Arts & Life
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This article was published 11/1/2020 (256 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
IT’S highly unusual for a Canadian poet to get the tsunami of attention received last week by Stephen Brown.
Most poets toil outside the public limelight, but interest in Brown went viral on social media and his poetry was the focus of stories reported prominently by mainstream media from coast to coast, including both of Canada’s national newspapers.
He got the recognition thanks to Manitoba MLA Nahanni Fontaine, who prompted the extensive media coverage by her successful demands to have two of Brown’s poems removed from the parliamentary poet laureate website.
Before outlining concerns about a legislator intervening in the art world, I should mention I am aware of — and sincerely respect — Fontaine’s extensive professional and personal efforts on behalf of the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. But in this instance, before telling art experts their business, perhaps she should have considered the implications.
When Fontaine intervened, Brown had just been returned to the near-oblivion in which he has penned his poetry for years. Fellow poet George Elliot Clarke, who admires Brown’s work, had planned to cite Brown at a Jan. 23 lecture in Regina, focusing on Saskatchewan poets in the context of truth and reconciliation. Controversy broke out when it was reported Brown and another man killed a First Nations woman 25 years ago, a heinous crime for which he went to prison.
Amid protests, Clarke cancelled his lecture and Brown would have soon faded from his brief blip of media interest. By now, most people would be saying "Stephen who?"
Except that, two days after the lecture was called off, Fontaine took to social media and gave interviews, citing as offensive one line, "I will follow her," from the poem Alejandra, which is about "la pornai," or a sex worker in ancient Greece. She interpreted this line to mean the writer was stalking a woman and said it was alarming, given Brown’s 1995 crime in Saskatchewan.
Fontaine called on federal officials to remove two of Brown’s poems from the parliamentary poet laureate website, and that’s when media coverage soared. The poems were removed after a recommendation by the parliamentary librarian and agreement from the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons.
Here are three concerns about Fontaine’s unusual intervention, listed in order from least important to most important.
First, Fontaine has no jurisdiction in Saskatchewan, where the controversial lecture was scheduled and where the murder victim lived. As a provincial politician, she has no purview with the federal officials from whom she demanded action. She was elected to represent the riding of St. Johns, an inner-city area with enough crime and social problems to warrant the full-time attention of its MLA.
Second, the experts who curate exhibitions of art such as poetry should be protected from legislators who judge the artist, and not the art. Lots of louts have created brilliant art.
It’s unfair to expect art curators to investigate and judge the personal lives of artists. Fontaine apparently disagrees, so if she insists on using her position of authority to override curators, it’s incumbent on her to offer guidelines that list specifically which personal failings should disqualify artists from public displays. It’s not enough to second-guess individual examples after the curators have made their decisions. If curators are forced to consider the personal lives of artists, what criteria would Fontaine have them use?
I hope archivists, gallery managers and librarians resist the current zeal to clean-scrub our culture. Thumbs-up to the Winnipeg Art Gallery for its 2017 exhibit of art by Pablo Picasso, even though he regarded women as "either goddesses or doormats," and "machines for suffering."
Finally, and most importantly, the biggest danger is that Fontaine’s foray into art evaluation might dissuade other curators from displaying work by artists with a criminal past.
Last October, I attended a dinner on behalf of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, and learned there are dozens of prisoners creating art at Stony Mountain Institution, Rockwood Institution and Headingley Correctional Centre. Reflecting the population of Manitoba’s penal institutions, most of these artists are Indigenous.
The best of their work has been displayed outside prisons in publications and public galleries, including the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery on the Canadian Mennonite University campus.
Creating art can be therapeutic and rehabilitative for criminals. Reading and viewing their art can help the public better understand what led these people to commit crimes.
But Fontaine said last week, "Canada has a responsibility to ensure that its cultural and heritage-based products reflect art that doesn’t exploit the suffering of our most vulnerable, including Indigenous women."
Alarmingly, the broad strokes of Fontaine’s brush would seem to include Manitoba’s many Indigenous criminal/artists, because the victims of their crimes are often Indigenous women.
Perhaps Fontaine will realize she overstepped in her eagerness to support MMIWG families and her poetry suppression, although well-intentioned, shouldn’t be repeated. If she persists, art curators and art patrons should resist her. Judge art for its value as art. Period.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
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