Archive for October 15th, 2008

At times, I’m not sure whether I’m a romantic or a skeptic. On the one hand, I love popular legends and mythology. On the other hand, I love efforts at debunking. Was Richard III the victim of propaganda after his death? Did Benjamin Franklin pass information to the British? Was Bonnie Prince Charlie a semi-literate sot who guzzled his way through the 1745 Rebellion? Topics like this always fascinate me, even when they fail to convince. For that reason, I find Maria Tippett’s Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian endlessly fascinating, even when it seems dubious or exaggerated.

If you don’t live in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, you might not know why Bill Reid is a subject for debunking. Briefly, Bill Reid was a jeweler and a sculptor working in the Northwest Coast tradition. He is generally considered the chief figure in the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, and the major Canadian artist of the late 20th Century, with his work on the back of the Canadian $20 bill and one of his sculptures on display at the Canadian embassy in Washington. Ten years after his death, he remains so admired that if an artist, gallery owner or collector of Northwest Coast art refers to “Bill” with no surname, they are referring to Bill Reid — a touching and clear indication of his ongoing importance.

Tippett clearly admires Reid’s work, and its fusion of European and First Nations sensibilities. However, she also states that Reid was bipolar, and – on very little evidence – that he was sexually promiscuous and adulterous. More importantly, she suggests that it is wrong to see him as the sole instigator of the Northwest Coast art revival, and that, especially in the last years of his life, he carefully crafted his own image as an Indian to further his career (hence the title).

These claims were greeted with outrage by a number of reviewers when the book was first published four years ago; a review in the Georgia Straight, for example, referred to the book’s “slash-and-burn” approach to its subject. In the end, though, it is surprising how little her claims actually matter. Regardless of their truth or falsehood, even Tippett cannot deny Reid’s importance as an artist.

Personally, however, I wish that Tippett had balanced her claims more, and, in places, elaborated on them. A man struggling with mixed European and First Nations ancestry in the mid-20th century, and later with Parkinson’s disease has every right to depression and moodiness. As for her claims about his sex life, they are based to a large extent on hearsay, and, not really the concern of anyone except Reid and his wives. I suppose the claims have to be there for the sake of completeness, but they have little to do with his art, which is almost completely void of the sexual elements in 19th Century Northwest Coast art.

Similarly, it is true that other artists were keeping the tradition alive when Bill Reid began his career. However, to imply as Tippett seems to that the tradition would have its present popularity without him seems absurd. True, artists like Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin were active in the 1950s, but to suggest that they could have sparked the current interest without Reid seems questionable; he developed into a first-rate talent who influenced dozens, and Neel and Martin were second-rate at best. Might-have-beens are endless, but, without Reid, the tradition would probably not be nearly as popular as it is today. Even artists of the excellence of Robert Davidson and Norman Tait might not have been able to promote it, not because they are any less talented than Reid – they’re not – but because they lack Reid’s flare for self-promotion.

But self-promotion, of course, is something that artists are not supposed to engage in, according to many outsiders. Apparently, they are somehow truer to their craft if they live in poverty. And Tippett seems to share this self-righteous puritanism in full measure – if anything, she seems more shocked that Reid should cleverly promote himself than that he should sleep around. She reacts with a cynical naivety, using anti-Indian statements by Reid from earlier years to create the impression that his political activism in his last active years was a calculated marketing decision. She does not consider the possibility that marketing can be based on honesty, much less than Reid’s adoption of a First Nations identity may have been a resolution to his life-long conflict about who he was.

Still, better a debunking book that lacks generosity than a hagiography that ignores its subjects’ faults. Tippett could argue her case better, but, even if her interpretation is faulty she at least presents a portrayal of a human being – and one whose faults, real or imagined, don’t change his importance in the least.

Read Full Post »