Friday, July 29, 2005

Art Exhibit Raises a Red Flag.

American artist Glenn Ligon -- he of the famous clown-like Malcolm X -- is the new artist-in-residence at Toronto's trendy Drake Hotel. His first project there is called Thoughts on the Flag: A Coloring Project. He describes it thusly:
There is a passage in Rhoda Kellogg’s book Analyzing Children's Art where in response to a question about what his drawing “means,” a child responds “It’s not a story to be told. It’s a picture to be looked at.” A flag is an image with a story to tell--a tale of history and national identity--but it is a story that can be told in many different ways. Kids coloring, scribbling and writing graffiti in the ideologically cramped space of the flag suggest new uses for the flag, new stories to be told.

For a project sponsored by The Drake Hotel and The Power Plant, I gave images of Canadian and American flags to local children to color. I then made a selection of their drawings and have installed them here and at the Power Plant. In addition, I have provided blank American and Canadian flag images for patrons of The Drake to color. These will be collected and added to the kids drawings already installed. As the title of the project suggest, to draw is to express ideas and as the kid’s images show, they have a lot on their minds.
Fine, sounds interesting enough. Cute anyway.

But I was irritated to read Ligon's answer to the question "Why mess with a revered symbol [the Canadian flag]?" in today's Dose: "I think flags are often seen as the territory of the right. People on the right wing of society get to own the flag and the left doesn't. So, I think that it's important to take up these symbols and redirect them in different ways."

What we've got here is another American artist coming to Canada and assuming that the politics south of the border automatically transfer up here. What arrogance and, perhaps, cultural imperialism...

As anyone who knows the history of our flag could tell you, the "right" in Canada viewed the establishment of the Maple Leaf flag as a radical move by the Liberals, while the "left" saw it as progressive step away from our colonial past. Many on the Canadian right still hold up the old Red Ensign as the true flag of Canada -- see the Red Ensign bloggers for instance. (Or, more ominously, the racist far-right Red Ensign defenders.)

A little history lesson for Ligon, from Wikipedia:
In 1965, after the Great Flag Debate in Parliament and throughout the country, the Maple Leaf flag was adopted. Groups such as the Royal Canadian Legion and others who had sympathies with maintaining Canada's links to Britain opposed the new flag as they saw it as a means of loosening that connection. The leader of the Progressive Conservative party, John George Diefenbaker, was especially passionate in his defence of the Red Ensign. In protest of the federal governments decision, Tory governments in Manitoba and Ontario adopted red ensigns as their provincial flags.

The Canadian Red Ensign continued to be flown by some Canadians, particularly monarchists, other traditionalists and those who cherish Canada's British heritage. Conservative commentator Mark Steyn has derided the Maple Leaf flag, remarking that 'unhappy nations change their flags', and 'at least the Red Ensign had the guts to be a boring flag, not a propaganda symbol'.
So, in Canada, it's the left (outside of Quebec, of course) that has embraced our flag most fully.

Ligon also might be interested to know that people in Canada don't really care if you mess around with the flag, unlike in the United States where they keep trying to pass those flag-desecration laws. Ligon's "Thoughts on the Flag" actually seems like something that would be part of many provinces' elementary school curriculum, rather than eye-opening political art. ("The Maple Leaf flag is the symbol of our country. If you were in charge of the flag, what would you choose to put on it? Design your own Canadian flag to reflect your family's history and heritage.")

If Ligon's going to come up to Toronto and create an art project out of the Canadian flag, he could at learn a thing or two about our history and culture. This is the kind of superficial political art that gives a bad name to the whole genre.

Not that the Canadian art community isn't guilty of importing American-style dissent and pretending it is edgy and controversial up here. It always gets me when Canadians put on exhibitions and plays and concerts to oppose the War in Iraq and call themselves protestors or dissenters or radicals. They're not -- they're the mainstream in Canada. We stayed out of the war; the majority of Canadians disapprove of it. Put on a play that supports the American-led action and then you'll have some actual controversial and political art...

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