Last night I was lucky to catch the AGO Creative Minds on Art and Social Justice. By lucky, I mean I didn't realize it was to be live streamed, but the universe (my Facebook feed) made sure I knew.
I'm also lucky and grateful to have the opportunity to see these amazing artists speak, but that's pretty much where my excitement ends. The evening fell flat. Not only did Massey Hall screw up the sound check so Buffy Sainte-Marie couldn't hear the moderator, but the depth of discussion was just as flawed.
Perhaps I am extra critical because my art sits within social justice. Perhaps it was a soft intro into the series and things will heat up. Perhaps with the promise of such amazing speakers and socially charged content, my expectations were just too high.
So here are 5 reasons the AGO Creative Minds fell flat:
1. They ALL distanced themselves from an intentional activist practise. With a strong and activist group of artists, I expected an incredible conversation. I think Buffy Sainte-Marie hit the target with indigenous issues, but she still claimed to not purposely explore activism in her art and music. They all claimed that the activism just came out in their work, or was the result of something they wanted to say, but that they didn't necessarily pursue it. They all seemed to understand that their work is activist, but removed their intentionality from the equation. COME ON Rebecca Belmore, you scream the names of missing and murdered indigenous women on the street. If that is not an intentional activist move, then I don't know what is. To put the activism onto your art but remove yourself from those decisions, you are making a sad case for artists who are involved in activism.
2. Andre Alexis admitted his daughter knows more about BLM but still spoke about it with authority. Yes I agree that we need to look at the relationship between black lives and police in Canada as separate from what is happening in the states.Yes, Canadian police don't seem to have quite the aggression we see south of the border, but that doesn't mean it's not there. He is right that more discussion is needed because we can't resolve anything of we refuse to talk. However, his answer was not about opening a conversation, it was shutting it down by questioning those who are in the streets, trying to make their voices heard, who are living with the fear and aggression of the police everyday. It is a difficult topic, and you could feel the dissent in the crowd, so I applaud him for his courage to speak about it, but as a privileged voice of authority on that stage, i was was disappointed he felt able to speak for a demographic that he admittedly didn't know much about.
3. Where was the diversity? Diversity = variety of voices. While the choices of artists on that panel were amazing and everyone was so well spoken, as a Queer artist I was very aware that they had chosen all racial minorities; two indigenous women, an Indo-Canadian woman and a black male. Idle No More and BLM are huge and important right now; more so than gay rights which have made huge steps forward in the last decade. But why did the AGO decide that 'art and social justice' was exclusively a racial issue? I'm not saying we need white voices, God knows we have enough of them, but I wanted a Queer artist and an artist living with a disability to have a voice as well. Perhaps that is another issue for another time, but I would have liked the conversation around social justice to be a little more diverse. (or their intentions to speak only of racial issues to be a bit more clear in marketing) they were very careful to have a writer, a musician, a visual artist and a filmmaker, but all were within the same social justice space.
4. The simplicity of the conversation. Yes, it was great conversation, and the artists really brought forth amazing ideas, but the questions failed to reach towards the real issues. The first question "what is social justice?" seemed like a high school lesson, which had potential to bring out some deep thoughts, but only got us some basic definitions. Perhaps the question should have been "what does social justice mean to you?" The breadth of the questions kept things very basic throughout which made it seem more directed toward a general audience and less towards an already socially engaged audience. And perhaps that was the intention behind the series, but not what I was expecting to get.
5. They gave a platform to artists who already have a platform. Of course engaging these amazing creatives in a discussion about social justice makes sense. Of course people want to hear from people who they know will hit the target and speak well. Of course these artists deserve this platform. But I am always disappointed when large organizations hold discussions on issues about every day lives and grassroots organizations and engage only the people who have already been speaking about it for decades. Where are the young voices? The poor? The artists who are struggling to find a place to be heard? We listen to the disadvantaged only when it is convenient for us, and then wonder why people see art galleries as places of privilege and organizations of authority rather than community. Again, I know this wasn't the intention of the series, but something I have been thinking about a lot recently.
I think that the Creative Minds series is necessary, amazing and has great potential. I think the panel brought up important questions and topics and it is great to see these voices heard. Hopefully the speakers will be able to rise to this privilege and represent the people that their art speaks for, and open the minds of the people who are watching. And I hope it grows to become so much more than it was last night.