Artists and Their Towns

Talk given by René Derouin, L’Art et la ville symposium, Laval, May 16, 2007

Artists’ creative process is affected by the day-to-day environment in which they operate. The opposite is likewise true in the sense that this environment is also altered somewhat by the creative undertakings of the artists that live there.

The various cities and towns I live in as an artist show tremendous contrasts from one to the next. Each of them¾whether Montréal, Val-David, Mexico or Puebla¾has its own culture and its own, distinct community. From the four thousand inhabitants of Val-David to the twenty-four million people living in Mexico City, the contrasts abound and are a direct inspiration for the creative endeavour.

Shaped by the environment

I consider that living in these places of culture is truly a great opportunity. There are many towns without artists or culture throughout these Americas we live in¾places thrown up using clichés and imported mediocrity, soulless, prefabricated towns that you pass through without wanting to stop.

The relations between creative artists and their towns are important and meaningful. It often happens that artists gather together spontaneously in certain as yet undeveloped neighbourhoods where it doesn’t cost too much to live, since they need space for their studios. This is not the only guiding criterion, however. Artists also look for the conviviality and tolerance characteristic of these emerging communities. By definition, they are marginal people who every day, through their actions, shape the spirit and identity of the places where they live. Years after they have passed through, their works remind us that these places have been redefined by the existence of a certain community of thought. In visiting them as tourists, we can share these moments in the history and lives of creative artists. Paris is the perfect example of this phenomenon: every neighbourhood there is filled with the memory of culture and history.

Artists: Instigators of change and creators of collective wealth

Not only do artists protect, preserve and enhance the places where they live, they also often fall victim to the wealth they have helped create. Many neighbourhoods have become too expensive for the artists that made their reputation. Everywhere artists settle, speculation is not long coming. New York’s Soho neighbourhood is a typical example. Today, artists can no longer live there and, instead, have to move away from Manhattan. Closer to us here, our now-famous Plateau Mont-Royal has recently undergone the same phenomenon.

The regionalization of culture

We are currently seeing a major change in perceptions regarding the question of culture in small towns. New questions have been raised and a heightened interest in cultural matters is perceptible in towns outside the major centres. This is a relatively new trend, which I think is largely created by the injection of new government funding in the regionalization of culture. I also detect a curious phenomenon of exhaustion of tourist resources all over Québec: today’s tourists travel a lot, demand a lot and aren’t about to spend two weeks’ vacation in just one town. That time has passed. Now you have to develop sites of major interest to hold on to these passing tourists for longer. As a result, towns are competing with one another to stand out from the crowd and many stakeholders are convinced that culture is the only viable solution to achieve this goal.

Beware of imitations

The cultural initiatives emanating from this new trend are sometimes distressing. Even though there may never have been a single painter living in a given town, nor any tradition of painting, people there might decide to launch a painting symposium. Looking for a guiding theme, organizers start up medieval festivals in towns that aren’t even a hundred years old… In short, people would like to use culture to give a boost to towns that are having difficulties, but what culture is there really to speak of? It’s the equivalent of opening an iron mine in a place where there’s no ore. That is one particularly disturbing aspect of the current process of regionalization of cultural budgets.
 Culture is a combination of things, both large and small, often closely connected to people and their history or to the local geography. This essential heritage is the basis from which we must try to work¾a fundamental reality that is too often overlooked by those attempting to develop cultural initiatives. Culture must, above all, be identified with a town’s citizens and serve their well-being before we try to turn it into an attraction for prospective tourists.

Artists and their towns

What should artists’ role be within their towns? What role are artists prepared to assume? A few years ago, we wouldn’t have dared ask these questions. With the emergence of new trends of thought and a deeper concern over the importance of artists in the economy of our societies, these questions have today become highly topical. With this in mind, we must re-examine the status we grant to artists within our society.

At our first symposium, LES TERRITOIRES RAPAILLÉS, held in Val-David in 1995, our guest of honour, Gaston Miron, presented his work La Marche à l’amour at the church in Val-David. Miron was very moved when, at the opening, Mayor Laurent Lachaine officially declared him an honorary citizen of the town. He then surprised his audience by stating: “I am deeply touched; you are the first town in Québec to name me an honorary citizen¾after five towns in France.” We had just accomplished a fine example of integrating the artist with his community.

Shaping the land: An artist’s idea

Spending time with artists from Mexico and Latin America, where their status is more firmly established than here, I have been able to observe the existence of many organizations which some of them have created to ensure that their culture endures. Numerous museums, studios and foundations there bear the name of the artist. In Mexico, in particular, a number of museums are named after Mexican artists. Try and find a museum named after a Québec artist, look for a high school or elementary school, and you’ll soon see they’re few and far between. The fear of criticism! The fear of imposing a name! The fear of remembering and of naming oneself. The committees and structures of the State help perpetuate this anonymity, but artists must not remain anonymous if their work is meaningful.

Land and town

We tend to see culture as being disseminated only in certain traditional spaces like art galleries, museums, exhibition centres or concert halls. The idea of using the land as a cultural space and convincing a town to join in as a partner is a major challenge. Try to imagine what the Laurentians will look like in twenty years or so. Today, Highway 117 and the main street are already congested by the influx of tourists and the traffic they bring. It is imperative to recall why people come to this region and this town: for culture and the natural environment. If we don’t preserve as much green space as possible, if we don’t protect nature with cultural projects, we may experience spectacular growth, but the village will resemble a bedroom community, a retirement suburb for Montréal.

Cultural policies and small towns

Another key point about cultural policies lies in the fact that the decision makers¾the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Québec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage¾must better understand that working in the regions calls for accommodation with the artistic community, citizens and town partners. Working together with people in the region and in keeping with town policies produces a complex network of relations that our fellow artists on those organizations’ selection committees too often ignore as an important value in regional culture. For example, if I put together a symposium in a major urban centre, I might just consult essentially the artistic and cultural community. The public would be only slightly involved. It’s an entirely different story when the project is connected with a town and a specific territory. This aspect must be taken into greater account by cultural decision makers.

The town as cultural leader

The town has a vital role to play in making our living environments more convivial and enriching our day-to-day reality. It must encourage the development of public spaces where citizens can share a history, a culture and a memory. Churches have played this role before in Québec. We now must rebuild this idea of public space around culture, and a number of towns in Québec have already established projects of this kind. The town is the most effective decision-making centre for improving our immediate surroundings, or making them ugly, for preserving heritage, or making it disappear. Town mayors have an important responsibility in this regard, that of building the heritage of tomorrow. I believe that artists must also get involved in this by participating in citizens’ committees and committees on culture or heritage.

The mayor of one town in the Laurentians recently told me: “We’re beginning to think of culture based on ourselves and meant for our public.” I replied: “Finally! No more phony projects intended for tourists who are supposedly eager to come visit us.”

Artists and the creative process

Creation is not linear, nor dependent solely on the history of art. It is constantly changing and reinvents itself in every age. The creative process is influenced by the place where it happens and the characteristics of the country where it is located. If Florence, Paris and Mexico exist as world heritage sites, it is largely the result of political decisions made by people who showed clear-sightedness and promoted the forging of close ties between art and the public.

Artists on their own can’t influence so many things. They have to wait for commissions. Every good architect, every good composer, every great sculptor depends, to a certain extent, on the call of society if they want to produce great public works. This raises the question of involvement on the ground and within the community itself, a process that is far from easy. As artists, we have to know how to set our egos aside, step out of our isolation, throw off that shell that has often become too comfortable.

We have to stop spreading the idea that, to maintain their integrity and credibility, artists must cut themselves off and remain on the margins of their communities. The Renaissance produced its share of major works, which emerged out of daily struggles carried on by entrepreneurial, socially engaged artists. These artists’ works form an integral part of history and underlie the ideological, political and economic struggles of their respective times. To reach that point, these creators most certainly had to act as factors of change and deliberation within their own communities and, by extension, their towns. Let’s stop stuffing ourselves with speeches on pseudo-integrity and instead observe the disappointing reality: artists without a public, fossilized by institutional support.

It is time for artists to react by reintegrating the public space into daily reality. Their independence and their freedom as creators depend on it. We have to seek out and create new audiences. There are many people who would like to take an interest in art but are put off by its methods of dissemination. To remedy these shortcomings, we must be able to count on the involvement of public decision makers and the formation of new partnerships between artists and towns, between creators and communities. These cooperative agreements constitute promising vehicles for our development and our identity.

René Derouin



I Am Writing to You As an Artist

Article published in the magazine Dialogis, Arts et société, winter 2004

I am writing to you as an artist who has been practising day after day, and living solely from my art, since 1955¾nearly fifty years already. I notice that for the past decade or so, my studio work has led me to neglect the current accomplishments of the new generations and that I am not sufficiently informed about your generation’s approach overall. I can see this from the current art magazines that I subscribe to and that I read carefully. This is why I hesitated so long before answering your questions and, in particular, doing so in writing. I wondered how useful it could be, knowing that this piece would be read by a generation of artists accustomed to instant communications, to the Internet, to rapid changes in society. I had doubts about whether they were interested in reading observations drawn from a memory of another age. Nevertheless, I have agreed to offer my testimony, with all the risks you run in our artistic community in writing an opinion piece as an artist.

I find the present situation in the art world complex, fragile and fearful. The visual arts world is full of well-structured organizations and talented artists¾most of them working essentially as volunteers, for lack of funds. Media coverage that reflects the importance of the visual arts in the public realm is currently scarce. Artists are totally disappearing from the major communications media, where an important debate is being played out and, also, where societal choices are made and financial investments by the State are decided. Because the State is heavily influenced by the media. I am troubled to see a quality program like Indicatif Présent, hosted by Marie-France Bazzo, tackle the visual arts through watercolours, drawings and paintings made by writers, actors and other people involved in the entertainment industry. Who would dare talk about literature, theatre or music without the professionals directly concerned? If that were to happen, there would be an outcry from those communities! What has occurred to make such a situation acceptable in contemporary art? Indicatif Présent is only one of many examples. These programs always invite real geographers, real sociologists, real anthropologists, real writers and countless other qualified specialists. Why are artists no longer in the sights of the information industry? There is good reason for concern! We must question the media, and ourselves, about our communication behaviour. It’s an urgent matter, if we want to have our rightful place both in day-to-day reality and in society’s imagination! Those who have maintained the opposite for many years have led artists generally to a dead end and a disastrous economic situation. And it is now up to your generation to deal with this situation! If you would like to live from your art, that means a daily commitment to get beyond being a dilettante and work to become integrated in society by having a presence there.

As for my generation, we come from a time that is a bit romantic and mythical in terms of the perception of our status as artists. We were familiar with the late-nineteenth-century mythology of the artist lamenting his lot. And I don’t have to bring up the history of Refus global and our alienation in Québec society again. Fifty years have gone by since then, and that’s long enough! You have to look after yourselves and your survival as artists now.

Our generation thought it had a social role, and a recognition that was understood in society. Because of our involvement in creating, we were accorded the position of priests, of high-ranking clerics who decided what was good taste for the people. Moreover, if we take a close look at our current, or contemporary, cultural society, we once again find all the clerical behaviours of 1950s Québec society, only secularized. From that earlier generation, we have retained a haughty, somewhat disdainful view of the public and the populace. Believing that we hold a power over Knowledge that we find too complex to be shared with the public, we often jumble it up with a blurred (out of focus) gaze that is very common in contemporary art.

We looked to the State and outside this country for our existence and recognition as artists. No one looked anywhere else. Artists were above it all, never bothering to ask the vital question: how were they to live from their art in Québec society?

Above all, they weren’t supposed to ask that kind of “unthinkable” question: “How do you earn a living as a creative artist?” Whether in the visual arts, writing or composing, and while possessing a certain mastery, creative artists had to consider themselves well above that vulgar materialistic question! So, with respect to the question of the art market in our culture, of our future and of the public, of the meaning art takes on in our society: it was out of the question to talk about it! I imagine it comes as a rude shock for highly trained artists to discover the harsh reality of earning a living. We have long avoided questioning ourselves about the place that art holds in Québec society, in education, in our families, among our friends, in the environment of our cities and towns. What is our role in the everyday life of our society? What is the art market? What does this public educated by our Quiet Revolution do, other than read the Journal de Montréal? A fine introduction to starting off a career: discovering that our practice has shut itself in, that it has become an art practised by volunteers maintained by the State, because it has often become an art without any outlet. After a few years of doing the circuit, new artists go back to school to earn doctorates on their practices and reorient their careers. The problem is so serious that we avoid looking at it straight on in order not to see the maze and the dead end in which artists get stuck, even fifty years after Refus global.

Many people imagine that they are independent of politics, of the economy and their community, and dream on an international scale. They naïvely believe that one day they will be parachuted onto the big international stage, finally recognized by others, who will have such a need for their works that they will give them a place of prime importance and rush to buy them!

We have to look at the history of Québec artists over the last fifty years as a tragic story of exile and disenchantment from New York to Paris to Berlin. A romanticism sustained by a nineteenth-century vision of the artist in society. To dream that the outside world, instead of us, will support our works, our culture and our values, is not to know the international art market. You have to be either cruel or foolish to make generation after generation of artists believe those old stories! It’s an identity problem for a country without any common sense. What is prompting us to go abroad, captive as we are to ambiguity and indecision? What perception can people there have of us? Art does not have to be national in its representation, but it should be effectively supported by national structures!

I have never believed in this story of our recognition coming from abroad. We have to begin by recognizing ourselves, right here, and then see if our story is of interest to people elsewhere. Imagining that American Pop Art was originated only by good New York artists is another example of naïve romanticism. Without the support of corporate lobbies, this art would not have travelled the world and contributed to the dominance of the American empire. It began in New York with the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, which put an end to the dominance of Paris as centre of the Intellectual World. When Pop Art works circulated all around the globe, they weren’t for sale: they already belonged to the major American museums. Just ask the Québec Pop artists left in the shadow of the American artists featured in the Pop Art retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts a few years ago.

We need to assign ourselves a value here with a view to the international market, a value supported by collectors in our society, by an expanded public; only after that would the works be donated to major museums as a national cultural legacy. That’s how art operates everywhere in the Western world: we give ourselves values and we preserve them. This seems so obvious to me that it is absurd to still be talking about it in 2004!

At the age of 19, in 1955 in Mexico City, when I first came into contact with Mexican culture, I started to understand that we have to overcome the contempt we have for our history. The Mexicans had begun this awareness effort directed toward themselves by putting the values of the oligarchy in their proper place. First, by carrying out their political revolution, in 1910, and then, by making major cultural changes during the 1920s and rediscovering an identity that drew on the 3,000-year history of human occupation of their land.

According to many myopic French Canadians, we came into the world in the 1950s. So I wondered: where were we, then, in this land for 400 years? Maybe we were in exile in Old France or working wretched plots of land to bring the country into existence, or else migrants to the United States doing “Canuck” jobs! And so, according to the high priests of culture, culture appeared to us in 1950¾ to us, an utterly destitute people…?

Encountering the stranger

I’ve always liked the story about André Breton’s encounter with Frida Kahlo. The Pope of the Surrealists, on a trip to Mexico, discovers the paintings of Frida Kahlo and thinks he has discovered a great surrealist artist, whose work he could incorporate into his movement and exhibit in Paris. During the conversation, Frida tells him that her paintings aren’t surrealistic, that her works describe her life, her everyday reality, her tragedy, that they are realistic and not surrealistic at all! There we have a certain ambiguous view of the Americas as seen by Europe. Similar to the Jesuits’ encounter with the Amerindians, at the beginning of New France: they wanted to convert the “savages” in order to bring them to “civilization and culture.”

This land of racial and cultural mixing

My family has lived in North America since time immemorial. You can be sure that none of my ancestors or grandfathers were surrealists. They didn’t have the time, because they were always dealing with the urgency of survival in this vast land filled with Amerindian magic. I’m telling this story to underscore the distance there is between different cultures. Personally, I believe that we don’t need to all belong to the same history of art, and that every culture must make an effort to appreciate that of the other. I imagine this must be seen the same way by a Senegalese, a Filipino or a Tahitian, when confronted with Western cultures. I’ve always believed that art should embody the society and the land it occupies, and that choosing to go look elsewhere comes after you assert your own identity. Those artists that we all know and that left their mark on the twentieth century are the product of this phenomenon of a growing society asserting itself: from Monet to Pollock, from Tàpies to Soulage, from Munakata to Tamayo to Riopelle, and so on. It’s hard for art to exist and blossom without this strong social base supported by a society that wants to build a future collectively.

In our lives as artists, on some evenings of major openings, we’re invited to decorate an art gallery in the company of our cultural elite. Sometimes, as well, we receive prizes and grants, a few weighty medals for us to wear, knowing that all this will implicate us in the myth of the artist who has achieved social success. One day we realize that we are institutionalized artists; that the public is often absent from our networks; that the bourgeoisie of Québec Inc. is slowly selling off our heritage in order to go end its days in the islands down south or in Old France! This elite, which emerged in the 1950s and was, after the Quiet Revolution, supposed to support culture and aid the development of society through its patronage, this elite which grew rich as a result of that revolution and all the manifestations of its cultural evolution, what is it doing? Having reached the age of wisdom, it is in the process of heading off with our collective “caisses de dépôts” and all the other “caisses” where we have invested our hopes. They say we’re rich to the tune of several hundred billion…

During this same time, museums (to take one example) have no budgets to buy artists’ works. This shows a lack of faith and a betrayal on the part of our elites. If no one supports the country’s currency, values collapse. Supporting art is supporting our own values, otherwise there’s no country any more. You don’t have to take a course in economics and art management to understand the structures for passing down heritage: you have to acquire it! We believe in our values if we believe in a future. Otherwise, it’s everyone for himself and corruption takes hold as a political mode. Unfortunately, I think we’ve reached that point. What country are we living in? We’ve become a stunted society without a social project that has said NO twice, that has voted for insignificance and chosen uncultured people to be guides for its future. Those aren’t the first insignificances that I’ve observed! It takes passion to get beyond your own situation and pursue a search that is always/still?? presented under a false political identity. Even if the future is not assured and if I don’t see signs of the slightest social project that would take us out of our indecision about identity, I am continuing my work and writing this article. That’s the crux of what I have to say. I think it’s realistic. I’m not being told any more stories, and I can say a lot about that. I’ve seen talented young artists go by who are eaten up like fast food by the system, only to then be tossed into the void of art history after five-year careers. More and more, I would like to see an end to the insignificance that is established as an operating system and is one cause of the wastage of our fundamental values.

I believe we must act differently and realize that we belong to a general movement built on a set of fundamental values. Above all, we mustn’t believe everything that is said by the parasites of our cultural society (administrators, government officials and so forth).

Currently, they outnumber the artists. It’s now up to your generation to shake up the joint. It’s not the time to go looking elsewhere. If you choose to leave, you will have to come back to these lands of the Americas to continue your identity search. Exile is over. Let’s reread the writings of Borduas, who, sadly, didn’t have the chance to come back and finish his work; just like another exile, Riopelle, who came back to continue his search in the land of the geese and to die in exile on his island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, between the Americas and his dream as an artist.

Today, we often have the opportunity to go away to travel but rarely into exile. We know more about how we belong to our society, and how we are rooted here with past generations, thanks to the poets, composers, artists and geographers who have named our spaces in their pioneering work in poetry, song, theatre, music and art. Our land is fertile ground for creation, but at the moment, we are lacking oxygen, freedom to think outside the one line of thinking. Visual artists must take part in social debates in the public arena and in the media, the way filmmakers, writers, actors and musicians do. We need minds that reach beyond, we need to put an end to the levelling decreed by the society of “social refusal,” to overcome group adolescent mentality and at the same time, assert our art and its existence. Art has always brought with it a commitment and a responsibility that must be “owned.” The time is urgent. We must manage to invent ourselves and create disseminating structures in order to be able to live from our art and stop acting like sons and daughters of the all-providing State; stop being afraid of what others think of us; write books and manifestoes, go on TV and radio, be a presence everywhere. To survive as artists, we must reconnect with the public and create new audiences.

For the moment, faced with the urgency of the situation, let’s stop comparing our history to that of others and ask ourselves the question of our future as artists. There is work to do in this third millennium.

At the age of 68, I’m still working intensively on putting exhibitions together; consolidating the symposium held at the Jardins du Précambrien; preparing lectures; and attending town meetings on our environment and culture, in Val-David, where I live. After fifty years of struggling as an artist to create outside of institutions and travel between exile and migration, I feel the urgency of building  ties within our society. I’ve been working for the last ten years on the idea of creating new audiences at the symposiums in Val-David; audiences that I know are waiting for us to offer them something. I think that art is not as hermetic as people make out; its presentation, its communication and its overly institutional framework are what close it off and isolate it from the public.

An artist’s dream

Choosing a place, ending exile.

I’ve dreamed of a place where the art of living would be found in little things with very simple values. Of finding myself truly in the spirit of a place where art is an integral part of life, and of ending my days and my work in this space, the way Gaudi ended his days in his Baroque Cathedral in Barcelona. A place to work, to celebrate nature and watch it live, and to discover that art lies in the sensuality of places that endure over time. I began to dream¾on my walks in the forest to look at the mushrooms, tamaracks and birches¾that the tall spruce trees resemble us a little, that they are rough, energetic and dense, and that they do a good job of filling the space of our Laurentian forest! I wanted to put names to all these things, name them the way a poet might make places familiar. Yes, I’ve dreamed that I would cease my migrations, that I would travel no more, that I would end my exile; that my life was here, around my land, that time… my time was precious. I wanted to walk in the forest, savour nature, share it and bring other creators there so that they could help me understand my land. Name the different places, as if in a great, open-air art gallery, where the in situ art trails would reproduce the hollows in the relief blocks used in woodcut prints: shape the land like a big block of yellow birch taking form in the Precambrian vegetation. My dream is gradually being realized: the in situ art trails are there in the Jardins du Précambrien; keen-eyed artists have left their traces there; guest poets have added their words and the sounds created by composers sometimes invade the forest. Walking over the land in the fall at the end of each symposium, after the public has left, I once again find my place of solitude and creation, and hear the murmurs of summer once more; I glimpse the dazzled gaze of the children and adults who have come to walk in the culture of the land. And then, my life as an artist takes on meaning!

Carved memory

In the other century of my memory, I have carved kilometres of wood, left imprints and signs drawn from a primeval art, and inscribed traces made up of continuously flowing lines. What remains with me is the memory of the art and the pleasure of making it, outlining the curves of the body in the sensuous raw material. Many of these works will rest in the basements of State museum collections, in the silence of absence or in the sediment of the great river, vestiges of the passing of our history. Art has been my daily life for fifty years. We may dream and imagine that artists’ lives were simpler in the nineteenth century. Let us remember the time of Cézanne, Monet and Gauguin, those artists we love for their works. We seem to forget the daily struggles of those artists to live and create work in their society, always battling to live with the laws of the market of their day. There’s nothing romantic about it, but we must think about it; it’s the harsh reality of our situation as artists. However, we must accept this reality and see it through, take the necessary steps to live from our art and fight for our work. Through their works, these nineteenth-century artists were, and continue to be, very close to us, yet distant because of the difference in our societies. The artist’s role has stayed the same: create works that have the sacred nature of icons; give and pass down values that we bear as artists.

Even now I think, quite naïvely, that innovation still lies ahead of me. I try to understand without being encumbered by acquired memories, like someone starting out in the world of art. I would like to conclude this article by asking you an important question. You are well acquainted with new technologies and you have studied well; you’ve analysed art, psychoanalysed its content, and your professors have pointed out the works that should be remembered, from the artists who are inscribed in history. And so, I ask you the question posed by Paul Gauguin: “Who are we? Where are we going?”

René Derouin