Canada During Covid-19: A Third Layer of Silver

PM Justin Trudeau, to the nation from outside his residence. (Photo from Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national newser.)

[6- minute read. This is Part 3 the “Silver Linings Playbook” series, looking for Canadian good news amid the Covid-19 crisis. Part 1 is here, Part 2 down there.]

The slowdown that many of the fortunate among us have enjoyed – count me front and centre in that squadron – is not so obvious a benefit when we consider one’s country as a whole. Inevitably, and properly, the cost to the national economy receives scrutiny: how can workers in precarious jobs (or the under-employed) be supported, local businesses be sustained? And then imagine how many times the problems are multiplied in the majority of countries that are, to varying degrees, well behind Canada with respect to economic and social stability, particularly their health care systems, AND are not blessed with Canada’s combination of geographic massiveness and fewer than 40 million folks! And we all know: the pandemic is no picnic here, either, but imagine how awful things have been, or will be, in [insert your favourite fragile state here]!

All that pertains to illness and economic strangulation having been said – and I just read a New York Times piece in which Nicholas Kristof gets inside access at New York hospitals, so I’m not blind to blackened horizons – still, there *are* silver linings, and even in a careful, fearful nation state they’re not hard to find. Here are some of the Canadian beacons amid the gloom:

  • UNITED POLITICIANS. Sure, there’s some sniping, but the volume of dissent is much reduced. In our Parliamentary system, in which the elected government is shadowed (or hounded) by “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”, there is audibly less emphasis on opposition than on the preceding adjective. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, an arch-Conservative, has had public praise for Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau and members of his government! (My respect level for Ford is increasing; I might have expected him to be foot-dragging, ignoring scientists and muttering about “getting back to business as usual”, but he’s been a strong, sane and thoughtful voice, from what I’ve heard. He seems to be responding smartly, and with a humane compassion I wasn’t sure he could summon, to the needs of the time, and not holding on to partisan dogma. I’m pleasantly shocked, to be honest.)
  • CONFIRMATIONS: We can be oh-so-careful, maddeningly slow and frustratingly divided in our national conversation, but one strong silver lining is the continued reassurance that Canucks are actually reasonably well-governed, and have a clear tendency to often do the right thing, especially when the chips are down.

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T&F in China (Pt. 2): Running Hard, Who Knows Why?

Part 1 of this piece, a rundown of a track and field meet in a Chinese university, can be read here. It ended with the writer noticing more people out for a run at his campus’s outdoor stadium:

…I liked the athletic company, though there were nearly always as many walkers as runners, and some of the runners looked pretty grim about the whole thing. On the day of the meet, I saw why their training looked so dour. They weren’t exactly staring death in the face, but perhaps they couldn’t help but notice his pimply younger brother.

My feelings careened all over the emotional map during the women’s 3000-metre race. It was glorious, pathetic, dramatic, and a complete mess. (So was I, by the end.) Contrary to all the rules of track competition, many of the schools had conscripted a young man to run alongside their female entrant, while others had a relay team taking one or two hundred-metre turns urging the runners on and charging pell-mell across the infield. Some of the go-go girls carried water bottles, and would fling handfuls at the faces of their favourite athlete on this warm day. Some competitors plodded drearily, hands on exhausted hips. There were two heats of this spectacular struggle session, so as the lead runner was heading for the home stretch, she lengthened her stride trying to achieve a winning time. A dozen young men ran with her, just inside the infield, occasionally barrelling over a race marshal or spectator. Her desperate effort across the last hundred metres had me choked with admiring emotion. The glory of sport! Even here! What a noble effort! But as I moved closer to the finish line, I saw a growing collection of young women, dazed and prone, or in a couple of photogenic cases (but sorry, no photo!) a limp body being carried in the arms of a young Galahad towards a patch of shade. Anxious teams of friends and first-aid volunteers (with no training) fanned and flung water in a flurry of urgent and useless ministrations to fallen warriors. That’s when I started to get angry.

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In Search of the Real Artist

“So are you a Real Writer yet?” occasionally comes the smirking blonde query.
“Well, no. Not today. That’s a definite Someday,” squirms the wannabe.

Brian Smith is a Canadian portraitist that I’d never heard of. That’s no insult to him, for my knowledge of the visual arts is sparse. And by his own account, figurative artists like him don’t get much cutting-edge attention in the contemporary art world. What I do know is that he speaks well about the arts, especially that important task of de-mystification and encouragement for all those who linger hungrily around the edges of creativity and wish they knew the occult secret.

I wandered into a lecture he was doing, after-hours, at the Haliburton summer School of the Arts, held in a sparkling lake district at the base of northern Ontario. It’s pretty here. Every summer, this small town of ball caps, cigarettes and chain saws becomes a stock-up depot for the cottagers and boaters, and a magnet also for those who want to seek out creativity instead of the perfect tan. There’s an unusual number of painters, potters and sculptors in the area, and a fine school for the dabblers and the nervously ambitious makers to enhance their skills and confidence. Confidence is where Smith comes in.

He gives an animated lecture annually at the school, and this year’s edition was a wry but ultimately earnest assessment about what makes for a Real Artist. His conclusions were not surprising, but the road there was fun. (An early video-screen projection: a New Yorker-style cartoon has two gallery-goers, one of whom murmurs, “His work hovers between neo-classicism, impressionism and crap.”) In preparing his talk, Smith had run across a Website that would be gut-bustingly mockable if it weren’t aimed at such a place of human yearning and vulnerability. Apparently, you can call 1.800.REAL.ART, or go to its companion on the ‘Net. A series of questionnaires, which Brian Smith filled out on-line, resulted in an e-mailed letter of fulsome (and ungrammatical) personal praise from the – wait for it – Real Art Certification Board.

I am delighted to congratulate you on…certifying yourself as a Real Artist. All of us at RACB sincerely hope that your new-found vocation will change your life in a positive manner [glad that was clarified!] and expose you to wonderful world [sic] of Real Art…

Smith had gobs of fun with this and other expressions of the antique, exclusivist, fairy-dust notions we have of what makes an artist and what such a creature actually is and does. But his message was plain: art is about INTENTION. He scoffs at dichotomies like high art versus low art, or art versus craft. (I liked the simple truth in his quote from the potter Harlan House: “Craft is what I do all day. Art is what I have at the end of it.” If you’re lucky, Mr. House, I must say. If you’re lucky. And good. Democracy’s a pretty cool concept, but not everybody can be an RA.) To the assembled group of mainly female, mainly grey or greying pilgrims seeking to believe in the art in themselves, he proposed a simple catechism:

Anxious, spiritually yearning question: “Am I a real artist?”
Pragmatic, possibly encouraging but very likely reality-inducing answer: “Did I make any art today?”

When Smith spoke of the importance of art, and the value of allowing oneself to pursue some expression of our creativity, he was preaching to the choir. This was an audience – many of whom were already his fans from previous years – who were more than ready to laugh with him and mine a small vein of courage along the way. I expect nearly anybody would pass the Real Art Certification Board quiz and “qualify” for their specially-priced Internet “master classes”, but even in that crowd of people paying to act like artists for a week, not many would pass Brian Smith’s dauntingly simple test.

Still, I found something of what I was looking for, including chuckles and an excuse to make a little verbal mess like this one. And I liked Brian Smith’s conclusion: When we look at paintings or any media, we are the arbiters. What moves us as art is entirely subjective. We decide what is art, including OUR OWN. Don’t worry about being original. Just be authentic, true to your own vision of whatever it is you’re doing. And MAKE LOTS OF ART, be it good or bad.

Show up at the easel. Be true to your keyboard. Keep your appointments. Fulfil your own promise.