- Sherrill Grace (Author)
On the Art of Being Canadian. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Janice Fiamengo
The title of Sherrill Grace’s On the Art of Being Canadian deliberately echoes On Being Canadian (1948) by Vincent Massey. The first native-born governor general, Massey emphasized the importance of the liberal arts to an informed, loyal citizenry and called on artists to create compelling visions of Canada. Grace identifies with him unapologetically: admitting that it is “easy to describe Massey’s ideas as elitist and conventional,” she yet applauds his cultural nationalism and promotion of government support for the arts, which transformed the Canadian cultural scene in the twentieth century. Like Massey, Grace is interested in the significance of the North both as a place and as a resonant symbol; she too believes that artists play a central role in moulding the nation and helping to form “a loyal and informed public.” While distinguishing herself from Massey on the basis of her feminism and deep respect for the First Nations, Grace suggests that she follows in his footsteps in writing a passionate tribute to Canada as it has been imagined by our writers, artists, and film-makers.
The Brenda and David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies, which Grace held at the University of British Columbia from 2003-2005, involved three public lectures that became the primary subjects of this book: the North, war, and cultural icons. Identified as “crucial sites of memory and cultural representation,” these related topics are explored as repositories of images and associations that have informed Canadians’ sense of what it means to belong to this land and this nation. We confront the North, she argues, as an “inescapable” fact of our experience, as a longstanding symbol of mystery, endurance, or self-sacrifice, and as a part of our homeland requiring protection from southern carelessness and arrogance. After a period of relative silence about the world wars, we have since the 1970s memorialized our war dead in complex ways and are thinking anew about the meaning of military conflict in light of Afghanistan. And although frequently suspicious or even dismissive of traditional heroes, we invest certain “larger-than-life figures”—often outsiders, iconoclasts, and beautiful losers—with representative value. Examining each issue in turn, Grace brings to bear decades of research in considering artistic constructions of Canada.
The result is an interesting hybrid work that addresses a general public—avoiding theoretical language and rigorous or extended analysis—while focusing mainly on elite rather than popular or mainstream representations. Grace’s interest in the nation-building role of art—her conviction that “the voices of the dead . . . tell us how to live”—may prompt readers to question some of her more obscure choices. Much attention is paid to little-known works by artists such as Kate Braid, Charles Comfort, John Murrell, Sharon Pollock, Terence Ryan, Maggie Siggins, and R.H. Thomson rather than, say, to Inuit carvings—so widely associated with the North—or to contemporary war narratives by and about our soldiers in Afghanistan. Much of the discussion is excellent, and of course Grace has every right to highlight the works she finds most compelling and to seek to bring them to a wider audience (more power to her)—but to suggest, as she does, that they have played a central role in our cultural consciousness, that “without the art there is small hope of remembrance,” is perhaps to overstate the case while ignoring better known or more popular works that have had a widespread impact. The question of emphasis is particularly evident in the chapter entitled “Inventing Iconic Figures,” in which Grace focuses on four persons whose lives are linked to our “national story” because they embody aspects of our values and experiences: Métis leader Louis Riel, modernist painters Emily Carr and Tom Thomson, and Mina Hubbard, the woman who, in 1905, traveled across Labrador to complete the journey that had killed her explorer husband two years earlier. The portraits presented are always engrossing, but it is difficult to see the justification for putting Hubbard (even Carr and Thomson are a stretch) in a category Grace defines as including such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, and Helen Keller. We may have national icons of almost comparable stature—Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox, and the fictional Anne of Green Gables come to mind—but I suspect we must look for them in popular culture and myth rather than high art.
The non-academic style chosen to discuss these mainly academic works is a mixed blessing that may fully please neither the general nor specialist reader. While enjoying the unpretentious language and approach, I found that the book too often asserts, in sweeping claims, where it should argue or analyze, and I would have liked a more detailed discussion of the works’ formal artistry. A non-academic reader, on the other hand, may well wish for fewer titles, historical references, and citations from scholars. As an academic trained to question narratives of progress, I hoped to find some qualification of the Whig view of history told here, in which earlier representations—often naively patriotic, Christianized, celebratory, and exclusionary—are seen to be succeeded by more self-aware, tolerant, and sophisticated ones. But these are relatively minor objections offset by the book’s richness of scope and accessibility. Criticisms notwithstanding, the book has much to offer: the writing is crisp and comprehensive, presenting wide learning in elegant prose; and like the multifaceted images and figures it brings together, On the Art of Being Canadian evokes resonant issues that will continue to engage Canadians for many decades to come.
- War Stories by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Dubious Glory: The Two World Wars and the Canadian Novel by Dagmar Novak, Great Canadian War Stories by Muriel Whitaker, and Great Canadian War Stories (audiotape) by Muriel Whitaker
- Privileged Access by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein
Books reviewed: New Readings of Yiddish Montreal by Pierre Anctil, Norman Ravvin, and Sherry Simon
- Awash in Linguistic (and Intestinal) Doubt by Christine Stewart
Books reviewed: Expeditions of a Chimæra by Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure and The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World by Priscila Uppal
- Vues sur l’ossuaire by Daniel Laforest
Books reviewed: La voix et l’os: Imaginaire de l’ascèse chez Saint-Denys Garneau et Samuel Beckett by Frédérique Bernier
- A Scar Tissue Landscape by David Nally
Books reviewed: Creating Societies: Immigrant lives in Canada by Dirk Hoerder and The Portugese in Canada by Victor M. P. Da Rosa and Carlos Teixeira
MLA: Fiamengo, Janice. Anti-Heroes All. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 144 - 146)
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