Pastoral Fail: Reflections on an Art World Call-Out
by Michael Turner
Tamsin and I are sitting on a log at Third Beach. It is a clear, crisp November afternoon and we are looking west. I ask her what she sees and she says, “This fiction.” I ask if she can describe it and she says, “Rather than describe it, I will offer a critique.”
Without calling them freighters, Tamsin talks of “steel hollow-bodies” backed by “enormous sums” that have come here to “demonstrate and extend the wealth of their directors.” These bodies “are real,” she adds, “like the robots reading our computers are real, whether we believe it or not.” It was Tamsin who first introduced me to the Thomas theorem: “When people define situations as real they become real in their consequences.”
“And the people who operate these freighters?”
“Drudges,” she says. “Drudges and parasites.”
I had asked Tamsin to join me on a walk around the seawall because I am preparing a piece of writing and she is generous with her feedback.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” she asks.
“The freighters?” I ask.
“The way they stare at us like that.”
“Us? You mean you.”
Tamsin turns to me. “You’re here too, aren’t you?”
Yes, I think. I am. And with that, she disappears.
Merray says, “Criticism, Again,” and it’s the “Again” part that won’t go away. Like how critics once talked about painting forever dying—until the internet smudged History into a sooty haze that, like the rebus, is no longer read and imagined but seen as standing in for something, and therefore in the way.
But “Again”—that’s History’s word, if it can be said that History repeats itself. Or Sociology’s word. (Sociology: the study of patterned and recurring behaviour.)
Merray asked me about my October 11, 2012 blog post,1 and if, for this issue, I would reflect on its context then and its consequences now. The post concerns an event, an incident, and to say anything more is narrative. Tamsin says I should be careful how I begin this piece, and I tell her thanks—“I will leave it to you.”
Third Beach is called Third Beach because it is north of Second Beach, which is north of English Bay. No one calls English Bay First Beach, in the same way no one calls the bridge west of the Second Narrows Bridge (the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge) the First Narrows Bridge (the Lions Gate Bridge), even though it is. I make this point because, as someone who lives in Vancouver, I live on the unceded and ancestral territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, who have their own names for the First and Second Narrows, the Lions and the beaches at the south end of the West End and Stanley Park.
The words we choose to tell of who and what and where we are have bearing on how we are seen. Presently, I see myself not as something written (to be read) but as something smudged and in the way; partly because of the words I have chosen to tell my stories, partly because… I have no idea.
The words I chose in 2012 to describe the event that Merray asked me to revisit are not those used by the 20th-century art critic, but by someone trying to convey what was told to him by those who were present there. To say that I attempted neutrality in my re-telling implies that my privilege is such that a neutral voice will absolve me of my bias.
I am biased. I harbour prejudice.
“Again, from the beginning,” says Tamsin.
I begin. Again.
“A man confronts a woman.”
“A man confronts a woman on his property.”
“A man confronts a woman who was invited onto his property to dine with a party that includes another man who, at a fundraiser, successfully bid on a catered dinner donated by the man who owns the property.”
“The man who confronts the woman tells the woman she is not welcome on his property and that she is a ‘cunt.’”
Tamsin asks me to put the woman first this time. But instead of writing “woman,” to identify her by her title, and to do the same for the man who confronted her.
“The director of Vancouver’s leading public art gallery is confronted by that city’s leading real estate agent and collector of contemporary art.”
“The director is confronted by the agent-collector in his private gallery, where she was invited by a member of her board to attend a dinner that this member successfully bid on, and to which the agent-collector was also invited but declined because he was invited that day onto the yacht of British Columbia’s wealthiest man—a yacht that had, only moments before, returned to port.”
“Why was the director confronted? And is ‘confronted’ the best word to describe what happened?” Tamsin asks me.
“The agent-collector was once on the board of the director’s gallery, but the two fell out. There are different versions of what happened.
“Confrontation: ‘a hostile or argumentative meeting or situation between opposing parties,’ according to the first thing that comes up in a Google search. I think that’s fair to say, given that the two parties have ‘opposing’ views, and that the agent-collector proceeded in a ‘hostile’ manner. Some have used harsher words to describe what happened that night, while others have softened their language based on the director going somewhere where ‘she should have known she was not welcome.’”
“Why did you post about this?”
“I posted about it because the stories people were telling me were similar enough and unsettling enough that I felt I had a responsibility to share them with the larger cultural community—not just as someone who writes about art, but as a human being.
“Like many who participate in the visual arts, I have grown weary of the Wizard of Oz’s (or is it Roland Barthes’?) ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’ directive, just as I have grown wary of the sanctity of the autonomous art object. Same applies to our historic modernisms, which I have come to see less as a symbolic operation than a public relations venture with the objective to rationalize Modernity’s colonial modernization project at a time of environmental crisis.
“In sharing this story, my desire was not simply to call out the agent-collector, but to shed light on the financially arrogant aspect of our cultural ecology, the effect money has on art (turning ambiguity into certainty), but also the effect it has on the soul.
“What you said earlier, about those freighters. I think of them as dinner guests, without a table; their degrees of angularity (relative to each other) standing in for their differences—but in their similarity to each other, as freighters, standing in for wealth and privilege.”
“Did your post have consequences?”
“Vancouver’s older wealth prefers indirect communication: if you have a problem with someone, you don’t tell the person, you tell someone who will. That’s how I was told about what happened at the agent/ collector’s palais that night, and how I heard about my own ‘déclassé’ actions. But there were positive consequences, notably from an art critic who posted a supportive note on her blog2—‘There is an unspoken ethics to airing out these stories that greatly affect professional and personal connections that imbue the very core of our communities,’ she wrote—after ‘Canada’s National Newspaper’ referred to my post in its October 13, 2012 issue.”3
“Did it have personal consequences?”
“The agent-collector deaccessioned the work of someone close to me, someone I have lived with for the past 25 years.4 He has said more than once that if someone hurts his family, he will hurt theirs.”
“What are those freighters up to now?”
“Blocking our view of that cruise ship.”
“You gave a talk once where you suggested that the shift from object production to performative gesture in the visual arts paralleled the province’s shift from resource extraction to tertiary industries like tourism, real estate, money laundering and information technologies. Where is this proposition in your recent writing?”
“It’s here, steering clear of those freighters. But if you’re wondering about its elaboration, I don’t know; I’m not sure if I still have it in me.”