Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Big Picture 62

The city of Toronto’s new arts awareness campaign, TO Live With Culture (TO – Toronto – get it?) proves that when civil servants promote the arts, the arts resemble the civil service. I know that sounds ungrateful, but there are some things even a Toronto artist can’t take. Is a little glamour and style too much to ask?

The thinking behind the campaign is solid enough. When the federal government declared Toronto a Cultural Capital for 2005-2006 - you’d think our cultural pre-eminence would be self evident, but there are people in Ottawa paid to state the obvious - the City of Toronto slouched into action, creating a Culture Plan for the Creative City via its Culture Division (the first dictate being that henceforth all mention of said important initiatives be crafted in capital letters). A key part of the Culture Plan is the implementation of a web portal called www.livewithculture.ca, which in turn is part of the Cultural Renaissance Capital Projects initiative, and is co-produced with the Toronto Arts Council Foundation …. Well, you get the point.

Apart from sending a handful of civil servants’ children to UCC, all these interrelated programs share the laudable goal of promoting Toronto-based arts. Arguing with that core goal seems peevish, like criticizing a toy drive at your local fire hall. The web portal itself performs its function well, except when it strives too hard to be all-inclusive and puts displays of Christmas lights and CN Tower tours on an equal cultural footing with plays and art exhibitions.

But good intentions are not enough when it comes to publicity and promotion. Good design is in many ways more important, because if the public is not drawn to the “sell” image at first glance, they will never make it to the web portal. Sadly, the promotional banners and posters for TLWC are, in a word, horrendous.

Various disciplines are represented by clichéd props, such as a brush and palette for art, a stack of books for literature, etc., and the activity associated with the prop is performed, or rather assaulted by, a bouncing underwear model dressed in a costume left over from A Chorus Line. If the goal of this campaign is to trivialize the local arts with infantile imagery, then somebody at city hall is due for a big promotion.

The posters are an insult to the diversity of artists working in this city. Apparently, fat people don’t make art. Nor do people over the age of 30. And why should they? Making art is only a fun hobby, the posters tell us, like taking yoga classes, and is mostly enjoyed by thin white folks. The complaint here is not that the posters lack representative scope (although they do, painfully so), but that their bland, commercial look actually makes them invisible. The TLWC visuals could just as easily be selling yoghurt or back pain medication.

No, I take that back. The problem is one of representation. As a large-and-in-charge artist myself, one who has given rather a lot of time and talent over the years to rather a lot of art events in this town, I damn well want to see a fat person on the poster!

Once you get past the unimaginative model casting, you are left with some equally tired messages about art and art making. The jumping twits on the posters reinforce age-old, anti-art stereotypes: Namely, that we’re all flighty, fey airheads skipping along and smiling like idiots while the real world passes us by. All that’s missing from these posters are the gossamer wings.

Art-making is a profession, and a difficult one. Can you imagine using stupid toys and anorexics in Danskins to promote dentistry or engineering? Of course not, because fixing teeth and building bridges is serious work. So is creating a city’s cultural life.

After getting all riled up, I wondered if I was over-reacting. I polled a handful of artists and non-artists and found I was not the only one wanting to climb the nearest lamppost with a pair of scissors and a lighter.

Novelist Andrew Pyper (whose latest, the gripping The Wildfire Season, is just out in paperback) calls the TLWC campaign “a missed opportunity”.

“What's disappointing about the campaign isn't its ugliness, but its generic anywhere-ness. Working artists could have been commissioned to create distinctive words and images, something that didn't just say "Toronto has Art", but "Here is Toronto's Art."

Fellow novelist Jared Mitchell concurs.

“The posters stink of leftover money in the budget. They look like they were composed by a committee that couldn’t agree on anything other than the posters had to have a human in them. If conservatives want to complain about taxpayers money being misused in the arts, this is where they should look, not at art or artists.”

Restaurant manager Paul Forsyth calls the banners “as bad as the moose fiasco. The first time I saw one, I thought it was an ad for a Parachute Club comeback CD.”

I tried - really I did - to find one artist who liked or was at least forgiving of the TLWC visuals. Just one. I failed.

Multimedia artist Chandra Bulucon put it best: The campaign must have been designed by people who’ve never made a work of art in their lives, or met an artist.

“To think these images represent arts and culture in Toronto. Not my arts and culture.”