This Week's Conversations: How Art Shapes History, New Detroit, Irredeemable Anne, Summer Playlist #1

A weekly conversation between friends.

How Art Shapes History

In April, Matt Galloway sat down with Junot Diaz, Christi Belcourt, Sir David Adjaye, and Paul Gross to discuss how art shapes nationhood and history as part of the AGO’s creative minds series. The conversation was recorded for CBC: Ideas, and broadcasted last week.

The discussion was set in the context of Brexit and Trump’s election, and the rise in right wing nationalism, but it quickly embraced Canada’s 150th anniversary. The exchanges between Belcourt and Gross are worth listening to: Belcourt is a well-known Métis artist and activist who views the 150th commemoration much differently than Gross, who channels a liberal understanding of Canada, its history, and reconciliation (I feel for Gross here, but clearly he may not have been the best person to discuss this issue with Belcourt).

Unsurprisingly, the only non-Indigenous people of colour involved in the discussion are non-Canadians, who are also asked to present their opinions on Canada’s 150th year (in 2017, I still find it odd that national discussions on the character and direction of Canada excludes those of us in this country who don’t belong to the founding peoples, as if our ancestry does not permit us to participate in these conversations). But, to be fair, the discussion goes beyond the sesquicentennial, and both Diaz and Adajaye provide the most insightful comments of the night on the relationship between art, identity, and politics.

Here is Diaz, who is best known for his Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, on what makes a nation:

Nations are very antagonistic, they pick enemies, they pick borders, they create borders, they create characters and mythologies that exclude. And, I always think that the nation is its silences, the nation is its exclusion, and for someone like me, in the art that I do, its disavowed dead. Because the nations’ love to create stenographs for its good dead, the dead that it recognizes, the dead that wanna help perpetuate its project of the nation. But, there is also an enormous population of its disavowed dead, the victims of this national project, the people who are decimated because of the national project.

I tend to define the nation by who’s on the other side of the bayonet. And, who doesn’t get a tomb, and who doesn’t get memorialized, and who doesn't get mourned. And, yet, that’s as much a part of what a nation is as whoever we decide to toast on whatever holiday.

Diaz is most enlightening when it comes to his thoughts on the purpose of art, how it disarms and reveals truths about ourselves that we are unaware of or rather avoid:

One of the important functions of art with truth telling, is that art is supposed to...  put us in touch with that vulnerable human-self, which we cover up with all sorts of mythologies and lies and obfuscations and boasts. But, there is a part of us that is incredibly vulnerable and incredibly human and incredibly fragile, and that’s who we really, really are. The part of us that doesn’t look cute in a mirror, that doesn’t have a great job… The way that art can obliterate all our little lies we tell about ourselves, and put us in touch with what really matters about being a human being. How absolutely evanescent this experience is about being a human; how profoundly mortal we are.

And, in a society like ours, which teaches us to be facile, to be fast, to be cute, if you fall for that crap, you’re gonna miss what matters most about yourself. Which is that who we are is very complex, very difficult to get at, we have an enormous amount of defences. Art has been perhaps the most perfect instrument, the most perfect felicity that we’ve created to put us in communion with that part of ourselves that we bury beneath all our lies.

Yet, art, both in its elaboration and in our contact with it, is not something you can dispense of by swiping right. One needs a relationship to art, one needs to sit in art. And, I do believe that not only among us as human beings but also in our relationship with art, if we don’t have long processes, we lose what matters about the conversation. A person cannot mean in 5 seconds. A person cannot mean in 3 months. To even begin to approach a friend requires a tremendous amount of time and also just a lot of deliberate care and listening. And it’s the same with art. If you are just reading a book to just consume it and check it off on Facebook, cool, do it. But, there is another way, to make it a part of who you are, to make it have a permanent place in you, so that it continues its conversation beyond the point of your consumption of it. I think that is what leads to much more generative place for us to be people and for us to understand art’s power.


Detroit's New Renaissance

About 4 years ago, I spent an afternoon in Detroit on route to Chicago. It was a weekday afternoon, and the city was a ghost town — the streets were empty, storefronts were boarded up, and the sky was filled with beautiful but empty old skyscrapers. Walking through the downtown core was a truly eerie feeling, almost post-apocalyptic.

Detroit — once the fastest growing city in the world, and today the fastest shrinking city in America — has a population of less than 700,000. The city’s incredibly rapid decline, which began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 2000s, has become a kind of symbol of the collapse of America’s manufacturing sector. Indeed, countless cities in the American midwest have encountered the same fate.

The human impact of Detroit’s decline, and the resilience of its remaining citizens is subtly captured in the documentary Detropia (which is very easy to find online). The film abstains from any narration, and instead provides a close look at the lives of three Detroiters — a United Auto Workers union president, a nightclub owner, and a video blogger — all struggling to cope with a new landscape wrought by the implacable forces of late capitalism. It’s a tragic story, but one that ends on an optimistic note, as its characters adjust to the fact that the Detroit of the future will not be the Detroit of the past.

I returned to Detroit this weekend, and immediately noticed a change in the city. The streets were busier, there were more public buses running, and a number of the once abandoned buildings were being refurbished or renovated (including the hulking Michigan Central Station, once the iconic symbol of the city’s decay — see image above). Throughout Corktown, there were new restaurants, cocktail bars, and shops. A massive billboard advertised an upcoming music festival. The downtown core felt significantly busier, shiny even. Massive murals had cropped up on the sides of towers. Newly painted bike lanes lined Michigan Avenue. The Tigers were playing at Comerica Park and Greektown was bustling.

It remains a quiet city, and many of its neighborhoods remain all but abandoned And yet, walking downtown, as a tourist at least, it seems as if Detroit is on the verge of a new renaissance.


On the final day of our trip, we visited The Heidelberg Project (HP), an ongoing, outdoor arts project located in a what was once a poverty-stricken and dangerous neighborhood in east Detroit. In the words of Ryan Felton:

The whimsical creation of Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, the site dubbed the Heidelberg Project has rejuvenated the surrounding neighborhood, in a way that is probably only possible in Detroit: Guyton took ordinary found items – old toys, appliances, clothes – and turned the surrounding streetscape into a blocks-long art project.

Along Heidelberg Street, rows of houses and vacant lots have been transformed into bold and eclectic installations. There are clocks, polka dots, tires and rusted machinery. A sea of shoes line old fences. Stuffed animals and old dolls pop out from houses. And every day, a steady stream of motorists arrive, crawling down the street to snap a quick photo or get out and stroll through the installation.

Along Heidelberg Street, rows of houses and vacant lots have been transformed into bold and eclectic installations. There are clocks, polka dots, tires and rusted machinery. A sea of shoes line old fences. Stuffed animals and old dolls pop out from houses. And every day, a steady stream of motorists arrive, crawling down the street to snap a quick photo or get out and stroll through the installation.

The project, which has for 30 years battled with city demolition crews and arsonists, seems to represent the resilient spirit of Detroit and its people. Today, the HP is being dismantled.

What’s next, once the project is dismantled, remains an open question, but the organization is revamping to create something called Heidelberg 3.0.,” explained the project’s Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield, who is married to Guyton. “The objective of this next phase was to cultivate the larger community … with more people in this area and hopefully new people.


Anne: The Series: An Unforgivably 'Modern' Adaptation

I greeted the new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables — billed as a grittier, darker, more modern feminist take — with excitement. As readers may recall, I was willing to overlook the plot changes that helped underscore Anne’s fragility and strength, and that introduced useful topics for young girls, like menstruation. I even tolerated some blatant moralizing on the themes of bullying, intolerance, and education for women (what is this… Little Women??).

I now take back anything nice I ever said.

The final episodes of Anne: The Series certainly are darker and grittier. As for more feminist, maybe if you squint (or count the elder Ms. Barry’s outing as a lesbian). The plot line diverged completely from anything that ever happened in the book, twisting relationships and creating new, and wholly unwelcome ones. I’m sure it was supposed to end on a cliffhanger, but I hold no anticipation for a second season, only rage at the destruction of one of my favourite books and fear for my beautiful, fragile Anne. (I swear, if I hear season two involves any sort of relationship of a sexual nature between Anne and one of the newly introduced [and completely unnecessary] boarders, ranting in this newsletter will not be sufficient.)

LM Montgomery’s Anne was everything I aspired to be: passionate and argumentative, curious, dedicated to her studies, generous, a nature-lover, imaginative, loyal to her friends (of any age or gender). Her stubbornness, vanity, temper, and penchant for daydreaming and stream-of-conscious commentary would get her into minor trouble, but she learned to say sorry, even if she wasn’t sorry and it wasn’t her fault, and sometimes these faults actually resulted in good things (a gift of a dress with puffed sleeves!). Uniquely, she didn’t care about boys, just saw them as competition or friends. While she had a tendency towards dramatically dark outlooks, she was at heart an optimist, and I always finished the book with a lightness of spirit.

Indeed, the joy of reading Anne of Green Gables is that terrible things don’t have to happen to evoke emotion, or to give the reader pause. It’s Anne’s earnestness, the seriousness with which she approaches every moment, that draws the reader in, not horrific plot twists. My heart is in my throat every time I read the chapter of the lost brooch; the injustice Anne feels at the accusation is more than sufficient to draw out the tenuous nature of the trust between new foster parents and children. Sending her away and showing her panhandling, followed by a desperate horse chase by Matthew, would have seemed like overkill.

Anne: The Series turns Anne of Green Gables into just another modern drama that aims to shock us, and suggests the creators view everyday sentiment as unnecessary trifle. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised anymore that modernizing is just a code word for the introduction of gratuitous scenes of violence, suicide, sex, and poverty. Certainly the media seems to think we won’t pay attention or ‘get it’ unless someone is getting seriously hurt. And modern young adult fiction seems required to feature at least one, if not all of: drugs, alcohol, suicide, teen pregnancy, or rape. Dystopian visions abound everywhere.

Sarah Larson writes in the New Yorker:

If the 1985 production sanitizes the past aesthetically, it also respects us enough to let us think for ourselves. Lionel Trilling, writing about E. M. Forster, pointed out that people often fail to realize that the serious and the solemn are not the same thing. “Nowadays even the literate reader is likely to be unschooled in the comic tradition and unaware of the comic seriousness,” he wrote. “Our suspicion of gaiety in art perhaps signifies an inadequate seriousness in ourselves."


A realistic but warmhearted “Anne” could have been made, with these actors and these aesthetics, if its creator had had faith in Montgomery’s narrative and had more clearly seen the power of what’s already there."

I couldn’t agree more.


Trump v Obama at Yad Vashem

As Ian Bremmer has pointed out on Twitter, both Trump and Obama have left notes at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial for the Holocaust.  The difference is telling.


Cultural Appropriation and Canadian Hypocrisy

The controversy surrounding the #AppropriationPrize has scandalized the Canadian media industry, and has inspired an interesting conversation about diversity and representation in our country. It’s also revealed an apparently widespread misunderstanding of the concept ‘cultural appropriation’, and its impacts on marginalized or minority communities.

Cultural appropriation, it’s worth emphasizing, does not refer to the act of sharing, exchanging, or exploring the cultural and artistic products of another community. Rather, it refers to taking those products for one’s own use, without the owner’s permission.  

Bearing this definition in mind, we’d like to direct our readers’ attention to this excellent article by Robert Jago, writing in the now Jonathan Kay-less Walrus on the appropriation of Indigenous culture and art by white mainstream society in Canada. Jago begins by explaining the basic problem with cultural appropriation: it cheapens the ‘product’ in question. Referring to Indigenous story of Sasq’ets, which originated in the Pacific Northwest, Jago writes:

Our stories are works of genius and beauty, and vital to our relationship with the land. By no means do I want to restrict our legends to Indigenous people. I want you to know about Sasq’ets, and the psychedelically odd stories of the spirit of the South Winds, and all of the legends of our country.

But when the story is taken from us and told by outsiders without our involvement, its identity can be lost, and Sasq’ets becomes Bigfoot. The cultural dominance of non-Natives means that a B-movie like Harry and the Hendersons can have more influence over Salish children than the legend that inspired it...

Some defenders of cultural appropriation argue that the practice helps spread ideas, and protects and revitalizes endangered cultures by making their cultural output more widely known. In effect, however, this type of appropriation can also kill ideas, strip them of us and feed them back to us—the people who know them best—as acultural pablum.

This is a common thing, especially in an hyper-connected world. But the impact of cultural appropriation is far from even. For underrepresented or marginalized communities, whose voices are routinely drowned out or ignored by mainstream media, cultural appropriation becomes a sort of cultural imperialism, in which a community's culture or art is watered down, transformed, and repurposed beyond control, without the opportunity for input or criticism. Furthermore, as Jago points out, cultural appropriation takes on a sharper, more dangerous edge in the context of systemic racism and colonialism:

The phenomenon of cultural appropriation goes beyond the narrow dictionary definition, and is understood by many Indigenous people to include stereotypical and mistaken representations of us and our cultures. These misrepresentations include the hypersexualized view of First Nations women, the myth of the drunken Indian, the football mascot-inspired stereotype of the violent warrior Indian. All of these misrepresentations and misappropriations can have real-world effects for Indigenous people who have to confront the non-Native justice system, child welfare system, or healthcare systems.

Finally, Jago rightly calls out the hypocrisy of those who deny the impact of cultural appropriation, pointing out the fact that Canadian journalists are fact actively protected by the government from dominance by outsiders — this is fundamental purpose of the much-taken CRTC’s much-taken-for-granted Canadian Content rules, which mandate the involvement of Canadians at each level of production if a work is to be considered a Canadian cultural product. He writes:

Unable or unwilling to see the hypocrisy of stealing from our culture while theirs is protected, Canadian journalists have been hectoring Indigenous people online, arguing that cultural appropriation is a form of free speech and should be treated as such. But free speech means freedom from government interference, not freedom from criticism. Few people know more about government interference in the exercise of free speech than Indigenous activists who have been tracked, monitored, and interrogated by Canadian security and intelligence agencies. An online backlash to a rude and offensive editorial is not a threat to free speech, it’s an example of free speech.


Reactions to Alex Tizon’s Essay, “My Family’s Slave”

Alex Tizon’s heartbreaking essay about his family’s slave, published last week as a cover story for The Atlantic, lit the internet on fire. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about Tizon’s perhaps use of the word ‘slave’, and about readers’ reactions to the essay, which often invoked moral judgement without considering cultural context or the historical impacts of servitude, colonialism, and imperialism in the Philippines. As M. Evelina Galang explains:

It has been difficult to see wide-sweeping judgment coming from people who have no context nor familiarity with Filipino culture, history, or economics. “My Family’s Slave” cannot be read in isolation. There is a larger issue borne of hundreds of years of colonialism and economic hardship. From the beginning, when I saw that story teased on Twitter, I knew it would be complicated. I do not condone the circumstances of how the Tizon family treated Pulido. But Alex Tizon inherited this story. He had a long struggle to make sense of it before he died at the age of 57. He might have written it in his diaries and kept it to himself, but he did not. He put it out there, and his story, even to the end, is messy. The conversation around Tizon’s essay is important. It will take time, and it may be a struggle to shift cultural attitudes about servitude in the Philippines, but the awareness around Eudocia Tomas Pulido is a start.

The essay was widely discussed on social media in the Philippines. Some interesting threads from Twitter are compiled here.

The essay has also inspired renewed interest in other stories about the “impossibly complicated situations of Filipino migrants and immigrants”. These include a recent piece from the Times on the “transparent yet indispensable” Filipino workforce in Israel, and a New Yorker profile from last year on “the intimacies & sacrifices of caregivers who live two to a bed in Queens”.


Summer Playlist #1

I love making playlists. There are few things other than music that can help capture the essence of a time in one's life, regenerate some visceral memories, or create an association with a season, emotion or event. 

Summer playlists have got to be my favourite to create. They tend to be upbeat, and I would argue (outside of the holidays) that there is a certain feeling that summer jams have that aren't created with other seasons. This isn't to say that there's a homogenous sound. People think of summer when they hear that infectious pop song with that addictive hook, the rock song heard on a patio or beer gardens, the calm melody of road trip songs, and that slow and smooth track reminiscent of a hot late night. All those songs sound completely different, but they all scream summer.

I hope this Spotify playlist takes you to all those places. Some tracks are fresh out of the oven, some are timeless classics.  Thanks for listening.

- Guest Contribution by Josh Fanaeian


Weekly Links

Doug Saunders on the impact of the attack in Manchester: “Even at a time when terror attacks on civilians have once again become part of European life, there was something different about Monday's Manchester attack. It marked a new threshold of terrorism, and is likely to change British life in important ways.”

Jia Tolentino has declared the personal essay boom is over, and newsletters are where it’s at (yeah baby!).

For those who are interested in cultural appropriation following last week’s discussion, here’s a quick piece on Miley Cyrus and how she has appropriated Black culture.

Net neutrality is a word that is bandied around a lot, but most have no idea what it means. The Washington Post provides a helpful two minute primer.

Pateron connects creators to those interested in supporting their work. It’s a simple concept that is revolutionizing the creative industry around the world, and is preferred to Instagram and snapchat for creators. This is consistent with the theory that in order to make digital sustainable for creators, subscription models (like, Pateron) are more effective than relying solely on advertising (Instagram and snapchat).

The tragic life of Zaan Scott is the heart-wrenching, must read of the week.

Here are a couple of good tributes to Chris Cornell — one of the last of the leading men of grunge music left standing before his tragic suicide last week. This piece offers an exploration of how Gen X used grunge music to communicate the struggles of depression.

The CIA spent years cultivating a highly sophisticated spy network deep inside the Chinese state bureaucracy before it collapsed. The reason? The Chinese found out and killed as many CIA informants as they could find.

Ryan Getzlaf's homophobic slur (and pseudo-apology) draws criticism from gay former player.

Avnish Nanda