Canadian Art Auction houses promote a traditional form of social behaviour including exploitive business practices which reflects the political and economic aspirations of those who have an interest in a particular definition of Canadian national identity and nationhood. Paintings by Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven have become vehicles for continuing to promote that narrow vision and demonstrate an entrenched, ideology, fostered by those in power. By invoking social behaviours within the context of entrepreneurial activities and demographic proclivities, I address controversies surrounding the uncertainties of establishing value at auction as a cultural behaviour, reflective of accepted entrepreneurial activities of excessive resource development and marginalization of First Nations, sanctioned by government policy.
The connections between the nomadic description of the geography of the landscape as depicted by Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven and their contemporaries, as expressions of a national character are informed by a particular vision of national identity and nationalism based on the exploitation of natural resources, marginalization of First Nations and racial intolerance. The National Gallery of Canada, supported by a business backed power elite based in Central Canada has encouraged that notion of nationalism as a means to define a national character, informed by entrepreneurial activity associated with resource development, self-reliance and rugged individualism.
It is this vision of entrepreneurial activity representative of a Modernist notion of the grand narrative, the heroic, self-sufficient, individual that has echoes in the entrepreneurial traditions of the English art auction as practiced by the Canadian Art auction houses. This tradition associates determining meaning through identification of imagery, aesthetic merits of a work and details of the artists lives with commodity investment and rates of return and is deliberately practiced to continue to promote a brand of Canadian nationalism and national identity, sanctioned by the business and political communities, favourable to a Modernist concept of national identity.
The business model of auction house operating procedures occurs in a spirit of entrepreneurial frenzy devoid of the benefits of any regulatory control ostensibly designed to protect the buyer and the consigner. Auctioneering in the province of B.C is unregulated and therefore subject to the traditional procedural proclivities of the auction house and the auction audience. Art auction houses have taken advantage of this absence of regulatory control to circumvent ethical business practices and to exploit the auction process in favour of generating profit. It is this manner of exploitation, illustrative of auction practices and procedures designed to generate maximum return on investment, occurring in an unregulated environment, which echoes an ideology of national identity characterised by uncontrolled resource development, First Nations marginalization and racial intolerance. It is this business model which echoes a Canadian government sanctioned notion of nationhood which had its beginnings just prior to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London in 1924 and was vehemently restated with the National Gallery of Canada’s 1995 exhibition entitled The Group of Seven:, .Art for A Nation.
The origins of this strategic alliance between art and commerce in the service of nationhood and identity can be traced to Edmund Walker, Chair of The Board of the National Gallery of Canada and president of The Bank of Commerce, and his hiring of Eric Brown in 1910, first as curator and later director of The National Gallery of Canada. Brown was a recent arrival to Canada from England, arriving in 1909, had little exposure to art and had limited experience of British landscape painting, attributes which Walker apparently deemed appropriate for his position with The National Gallery of Canada. As Leslie Dawn has observed, ‘Walker the consummate Canadian capitalist, understood the links between economic, political and cultural power and positioned himself accordingly’. Walker’s connections to the National Gallery and the Bank of Commerce placed him in an ideal position from which to orchestrate his vision of Canada.’ …he promoted, a distinct Canadian national identity as expressed in the visual arts. The Group of Seven was the perfect instrument to reconcile these two potentially conflicting positions. Under Walker’s leadership, The National Gallery supported the Group from the start and continued to subsidize their practice and valorize their agenda into the 1920’s.
Support for Thomson and The Group of Seven, came from not only Walker and the National Gallery but also from ‘a supportive audience amongst Toronto businessmen who appreciated the exclusion of references to human activity from their scenes……the exclusion of these activities from their paintings encouraged English Canadian businessmen to imagine untapped natural resources just waiting for the right entrepreneurs to find them’ Those entrepreneurs and a ‘large number of Canadians of Anglo-Saxon descent, especially those in Toronto and English Montreal, who were xenophobic and anti-Semitic.’, found a positive resonance in paintings by Thomson and The Group.
The nomadic, according to Marylin McKay is defined by the contrast between civilized geography with what appeared to be boundless space (‘wilderness’) beyond it, inhabited by strange non-human creatures. An element of risk characterizes the nomadic, when some heroes of Greek mythology who ventured into it were either destroyed by an evil or rewarded by finding perfection. During the Renaissance, the nomadic concept of territory supported imperialist conquest and settlement of distant lands and allowed for the transformation of conquerors and settlers in liminal spaces outside of the territories from which they came. This concept, from the late 18th century onward received ideological support from Romanticism, which idealized adventures in foreign and exotic lands and contact with ‘uncivilized’ people. From the early 19th century, this concept supported European territorial exploration and the search for material progress and nationalistic grandeur by encouraging and sometimes forcing the settlement of un-administered New World territory and extracting its natural resources.
McKay acknowledges that recent Canadian art history suggests that Tom Thompson and The Group of Seven were representatives of urban central Canada, originating from an artistic tradition located within the economic and political power structure of central Canada and that their work has occupied a position of prominence in the art market in English Canada, from since at least 1915. She suggests that Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven claimed the uniqueness of Canadian wilderness rather than settled landscape, as the obligatory vehicle to inspire national pride and that such pride would lead the nation to greatness. A rejection of the stereotype of the European artist as effete dilettante, by Thomson and the Group, in favour of a macho mythology associated with the nomadic concept of territory, evokes ideological connections with self- sufficiency, rugged individualism, the heroic and risk/reward adventure. As Lynda Jessup noted ‘ their method of work became part of their nationalism’.
The appropriation by the Canadian government of landscape paintings by Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven, as vehicles to promote a concept of nationhood attractive to the pioneering character of mostly European immigrants seeking wealth, is reflected in a competitive, self-aggrandizing, auction environment. The unregulated economic activity favours entrepreneurial exploitation not unlike the exploitation of the landscape in favour of profit margins, rates of return and investment strategies. It is this exploitive culture which is echoed in the business model of Canadian fine art auction houses, with their focus on the landscape paintings of Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven.
As Pierre Bourdieu has suggested, an aesthetically conditioned class culture and its socio economic position is an indicator of economic power and cultural influence. A socio economic position as an arbiter of high and low culture is significant when applied to institutional economics because it compartmentalizes groups in society based on their aesthetic appreciation of culture, thus ordaining those with mutually recognizable and demonstrable aesthetic tastes as custodians of high art and culture. Cultural capital as being part of social class identity, symbolic capital as value, prestige and other intangible factors are exchangeable for money, within the context of learned professional and social class distinctions .
The purchasing behaviour of the auction market echoes an investment/rate of return ethos modified by social factors related to the propensity of the players to wealth acquisition, conspicuous consumption and conspicuous display. This small community consists mostly of members who are known to each other and who are of the equivalent social class. They are usually wealthy collectors, dealers or those acting on behalf of large corporations who practice a ’commodity investment aesthetic’, which aligns aesthetic value with monetary value. Assumptions are thus made that aesthetic appreciation and resultant aesthetic value is a function of the investment potential and price of a painting and this perception is cultivated by the art auction market. This contributes to a perception in society that those with wealth have a highly developed sense of the aesthetic and understand the relationship between the aesthetic and monetary value.
It also contributes to a rejection of cultural capital generated outside of this aesthetic, because it does not have the financial support of the wealthy to in a sense approve its aesthetic/cultural significance. The conservative nature of the business community tends to support this concept. Thus a demographic unsure of its ability to appreciate the aesthetic associated with creative artistic endeavour contributes to the detriment of an artistic community in terms of economic power and cultural influence. Social class distinctions described by differences in educational opportunities, income generating potential, and political power are thus perceived to be representative of significant variants of an understanding and appreciation of the aesthetic.
Bruno LaTour’s social anthropological behavioural approach connects via an understanding of social behaviour when he invokes actor-network-theory (ANT) as a community or more precisely a collective of engaged intermediaries and mediators who by their actions define the social inherent in social relationships. It is the social which forms the behavioural foundation of an engaged and interactive community. He suggests that any social group is characterized by the multitude of contradictory voices about what a group is and who pertains to what; they are not silent things but the temporary product of a constant uproar. He describes a characteristic of actor-network-theory (ANT) as an association of entities, which are not immediately recognizable as being social, except when they are reshuffled and brought together, in a momentary association. Arguable this momentary association is reflective of the auction audience community, where actors, including the auctioneer and the audience, deploy a range of controversies in which they are engaged to trace connections between controversies rather than settle controversies. In other words, unstable and shifting frames of reference, amongst auctioneer and audience are more likely to trace sturdy relations to establish links, rather than are those trying to keep the frame stable. This behaviour is reflective of the uncertainty of behaviours amongst the auction audience required to establish a viable community or as LaTour prefers a collective.
ANT appears to be supported by the variability and uncertainty of human behaviour as a measure of the significance of action within the framework of the collective and the consequences of those actions as determinants of the social. This is particularly evident at an auction where uncertainty of social behaviour is a necessarily unpredictable strategy to obfuscate ones intentions. The establishment of price as a fact, that is the auction as the social activity of determining price to be factual, is constructed when we account for the objective reality by incorporating various entities whose assemblages could fail, for example acknowledging the constructed fact that the constructed building as an assemblage could collapse.
LaTour’s interdisciplinary method positions actor/network theory (ANT) in terms of a fact described in a multi-valent and relational context. He asserts that universal truth or fact is not inseparable from its fabrication and theorizes that the stability, reliability and autonomy of proven facts, or prices realized at auction, are produced and sustained by interactive, networking elements to include human as well as non-human objects. This could include discourse, art historians, scholarly exposure, curators, museum and gallery exhibitions, retrospectives, books, auctioneers, auction audiences and published auction prices. It is important to note that factual knowledge is not supported alone by detailed observations, identification of external social factors, but on the empirical tracing of the independent activities to multiple variegated contributors, such as those as suggested. This declarative view contests not only the way in which various institutions produce truth but also the essentialist view of scientific fact. Thus the attempt to break down the binaries of subject and object, interiority and exteriority fact and fetish, is focused on a critique of the anti-fetishists.
Roger Chartier reflects on the importance of behaviour within members of a particular community as demonstrative of supportive development. Chartier refers to a community of readers, as an important consequence in the manufacture, sale, production and authenticity of texts to establish the viability of the reading and writing of text and the community of readers. He investigates the historical conditions which cause, promote and modify reading and the production of text and creates a sense of commonality in the contemporary reader as a way to suggest a lineage worthy of membership. Meaning is produced by form and the text is vested with new meaning where there is a change of mechanisms of interpretation. On-line auctions, separate from live auctions of Canadian Art, illustrate Chartier’s concept of meaning. Online auctions are devoid of the social interaction of an engaged community which define the unique experiences of the live auction. The virtual on-line bidding group exists but is not reflective of the peer to peer social interactions of an auction community.Meaning, for this community is vested in a change of form of text, from that displayed on the page to that displayed on the monitor resulting in an alternate meaning.
Paintings of the Canadian landscape by Thomson and The Group of Seven, came to represent the acquisition of the natural environment as a means to support and legitimize the establishment of an immigrant, non-native culture. The artist was perhaps at the forefront of interpreting the land for the visual consumption of a non-native population, by depicting the landscape in a way recognizable and culturally desirable to that demographic. The artist thus subsumed the socio-political history of indigenous peoples in favour of a culture of visual consumption, a culture of seeing as possessing.
These pictures also serve as cultural artefacts to record and document the past. They are not only images of expropriated landscape but also historical visual documents recording the land’s social, political, racial and economic development. To view an historic landscape painting is to reinvigorate and replicate its time and place of production and to revisit the myriad of events associated with it and perhaps since its production. Images of landscape are documents, not only claiming and asserting ownership but also contriving reasons for ownership.
Ownership of the land also implies the existence of a power structure to secure and maintain ownership of that which may not have been owned before, or that which was claimed by others but has since changed ownership, at least in the eyes of those who establish ownership.
Thus a symbiotic relationship exists between purchasing a painting of the Canadian landscape and the painting as representative of the potential for resource development and wealth extraction. The imagery of wilderness landscape in the painting is a constructed Canadian symbol of the potentiality of wealth to be derived from that depiction of wilderness. It would appear that ownership of such a painting echoes ownership of the land as suggestive of a conduit necessary to economic success. The approval of an ideology of exploitation of the landscape, sanctioned by the government, encourages the acquisition of visual culture favourable to entrepreneurialism. It is landscape paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven which best describes a visual culture representative of Canadian, nationhood that is deemed appropriate by the wealthy to validate its risk/reward management ideology.