Forget Your Face

This is very different from what I ordinarily post.  Music from the 90s.  I’m quite close to one of the band members and guys are pretty cool too!  Some of you will definitely remember this band.  Many of you won’t but have a listen.  I like their music, always have.

It’s February 11th, 1961

ImageIt’s February 11th, 1961.  Maclean’s publishes a photo of an Alex Colville painting as its cover.  It’s called Dog, Boy and School Bus.  “Colville’s paintings…bring in as much as $2,000 each; he is almost certainly the most successful of the Canadian painters who draw what other people see.”[1] He is 40 years old. He dies on July 16th, 2013 a rich and famous old man of 92.  Peter C. Newman is the Ottawa editor of Maclean’s.  Peter Gzowski and David Lewis are Preview editors.  I’m fourteen years old and attending College St-Jean in Edmonton.  I’m in grade 9.  I’ve never heard of Alex Colville, Peter Gzowski, David Lewis or Peter C. Newman.  Knowing of them would come later when they would all go on to greater things and I would go to university.

On November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President of the United States, John F. Kennedy is assassinated, but in the winter of 1961 that is not an event anyone would have anticipated except the planners of that event.  He had been elected in 1961 and sworn in as President on January 20th, 1961.  Kennedy was not in office a month when Maclean’s wrote: “Watch for John and Jackie Kennedy – in store windows.  A U.S. mannequin manufacturer has started a line of store dummies modeled on the new president and his wife – and their famous hairdos.”[2]  It’s the only mention of the Kennedys in the February 1961 edition of the magazine.

The headlines (on the cover) for the February 1961 edition of Maclean’s are: From Latin America: The Revolution begins; An ex-convict tells of the fear of freedom; and The crime of keeping worn-out bodies alive.  Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, had successfully fought against Fulgencio Batista, the then president of Cuba and a great friend of the American corporations who were finding Cuba a great place to do business.  The nasty revolution thing was about to spread all over South and Central America, Africa, the Middle East and other countries here and there.  Viet Nam was about to explode.  The French colonialists had been kicked out in 1954 but there still raw materials to be had there and the Americans were interested.  So were the Chinese.  The Maoists were firmly in power in China.  Capitalism eventually won in China mostly by attrition and bribes but that would take the death of Mao and great changes in the Chinese leadership.   Maclean’s is greatly worried about South America and the nasty Venezuelan students bent on overthrowing president Betancourt.  The tanks are on the streets of Caracas and surrounding the university where the ‘hothead’ students don’t really understand what’s going on and are challenging the authorities.  They get clobbered but things eventually change as they must and old dictatorships fall grudgingly, slowly, but paving the way to the future with corpses of the poor piled deep.  Maclean’s is nonetheless worried.

It’s also worried about Belgium where there are riots in the streets.  The Flemish north is dominant but the French-speaking Walloon southern part of the country is angry and seething.  The headline reads: BELGIUM: the violence is racial and religious.  Canada be warned.  Belgium is not unlike Canada and there could be trouble with those French speakers here too.  Well, yes, but Trudeau took care of that when he replaced the mild mannered Lester B. Pearson as the 15th Canadian prime minister.  The Front de la liberation du Québec (FLQ) put up a bit of a fight in the early 1970s, but nothing much came of it.  Nothing much came of the ‘manifestations’ in Belgium either.  It’s a nice little European country today without any colonies, but you win some you lose some.  The beer is still good and the cafés full.  What more could an American tourist ask for?

There are more stories in the February 1961 edition of Maclean’s.  The one about the fear of freedom is a bit self-serving and strange as is the one about euthanasia.  They shoot horses don’t they?  Aside from the fact that there are cigarette ads in the 1961 copy and none in my 2013 copy as well as no ads for smart phones in 1961, the issues are still somewhat the same, just framed differently.

I love looking through old copies of popular magazines.  They remind me of how strident we got about issues 40 or 50 years ago, how morally outraged we got and how little things have changed to make us calmer and more accepting.  Well, capital accumulation proceeds apace and the problems of the 50s and 60s, although nasty in their own way are just a part of a process that is leading to some much nastier times before things get better and they will.  I promise you that.

[1] No author mentioned, Maclean’s, February 11, 1961, page 33.

[2] No author mentioned, Maclean’s, February 11, 1961, page 1.

Fine art and all that: just another case of marketing and self-aggrandizement?

Fine art and all that: just another case of marketing and self-aggrandizement?


So, I’ve been an amateur artist for decades.  Because I had full time work teaching sociology at a community college, I couldn’t indulge my predilection for painting, drawing and other forms of artistic expression except during summer breaks, but even then only sporadically.  I did find the time to read art books though, both how-to books and books on art history and about individual artists especially the Renaissance greats, the Dutch and Flemish masters, the Spanish painters Goya and Valasquez, the Impressionists and German and Austrian Expressionists like Egon Schiele.  I’ve only been marginally interested in North American painters, printers and sculptors.  I do have a lot of respect for Rothko, Diebenkorn, O’Keeffe, Rivera, Kahlo, Moore, Henri, Close and some of the Canadian Group of Seven as well as Colville and the Pratts.  But I probably shouldn’t name drop.  It can quickly get undignified and there are too many  artists I would undoubtedly miss mentioning.


Whatever we can say about art, it’s as much about who the buyers are as who the producers are.  Otto Rank (in Truth and Reality) argues that art is the expression of a strong ego although he’s also quick to point out its superego dimensions. I think that social institutions (summarized by the term ‘superego’) not only drive artistic expression, but the buyers of ‘art,’ to a large extent, dictate content.  Virtually none of the great Renaissance artists did work for the sheer pleasure of it although there must have been an element of joy, accomplishment and personal satisfaction in the work.  They were more often than not commissioned and if they strayed at all from the vision that church leaders had, as Caravaggio did in a depiction of Saint Matthew[1], his work was rejected and he had to start over again with a work more in line with their ideas of how Saint Matthew should be portrayed. In other words, they were constrained by the superego.  Of course if artists didn’t get commissions they starved.  And who commissioned their work?  Well, it sure wasn’t the poor. 


In the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, the Church was the principle source of income for artists.  Some wealthy politicians and merchants were able to commission self-aggrandizing works, but it was mainly the Church that was interested in art.  Much of the artistic production of the great masters was designed to respond to the Church’s need to glorify God, the saints and other sundry notables.  When the city-states dominated Italy, the masters of those cities were able to spend their fortunes on paintings of themselves and their families as long as the artists were willing to portray them in very flattering ways, eliminating annoying blemishes and poorly curved noses and chins.  When the aristocrats and especially the monarchs of Europe eclipsed the Vatican’s power then the painters and sculptors produced the most lavish and spectacular marketing-type works.  David’s work is a great example of this.  His monumental works are political statements in their own right.  His The Coronation of Napoleon, which hangs in The Louvre, is a blatant glorification of political power.  David was Napoleon’s ‘official’ painter and neither men did things in a small way.  David was Napoleon’s marketing department. 


Real, significant changes in the content of paintings accompanied the rise of merchant capital in but not really until well past the Reformation when the shine went off the Protestant shunning of ostentation especially in Italy and Holland.  Then merchants had their portraits painted by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals.  Van Dyck was plugged into the aristocratic world and worked in England a great deal.  I’m not interested here in setting out a detailed or even general art history of the Western World.  I’m not at all qualified to do such a thing in the first place.  But I have studied history extensively, particularly political economy and that’s my perspective.


My point here is that artists and their patrons are caught up in a dance of power wherein the former want to freely express their egos while the latter want to shackle those very egos to their own superegos.  The world of art in Flanders and Holland was incredibly diverse and millions of paintings were produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in several genres.  However there was a conspicuous absence of ‘religious’ art during this period.  There was no market for it so none was produced.  There were great markets where paintings and art works were sold; they ended up in the hands of the burgeoning middle class to decorate their homes.


Now, the situation has been altered such that art supplies are easily purchased by millions of people and art training is everywhere.  There are thousands of YouTube videos on every aspect of art imaginable.  Millions upon millions of paintings and sculptures, sometimes quite good ones, flood local markets and the internet alike.  This is all ‘stuff.’  We seem to be producing more ‘stuff’ just for the sake of it, art works included.  Needless to say, I’ve left out whole areas of artistic expression here like the theatre and music but I’ll leave that for another day.  Suffice it to say that the same ideas I’m applying to visual art are also generally applicable to the performing arts.  There’s always been ‘high’ art and ‘folk’ art.  The former seems to get into the history books more easily. 


I’m vulnerable to a lot of fault-finding here, of course, because my sweep has been very general and I haven’t at all taken account of some of the very important transition periods in the history of art where tensions between artist and patron are intensified and artists search for new patrons.  I’m thinking here specifically of the mid to late 19th century and the advent of the Impressionists.  Most of them never really made a lot of money while they were alive.  Their egos overpowered the superego of the time and they were thus shunned for their self-aggrandizement and their lack of humility. 


I’ve set down a little over 1000 words here, barely an excursus into the subject but I think that there is a palpable tension around ‘art’ now that needs to be explored.  Some people have already explored the domain and have laid down some stones of understanding along the pathways therein, but as I like to produce ‘things’ like paintings and sculptures, I also want to explore the significance of that travel in writing.  I’m particularly interested in exploring the role of ego development within the context of a weakened ‘community.’ I’m thinking that with the hyper-individualism that plagues the world today we may end up producing ‘art’ for an audience of one, ourselves.  And so what if that happens?

[1] See the introduction of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, the Phaidon pocket edition.

What the hell is the ‘quality of life?’ Part 2

So, as I noted in my last post I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of quality of life. People use it in many different ways; it’s easy to establish this observation by just entering ‘quality of life’ in a Google search. It’s often associated with medical issues and how the quality of life is diminished with, say, the need for blood dialysis. That said, without dialysis, there is death. Take your pick, a reduced quality of life or death. I’m thinking most people would chose the former option although their opinions may change if they ever find themselves on dialysis. There is a dialysis centre close to where I live so it would be less of a hardship for me to attend it than for someone who lives a long way from a dialysis centre. But there are lots of other ways that medical conditions are thought to reduce the quality of life. Blindness, deafness, the loss of a limb and cancer are a few things I can think of that many people would argue reduce the quality of life. Maybe they do. I’m not entirely sure. I’ve had cancer and lost a kidney because of it but I’m not convinced that my quality of life was reduced because of it. Of course, I had a great medical plan and an understanding employer at the time. If I had been unemployed and poor 11 years ago when I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer, things would have turned out very differently, I surmise. I have a lot of ‘cultural capital’ too. That means that with my Master’s degree and social status, I was able to access services and information that people with less education might have found difficult if not impossible to access or even know about. Knowing how to do research is a key to my quality of life, I can assure you. Poverty sucks! I was poor once and I’m still not wealthy by any means but I haven’t forgotten about the time when our children were very young and I didn’t get a teaching contract I expected. I had to go to the ‘welfare office.’ They turned us down. It was very difficult. Good thing we had (and have) a very supportive family. Family came to the rescue more than once for us in the days before I got a full-time teaching contract.
Quality of life is not a static thing. It comes and goes. Great quality of life very seldom ever lasts forever I would think, but poor quality of life resulting from poverty or ill health can be a life sentence for some.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my former students. I had thousands of students over the 36 years I was a college instructor, 29 of those at North Island College on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. I’m still in contact with a few of them. Some I know are now lawyers and doctors, probation officers and nurses. Some, in more recent times, have arrived at NIC from India and Africa, mostly Nigeria. They traveled a long way in an attempt to improve their education and consequently their quality of life and their life chances in general. A few of them have gone of to Saskatchewan to continue their studies. From Port Harcourt in Nigeria to Saskatoon. Now there’s a change of climate for you. It’s a good thing humans are so adaptable. The Nigerian students I had demonstrated a wonderful sense of determination and enthusiasm. They were game too. I took two of them to the lake here a couple of summers ago and they were able to paddle my canoe around (with an outrigger attached, mind you). They had a great time.
Other students I had came from the local area, the majority of course. Many of those have gone off to university here and there but some have gone north to work in the oil and gas fields in BC and Alberta. They’ve left the Comox Valley and Campbell River because there is very little work here that pays a decent wage. Those students of mine who stay here to work have limited choice where employment goes. I wonder if my students who found it necessary to travel away from here to work (as thousands of men and some women have done leaving the East coast maritime provinces to work in Alberta at Fort McMurray in the tar sands industry), feel that their quality of life is improved or diminished because of what they’ve done to get work. People have migrated in search of wealth and work for centuries. Is that a worse fate than staying in one place for a lifetime?
More yet to come…

Quality of Life – What the hell is that?

So, as I engage in producing the 2013 Quality of Life report for the Comox Valley Social Planning Society I’m struck with the number of questions I have about just what quality of life means. I’ve determined that it’s not about comfort or serenity, the lack of problems or adversity, happiness or the lack of it, wealth, health, recreation, culture, fast cars, sex, food or much of anything else.  It’s not even only about personal, individual feelings and circumstances. So what is it about?  There are a number of organizations that have produced quality of life indices and reports.  The UN is into it: (  The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW)( has determined that the quality of life in Canada is declining regardless of the fact that the Gross Domestic Product may be rising.  We are obviously into contiua here.  The UN rates countries on a continuum of quality of life using a large number of indicators in three categories, heath, education and living standards.  The CIW uses dozens of indicators and eight domains or categories: community vitality, demographic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards and time use.  Some of these domains address individual dimensions of wellbeing, others how community affects personal wellbeing.  The CIW is on to something here, I find.  On a continuum of wretchedness to bliss, I expect that a person living on the streets of Kolkata would be at the wretchedness end of the scale while someone living in a fancy house on the beach in Comox would be on the other (blissful) end without being too categorical about it. However, the world is never as simple as it seems and I’m not a good judge of the quality of life of a person living on the streets anywhere, especially India. 

To me, some self-determination is important in thinking about quality of life as is sociality.  So, for me, life in a prison isolation cell would qualify as extremely wretched even though health, sanitation and food would not necessarily be issues.  And there are tradeoffs.  Idleness due to unemployment may adversely affect income, but there is a certain liberation in not having to go to work.  Problem is, we have developed strong moral, legal and political objections to unemployment to the point where the unemployed are considered morally weak, self-indulgent, lazy and worse.  So not working (for the employable) carries a stigma and the unemployed suffer opprobrium.  

I suppose, for me, quality of life hinges on a number of factors including basic health, a roof over my head, access to effective sanitation, enough money to keep food on the table, clothes on my back and maybe go out the odd evening to a movie, a day in the park or on the beach, a visit to a library or an art gallery, having friends over for tea, being able to move about without too much difficulty, and community support when things go sideways.  Emergency services, then, take on more importance than they might otherwise in determining quality of life.  The question is, can I count on the help of others in the community if I get sick, lose my source of income, my house burns down, I get beat up on the street or bullied at work?  

Of course, comparison is the foundation of quality of life studies and indices.  How do I measure my wellbeing?  Well, it will be good or bad in comparison to the person next to me or in the next town, city, province or country.  If I have nothing to compare my life to others, the whole question of quality of life is meaningless.  As for the Comox Valley, what makes this place unique in terms of quality of life?  I’m not sure there is a basis for comparison with other similar sized communities on Vancouver Island.  

These are just some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently on the subject of quality of life. There’s lots more…for later.