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Opening Address
to the Special Committee on the Arts
York University, Nov. 11-13, 1983

Mr. Chairman, I’m not really certain that I should thank you for this morning’s very brief and challenging opportunity to address this particular audience on the potentially dramatic and certainly sweeping topic, The Life and Role of the Artist.

As just a simple painter, as an individual painter, I speak only for myself. Within our time restrictions the few ideas and reflections must be presented in a highly concentrated , even truncated, form. In addition it must be understood that I speak from the very privileged position of a tenured full professor and am thus now protected from many artists’ daily difficulties.

As an academic my short remarks will be as detached from private prejudice as possible while reflecting incompletely, of necessity, upon the problems of the visual artist in our society. However, that educational position reveals much concerning the visual artist’s life: the urgent need to practice ones art and the basic human need to eat.

Most of us must support our profession by outside work which may or may not be related to our primary commitment. We accept the fact that we must pay a price for our creative drive and to underwrite our belief in the efficacy of image making. Paradoxically this doubling up of activity provides an important role which apparently satisfies the work ethic in our society.

A society which enjoys the arts as a liesure time activity tends to understand its creation as being of secondary importance.

The artist lives his life to make images for others and he also plays a role, a practical economic function within our structured society. But he is normally deprived of the opportunity to create continually or without serious periods of interruption. Too frequently the artist receives recognition as a significant and contributing member of society only for the other role he performs within our culture. Otherwise he is just a painter. Just the other day I was politely asked by a usually well informed lady, "are you still painting?"

This same artist has been declared to be the antennae of society or even ahead of his time. In brief euphoric moments he is given the near God-like qualities of the Creator himself. His products are said to be or that they will become a true measure of our culture, our civilization, our legacy to a hoped-for tomorrow.

The artist’s purpose is to reveal, to humanize, to enhance, to decorate, to probe, to ameliorate, to test, to disturb, to commemorate, to represent, to exorcize, to extend, to search: to order chaos. But do we really believe that? Really?

This economic bifurcation has established a critical dichotomy with quite serious practical and theoretical implications. Society has responded in various meaningful ways. Institutions, organizations, councils and ministries have been established to use art and artists to develop culture and support artists. We have a society which through various means attempts sporadically to sustain us in our creative isolation. The extent to which our process is understood and valued for itself remains unclear.

It seems to me that the visual artist’s perception of his freely accepted responsibilities are distinctly different from those who are bureaucratically, institutionally or curatorially employed in the manipulation of our various art forms. This complex dilemma of dissimilar value systems can eb stated in another way: too frequently the artist’s role is not to create art, and in turn the function of art as it is commonly projected is to serve the extra-artistic ends of others.

Have we not at times in the process of consuming the product consumed the creator?

But as artists we watch a proliferating bureaucracy able to concentrate on its well defined concerns ultimately without significant contact with the artist.

By the nature of being human we have artists. All cultures have had the fundamental need to make images. Today I am not certain that we know why art is necessary to our human fulfillment except in terms of most vague and generalized concepts; in motherhood terms. The extent to which what we call art is basic to the fabric of a society varies.

Past ideas cannot be imposed upon the present nor can the present necessarily illuminate the past. This society, regardless of its complex support systems, is consistently alienating the artist instead of allowing him more participation in it. The artist’s role is, and is often seen as, peripheral to the always over-riding economic well being of society. Insecurity is our way of being.

With the rise of the art bureaucracy - the artocracy - certain responsibility for our lives has been assumed by anonymous committees. The artist’s unreserved presentation of his beliefs is often confronted by the bland and compromising [beliefs] of the others.

Alternate spaces and parallel galleries represent a direct challenge to the status role of traditional public and commercial galleries. Inevitably some younger artists must challenge the established past which is perceived as being inflexible and incapable of responding to vital, changing contemporary conditions. They are thereby assuming a responsible, if for some a troubling role as they explore the reaches of the imagination.

To achieve intelligent exposure is of paramount importance. To receive responsible criticism is also of great significance to achieve a closer and more intelligent relationship between the artist and his potential audience.

For all of us the present underdeveloped critical and review process is particularly lamentable for a society in which the idea of culture too often seems preferable to culture in practice. For us concerned with the life and role of the artist a significant contribution towards understanding would be a body of critical and historical writing. Too frequently the underlying thrust of such material is disguised naturalism or aesthetic polemics arguing for a restricted position.

The critical urge for stylistic updating regardless of content consistently places in a secondary, subservient posture. It ignores the authentic voice or rejects the vision of older artists for the assumed infallible progress of youth.

We need to rethink our view and therefor the use of history. We may not have a distinguished history in international terms but we do have a history capable of a more profound, subtle and probing analysis. The theoretical techniques used to define our view of the artist’s role in society.

Clearly the multiple issues surrounding the arts and hence the life and role of the artist - and its opportunity to enrich them - are complex and defy easy, immediate analysis. Linked to other problems in our society are conflicts of contending cultures, generations and even art forms which must be accommodated by all. Curators, reviewers and art bureaucrats can too readily reflect received opinions, ideas and stylistic bias rather than daringly searching for the unique. Their activities are sometimes seen to secure or extend a position within institutional structures. The requisite critical acumen must be developed from a disinterested observation of visual statements tempered by sensitivity to the many faceted possibilities in our creative directions. A critic or curator who espouses one view has has usurped the creative purpose to determine the future.

The direct participation in an act of creation is a way of life, of being realized, not a livelihood. The act does not have demonstrable rationale nor external justification for the practitioner. But the resultant work may be cherished by the many.

Because the act of creation remains elusive in a society dominated by statistical analysis it must be protected. Otherwise all creative thought will be subjected to the tyranny of technology.

Creative works reflect and transmit our hopes, our fears, our world and our faith. To me it is the role assigned to those created works that must be carefully re-examined relative to the life and role of the artist. The issue is: are we fully exploiting the value of creative thought and of the creators?

Mr. Chairman, I have read the basic documents surrounding this weekend conference organized by the Special Committee for the Arts. Some of the impplied development restrictions contained within them would seriously restrain our expanding of the artist’s vision as an alternative to uniformity. Governments and the arts have had a history of necessarily interrelated interests as old as civilization itself. Only the means of support have changed with each restructuring of social organizations over the millenia.

Mr. Chairman, I trust that we have passed through the infamous phase of the starving artist and we are not about to return to it. Thank you.

R. L. Bloore, Toronto, November 1983


The work begins to be created for a market rather than for the society itself. Bloore argues that contemporary Inuit art, created almost entirely for a southern market as an overtly commercial undertaking, retains that culture’s “intense concentration on the essential and the preservation of the significant,” but begins to manifest a preoccupation with inner realities as it no longer serves its immediate society’s cultural needs.
- Terrence Heath
Not Without Design
Catalog Essay, 1990


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