Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Train Reading – Jonathan F Vance’s History of Canadian Culture

One thing that I did not do in Vancouver was to visit either an art gallery or a museum. I had intended to do so, I know very little about Canadian art, but ran out of time.

Instead, on my last day I bought a copy of Jonathan F Vance’s A History of Canadian Culture (Oxford University Press, Ontario, 2009). Reading Professor Vance’s book, I was struck by similarities as well as the differences with the Australian experience.

As in Australia, there has been a clear divide between what we can think of as popular as compared to “high” culture, a divide that has caused great stress in both countries to those propounding the importance of the arts to a sometimes uncaring populace.

Again, both countries have seen an emphasis on the role of the arts in expressing and articulating national identity. Both have suffered something of a cultural cringe expressed in the lines such as what’s the difference between yogurt and Canadian culture? Yogurt has an active culture!

There are also interesting differences.

Reflecting Canada’s longer history including the long presence of small farming communities, craft has been far more important in Canada than in Australia. Canadian craft motifs drawn from both the Indian and European experiences continue to be important in a way, I think, not seen in Australia.

Canada also possesses greater regional diversity that affects the form and direction of all types of cultural activity in a way not seen here, or at least not to the same extent.

I get the strong impression, however, that Australians were more comfortable and at an earlier date with Australian culture broadly defined as an expression of Australian identity.

Both countries struggled to some degree with problems created by a small local market, but Australia had neither the historical diversity nor the overwhelming presence of a huge neighbour just across the border that created difficulties (and opportunities) for Canadians. To a degree, we were able to just be in a way not possible in Canada.

I was also fascinated to discover the way in which religious and social conservatism limited the emergence of a Canadian theatre equally in French and English speaking Canada. To use an Australian phrase, Canada was a far more wowser society.

A full list of posts in the visiting Vancouver series can be found here.

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