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Review

Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada

By Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton, and Kirsty Robertson, Editors

September 23, 2015

Review By John O’Brian

This book changes how we should think about visual culture and art history in Canada. By focusing on how the visual has been shaped by liberal and neo-liberal ideologies of individualism, property rights, and progress from the nineteenth century to the present, it demonstrates that the discipline of art history in Canada has been a state narrative. The formation of the field, however, has been obscured and unacknowledged. If alternative futures for visual culture and art history in Canada are to be imagined, their liberal underpinnings need recognition and unpacking. That, precisely, is what this book sets out to do.

The book’s editors, Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton, and Kirsty Robertson, contend that the economic logic of liberalism has turned Canada into a “vacant lot,” a phrase borrowed for the title of the volume from the historian Ian McKay. “Why have a field of Canadian history,” McKay asks rhetorically in an article from 2000, “if even the most powerful and far-reaching methodologies often treat Canada as a stage on which universal processes and formations interact?” (3). Why bother to have a discipline at all, in other words, if the real action is always conceived as being elsewhere?

The economic logic of liberalism and its impact on visual culture and art history are addressed by all fifteen contributors to the volume, sometimes directly, more often obliquely. Barbara Jenkins, in her essay “National Cultural Policy and the International Liberal Order,” observes that order and stability need to be widespread among the nations of the world for global order to exist. She points to intellectuals like Vincent Massey, and to Lawren Harris, who trained as an artist in Germany and later moved from Toronto to Vancouver by way of the United States, as dyed-in-the-wool internationalist liberals. They understood that for Canada to participate in the transnational project of liberalism it had to fall in step with international economic and cultural expectations. This required falling in step with the codes of liberalism, including dominant codes of artistic practice. Like others who were part of the ruling order of liberalism, Jenkins concludes, they had a “cosmopolitan world view that was a central component of Canada’s perception of itself nationally” (124).

If art history in Canada is to depart from the liberal and neo-liberal conditioning that has shaped the field for so long, it has a lot of work ahead of it. “We need to be able,” Richard William Hill writes in his essay “The Vacant Lot: Who’s Buying It?” “to articulate local experience, cultural difference, and notions of ethnicity and cultural heritage without ‘nationalizing’ them into rigid identity politics. What we absolutely need to stop doing is imagining ourselves as agents of the state” (171). More than that, historians, curators, and others working with the visual need to stop thinking of nationalism as a defence against globalism or other nationalisms, notably the patriotic version of nationalism in the United States. It is not a defence, he asserts, because it puts art history at the service of a dominant narrative that excludes other narratives. Canadian art will continue to be talked about as an entity, of course, because the nation state will continue to exist in the face of globalization, but cultural theorists and historians must guard against internalizing its ideologies and identity formations. 

Alice Ming Wai Jim, in an article that relates to Hill’s, asks what it means to teach ethno-cultural and global art histories in Canada and Quebec. What she and Hill say adds up, as does the collection as a whole. For this the editors, who contribute valuable texts of their own to the book, must be congratulated. Visual culture and art history in Canada will never look the same again.

REFERENCES

McKay, Ian. “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81:3 (December 2000), 617-645.

Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada
Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton, and Kirsty Robertson, editors
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. 312 pp. $39.95 paper