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Archive for September, 2008

Years ago, when we were buying Northwest Coast limited edition prints, our main criteria was often whether our budget could stretch to buying one. That is still a consideration, since although we have more spare cash than we did then, we are still far from wealthy. Besides, I’m born of Depression-era parents, so getting value for my money is as reflexive as breathing to me. But, the limited budget aside, I am starting to articulate my philosophy for buying art.

To begin with, I will buy nothing that I don’t like. I am not buying for an investment, even if it is at the back of my mind that in four or five decades I might be glad to be able to sell a few pieces so that I can buy the necessities of life. I am buying to bring a new strain of enjoyment into my daily life, something that can catch my straying glance or surprise me with its line or color or concept when I rediscover it in passing. I suppose you could say that I am more of an aficionado than a collector.

Second, I am not much interested in safe art that does what I have seen before. Some people want safe art as a kind of wallpaper, and there is no shortage of artists to provide it. But I want art that challenges or provokes me in some way. For example, one mask by Norman Tait has long eyelashes of hair that cover the eyes, giving a disturbing sense of blindness, or, perhaps more accurately, the sense of someone peering out from behind the illusion of blindness. The mask unsettles me, to say the least. If I can ever afford the mask, I’ll probably buy it, just so I can wrestle with why it makes me uneasy – and I’m guessing that understanding my reaction will take years. I’m fascinated with the surrealism of Ron Telek’s sculptures for much the same reason.

These two principles lead naturally to a third: I will not buy a piece simply because of the artist’s reputation. For one thing, buying work by artists like Robert Davidson or Susan Point, as talented as they are, is like buying Sony hardware – you are paying a premium for the name (or perhaps I should say brand).

More importantly, buying for the name means that you are letting someone else do your thinking for you, that you are becoming a consumer. Seduced by the name, you could just as easily buy a good piece as a bad, and third rate art by a first rate artist is still third rate. I consider art the antithesis of consumerism, so I refuse to hunt for art by brand.

That’s not to say that I reject buying anything by well-established artists. Currently, I have my eye on half a dozen well-known artists whose work intrigues me enough that I might buy one of their pieces if I find the right one. But I would rather wait for that right piece than buy something that pleases me less – even if I never find that right piece.

As a corollary to that third principle, I would rather find small masterpieces by lesser known artists than buy a piece from someone with an existing reputation. In the same way that I would rather discover a small, ethnic cafe with superlative food than eat at the latest trendy restaurant, I would rather find a largely unknown carver with superb finishing details or a quirky piece outside what a famous artist is known for than buy something safe and famous.

It’s not that I want a bargain, because I could just as easily wind up overpaying as finding a strong investment. Rather, half the fun of strolling the galleries for me is to find the unusual and go beyond the commonplace. Northwest Coast is an especially appropriate field for this habit, because it is full of newcomers, all determined to make their names – and many of them are succeeding. The discovery of such artists and their works is one of the pleasures of appreciating it.

Looking back, I’m afraid that these principles sound hopelessly unaesthetic, to say nothing of overly-suspicious and in the worst middle-class traditions. Tell you what, though: I bet that they give me more pleasure than buying from the exhibit book does for a dozen wealthier connoisseurs.

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As part of my recently renewed interest in Northwest coast art, I’ve been making the rounds of the local galleries, trying to get a sense of their specialties and whether I want to deal with them. This afternoon, I made the rounds of the Gastown galleries, which are conveniently within a few blocks of each other.

Here are my impressions – partly for my own sake, but also for anyone else who might be interested in Northwest Coast art. I say nothing about the galleries’ Inuit collections, which I am even less qualified to judge:

  • Hill’s Native Art: Coming from the Skytrain, this was the first gallery I came to, and also the one I spent the least time in. It’s basically a high-end tourist shop, and so crowded that the main impression I took away was of art as a commodity. You could probably find some reasonably decent work if you searched, but, you would have to make an effort. Hill’s has a number of two or three meter high totem poles, but if you’re willing to spend over ten thousand, you would be better off spending a little more and buying one from a name artist elsewhere.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: With over two decades of experience and a number of well-regarded shows and books behind it, Spirit Wrestler is at the opposite extreme from Hill’s, appealing to the serious collector with money to invest in art. Its selection of artists is small, but carefully chosen, and it has a varied selection of work from top artists such as Robert Davidson, Norman Tait, and Susan Point. Currently, it has more Tlingit work than any other gallery that I’ve seen, and a small but select collection of bracelets. The gallery also sells (but does not always display) pieces that have just come upon the market again, so a serious collector might want to keep in touch to hear what is available. The gallery also contains a few Maori works, which should interest many people who have a passion for Northwest Coast art, since the two cultures have a lot of similarities. It’s perhaps the premier gallery in the field in Vancouver, and deservedly so.
  • Inuit Gallery of Vancouver: This gallery has no more than a fifth of its space devoted to Northwest Coast art. It does not carry jewelry, but does include a collection of Northwest Coast masks and prints, as well as some other forms of carving mostly from the Nuu-chah-nulth and Salish nations. Although the selection of artists is comparatively small, you can find some interesting pieces without searching hard.
  • Coastal Peoples Gallery: In many ways, Coastal Peoples is the most interesting of the galleries in Vancouver. In both its Yaletown and Gastown locations, it carries everything from high-end tourist pieces to work that will appeal to museums and connoisseurs. To make things even more interesting, Coastal Peoples has by far the broadest range of artists of the four galleries mentioned here, with up-and-coming artists as well as established ones represented. The newer artists are especially interesting if you have any understanding of what you are buying, because their work is reasonably priced and some of it will undoubtedly rise rapidly in value. The jewelry on display is especially fine, especially in gold, and so is the sculpture, including everything from desktop pieces to bentwood boxes and three meter poles. The sheer variety at Coastal People’s is amazing, and is one of the reasons why the gallery is my current favorite.

There are, of course, other galleries that carry Northwest Coast art outside of Gastown in Vancouver. But they will be a subject for another day.

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Why are mainstream journalists so threatened by blogging? The question is starting to nag me, because the response is so widespread – and based, I believe, on some key misunderstandings.

The strongest recent expression of mainstream journalists’ discomfort is from Christie Blatchford of The Globe and Mail. A few weeks ago, she used her report from the Olympic Games as an attack on blogging. Blogging, she says, is “the unofficial end to journalism as I know it.” Claiming that she is not complaining just because she is a Luddite, she says that she objects to blogging because she only has so many stories in her, and she doesn’t want to fritter them away. More importantly, she feels that blogging will diminish the craft of journalism, because blog entries and reader comments open up an unfiltered conversation.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Blatchford’s view. Frankly, I find many people who are famous for blogging a pretentious waste of time. However, the term “blogging” covers so many different types of writing – everything from a teenager’s angst-ridden diary of her love life to columns by both semi-professional and professional journalists – that I can’t accept her catch-all condemnation. So far as I can see, when Blatchford talks about blogging, she is referring to any sort of writing published online.

In other words, when she says it’s not just because she’s a Luddite, I have the feeling that, yes, it is because she is a Luddite. She sounds worried that the ability to write something publishable is debased by the Internet, but, mostly, what I hear in her complaints is the cry of the middle-aged, bemoaning the fact that the world has changed.

Mostly, I find her fears groundless. Yes, online-publication – whether you call the result a blog, a column, or an article – is now open to everyone. However, the ability to write a piece that someone will pay to publish remains the dividing line between the professional and the amateur. Expertise – to say nothing of the ability to make deadlines — still matters, and, so far as I can see, always will.

The fact is, writing remains writing, regardless of the medium. The ability to choose worthwhile topics, to research and express them, are not diminished by the Internet. They are still rare skills that people respect and will pay for accordingly. If anything, suck skills stand out all the more in the new tidal waves of illiterate and self-indulgent prose.

As the old signature tag used to say, it was once thought that an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know that isn’t true.

Admittedly, the ease with which readers respond online does create a new relationship with writers. And this relation is scary, and takes some getting used to, because readers assume an absolute egalitariansm with the writer, and do not automatically respect the writer. A professional online writer has to learn the give and take of such a relationship, and learn when – and when not to – take its demands seriously.

Much more so that the traditional print journalist, the online writer has to develop careful filters for reader commentary, knowing that much of it is worthless and that conflicting opinions often cancel each other out, yet remaining open to the small percentage of valid criticism. They have to learn not to take abuse seriously, nor praise either. Online writers also need to budget their time, to ensure that they do not lose too much time in endless debates with readers (my personal rule is to respond no more than twice to any except in exceptional circumstances).

But, if all the increased commentary gets irksome at times, online writers can at least take comfort in the fact that people are reading. They may be misunderstanding, taking thoughts out of context, and using your ideas as a starting point for their own rants, but they are reading. And, in the case of online publications, the audience can consist of millions rather than the tens of thousands for traditional journalists – figures that any writer is sure to appreciate.

I am equally dubious about Blatchford’s concern about running out of stories. Journalists don’t concoct stories out of pure imagination; they respond to the events on their beat. In my experience, the problem is not finding a topic, but deciding which one most deserves coverage or is most interesting to you or your readers. And deadlines, I find, are a marvelous antidote for writer’s block. Would Blatchford, I wonder, have the same concern about the number of columns she has left in her?

However, Blatchford has been a professional journalist much longer than I have, so I can’t completely discount the possibility that I won’t have the same concern when I have her experience.

Apparently, I am on the other side of the digital divided from Blatchford, even though I am probably not that far from her age. My own journalistic career is almost entirely online, except for a handful of print articles each year, and the conditions that Blatchford seems to fear are simply normal working conditions to me. But it seems to me that the worries of Blatchford and other traditional journalists are nothing more than a fear of change, and mostly groundless. Change happens, but most of it is far less revolutionary than the claims of its supporters.

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“Keeping the old game alive” is the name of a chapter in Gwynne Dyer’s book War. In the chapter, Dyer discusses those who, in this age of mass destruction, are responsible for old-fashioned military interests like the infantry. I’m not sure whether Dyer intended the title to be sarcastic, but for me it has always suggested that the effort was futile and irrelevant, and that those involved in it were in denial of this fact. However, that is the implication that I’ve meant as I’ve started to apply the phrase to all sorts of other situations.

For example: Traditional newspapers are concerned that the Internet has overtaken them and eroded their reader bases. However, instead of analyzing their practices or considering how they might make themselves more appealing to readers, many journalists and newspaper managers take refuge in pride. They may not be as quick off the mark as online journalists, they say, but they provide deeper, more thoughtful analysis. They are better trained than online journalists, and somehow more legitimate.
Behind the scenes, they may be frantically trying to imitate online news (something they can never altogether manage to do), but the image they present to the world is that of the respected Fifth Estate, the spiritual heirs of Ed Murrow or Joseph Addison. In other words, they have retreated part way into fantasy, pretending that nothing has changed since the heyday of the newspaper and they are still leading figures, keeping the old game alive by being in strenuous denial.

Similarly, voter apathy seems at an all-time high in Canada. Participation in elections has plummeted to 55% or less, where it was 20-30% higher less than two decades ago. Even a new party such as the Greens is unable to interest many people, even among the young, who are the most disaffected. Other parties remain within a few percentage points of where they were at the last election, apparently because nobody is following political events closely enough to react – or, perhaps, because people consider all politicians from any party to be interchangeably corrupt.

A sane reaction to this situation would be to change the way you do politics. Some forthrightness, a principled stand, maybe a cause or two might all work wonders, assuming they were genuine and consistent.

But instead, all the Canadian parties prefer to keep the old game alive, attacking each with ritual savagery in Parliament and accusing each other of chicanery as if they still have the support of the electorate. Politics becomes a formal ritual, in much the same way that a verbal war with people swearing and shouting at each other in the House of Commons becomes officially recorded as “Some Honorable Members: Oh, oh!” And, in this case, the more artificial that elected politicians’ behavior becomes, the more disenchanted the public becomes, and the fewer people are watching the government and opposition to help to keep the corruption down.

Really, keeping the old game alive is a form of double-think – the holding of two contrary ideas at the same time. On some level, those who keep the old game alive are very aware that the importance of what they are doing is decreasing. They may even discuss the problem and suggest solutions for it. But, at the same time, their behavior is a denial that any such problem exists.

That, no doubt, is why they often sound so hysterical as they play the old game. The contradiction in their attitudes is easy to detect, and they have to insist that nothing has changed in order to go on at all.

It all seems a lot of effort to me compared to looking for solutions. Yet I suppose that, in some ways, keeping the old game alive is more comforting, contradictions and all, than seeing the world for what it is – especially if you’re middle-aged and realizing that the standards that existed when you were in your twenties no longer apply.

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