Nearly three decades ago, I wrote "Beyond the Pale: Looking for E/quality Outside the White Imaginary" for Parallelogramme1Garneau, David. "Beyond the Pale: Looking for E/Quality Outside the White Imaginary." Parallelogram, vol. 20, no. 1, Toronto: Association of National Non-Profit Artists’ Centres, 1994.. Electrified by the Minquon Panchayat cultural activists I orbited, the article considers resistance to other than Euro-North American art and artists, particularly in the artist-run centers where one would expect better. Reading it now, I remember growing pains: in the artist-run system, among racialized artists individually and as burgeoning collectives, and in myself. I wrestled with social expressions of my identity. I was unsure how to be a Métis artist rather than an artist who happens to be Métis. During ‘the culture wars’ of the early 1990s, I felt compelled, as a white-passing man, to self-consciously highlight my European aspect in that text even if that description was incomplete. In an earlier draft, in an effort to allude to my Métisness without having to include a long footnote, I described myself as “an apparently white man.” In the final edit, feeling not quite ready even for that limen, I erased it and re-figured as white2The current preference in academic circles, is to consider Métis as citizens. This makes sense, political sense, but requires ignoring historical and present experience that includes race.—an embarrassing attempt to be legible.
Zool Suleman, Rungh editor and a founding member of the Minquon Panchayat, asked me to reflect, here, on “Beyond the Pale.” While there is a need for a ‘this is where we were, this is where we are’ essay, my temperament is more prospective than retrospective. I feel drawn to an issue raised in the article’s title that continues to vex—the problem of e/quality in art world(s).
The inclusion of previously excluded content can radically shift the discourse and rearrange the hierarchy.
“Beyond the Pale” argues that there is a white imaginary, a set of definitions, tropes, habits, expectations, histories, even ways of seeing shared by people educated in the dominant, Euro-North American art discourse, and that this imaginary informs and restricts what enters the mainstream art world. This imaginary determines what counts as art, who qualifies as artists, and how those things and people rank in that ontological hierarchy. If the art world—art galleries and museums, the art market, art magazines, books, and histories, and art schools—is static, then equity would simply be a matter of under-represented folks getting themselves and their work in the door in proportionate numbers. However, the art world is dynamic. One movement eclipses another. The inclusion of previously excluded content can radically shift the discourse and rearrange the hierarchy. When, for example, a significant number of Indigenous people inhabit an institution that houses their belongings and/or shares their knowledge, and those folks are held accountable to a community beyond that institution, then the ontologies and methodologies of that place will change. Euro-North American resistance is not primarily a fear of non-white bodies in ‘their’ spaces—you can always fill those minds with the dominant ideology and call it professionalism. The existential dread is that non-colonial IBPOC minds will challenge and change the institution’s preferences and methodologies, and that they and all they hold dear will be devalued, even extinguished.
Egalitarianism is the idea that everyone is equal in the sense that we have the same fundamental value, and therefore deserve the same rights and opportunities. Equity means that folks get what they need, with the understanding that some of what we need is similar and some things are different. Barriers to equity include, for example, systemic racism. The white imaginary has restricted access to those ‘beyond the pale.’ Art equity, then, begins by understanding that art is a basic human good and that access to art materials, training, and institutions is a right. This is an extension of other access rights: to education, wellness, justice, etc.
there is a tension between a drive for quality of care and a drive for aesthetic quality.
The primary argument against egalitarianism is that public resources are finite. And the argument against art access as a right begins by positing that art education is a luxury and art a commodity. These arguments are valid in the systems that generate them. However, we can imagine worlds in which hoarding is restricted and abundance redistributed in the form of a guaranteed annual income. Is such realms, open access is a marker of civilization.
However, in our egalitarian possible world, as in our present one, there is a tension between a drive for quality of care and a drive for aesthetic quality.
Art has two broad aspects. As evolutionary anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake explains, art is a basic human impulse, the desire to “make special.”3https://ellendissanayake.com/publications/pdf/EllenDissanayake-The_Pleasure_and_Meaning_of_Making.pdf This broad sense of art centers making, especially the handcrafting of beautiful, interesting, and useful things. This is art as pleasure, art engaged for its therapeutic value, or as a form of learning, teaching, and skill building. This is art as cultural activity and every society recognizes its importance and provides, to greater and lesser degrees, for its continuance.
Art institutions are based on exclusion.
However, there is another broad form of art: things produced for display. This art world is primarily concerned with art objects, social value, judgment, and meaning. It is not egalitarian. Objects in this art world do not have the same fundamental value as works outside of it.4This is like, but not identical to the difference between amateur and professional sport. Unlike because non-professional art is usually not-competitive, and non-professional art often makes it into art galleries and museums. Art institutions are based on exclusion.
This difference is reflected in tensions felt among art workers. Those who prioritize egalitarianism are interested in getting folks to art. Their interest is in people, service, acceptance, and quantity rather than art works, display, judgment, and quality. Their goal is social justice. Art is a means. Frustration comes when they encounter the boundaries between these two realms, when they try to get art made for its own sake into the professional display art world which has radically different priorities. Activists who conflate people and things tend to conclude that the works are rejected due to reasons other than quality. This may be true, but it may also be a question of excellence. Figuring this out and its remedies requires engaging art beyond equity.
Professional artists know that some things are better than other things. They go to art school, they practice, and they endure critiques in order to make their work better. They also know that aesthetic judgments can include but also be separable from questions of social justice. Of course, aesthetic judgments are not objective; tastes and reasons change, but navigating these shifts is part of art’s excitement, and displaying and documenting these reasons and meanings is a central aspect of fine art. A fundamental difference between the two categories, a test really, is criticism. Professional art is fueled and measured by critique. No one, for example, reviews children’s art or works of art therapy. To do so would miss their purpose to the point of cruelty.5When art galleries shift to sites of social justice they become post-critical and the texts they generate and attract seek to explain the work but not evaluate it. The vast majority of art goes untroubled by critique not because of the limited imagination of art institutions but because of issues of quality. Works that, for example, reiterate but do not advance the field may be beautiful but also so familiar that they require no interpretation or engagement beyond appreciation.
a colleague once lamented sarcastically: 'Hire an Indian, any Indian will do.'
Identities like Métis, or artist, are aspirational.
- Garneau, David. "Beyond the Pale: Looking for E/Quality Outside the White Imaginary." Parallelogram, vol. 20, no. 1, Toronto: Association of National Non-Profit Artists' Centres, 1994.
- The current preference in academic circles, is to consider Métis as citizens. This makes sense, political sense, but requires ignoring historical and present experience that includes race.
- This is like, but not identical to the difference between amateur and professional sport. Unlike because non-professional art is usually not-competitive, and non-professional art often makes it into art galleries and museums.
- When art galleries shift to sites of social justice they become post-critical and the texts they generate and attract seek to explain the work but not evaluate it.
- Sherry Farrell-Racette. Curator's talk. Art for Lunch, Visual Arts Dept., University of Regina, March 3, 2023. Radical Stitch (April 30–Sept. 25, 2022). Co-curators Sherry Farrell-Racette, Cathy Mattes and Michelle Lavallee. Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina.