this discussion by looking at how art exhibition exchanges between [End Page 417] Canada and Mexico become “mediums of negotiation” within the evolving dynamics of international capital flows and lines of influence. Heather Igloliorte contributes a particularly unique insight. She cites the paradox of how “Eskimo” art is internationally promoted as an iconic marker of Canada’s identity while Inuit culture is simultaneously suppressed and their way of life eradicated. Richard William Hill challenges the notions of margin and centre, demanding the recovery of local artistic expression that was repressed by colonialism but now is equally threatened by renationalization.
In Part Three...