Canada’s National Gallery Director Marc Mayer Produces More Fodder For Controversy

by Paddy Johnson on August 13, 2010 · 35 comments Newswire

Barnett Newman, Voices of Fire, at The National Gallery of Canada

National Gallery director Marc Mayer is making me very nervous about the future of Ottawa’s museum. He’s recently launched a blog, and it’s full of rambling nonsense.

Today, artistic debates are rare within the field because in our post-academic, post-movement, post-ism, and increasingly post-critical art world, controversy has balkanised into smithereens. In an age when originality is the one golden rule, debate is usually a private matter between artists whose differences are aired at dinner parties behind each others backs. They can be interesting, but such disagreements are almost always beside the point.

Artists are so independent of each other now that large collective controversies may never again flower among them. It is just too hard to start a good argument in a culture where invention has eclipsed convention, where orthodoxy celebrates the unorthodox, where ideas overshadow skill, and where sense, reference and subject matter are all optional. This is not to say that controversies have disappeared from art altogether, only that they have become very, very small.

Let’s get this straight: artistic debates are rare because artistic communities no longer exist and we’re now beyond criticism because innovation is more important. I don’t live in Canada any more, but unless something drastic has changed in the last month, I don’t see how these comments have any bearing on reality. The internet is rife with debate amongst artists, and he’d know that if he either visited an artist run blog, or enabled comments on his own. Also, the idea that originality is the only attribute of any relevance to the community is outdated at best. Today, ideas spread so quickly, their repetition is a given. Innovation is not an equivalent to relevance and cultural value, and since we’re past the age of Modernism, most of us know this.

Mayer then proceeds to discuss a long list of artist spats and controversial works, complete with inane suppositions such as “If it is true that art and pornography are diametrical opposites, and that has been the consensus for centuries, does art that takes the form of pornography lose its status as art?” Later he concludes that the merit of the work sparking large controversies “didn’t matter” because the debate eclipsed the art.

I suspect at least some of the ideas in this post were prompted by Mayer’s appearance earlier this year on the CBC’s The National, where he explained that the museum itself is concerned only with quality. The director caught a lot of flack for declaring the museum “blind to color” — apparently they see only “excellence”.

Mayer’s lucky it’s August because the laundry list of problematic statements made in his post could avoid widespread controversy because fewer people are around to care. If The National Gallery is wise it will use this post and other recent blunders to begin a search for a new director. Mayer represents the country, and if his blog is any indication, he’ll do nothing but embarrass us all.

  • artfagcityfan

    “If The National Gallery is wise it will use this post and other recent blunders to begin a search for a new director.”

    Hear hear!

  • artfagcityfan

    “If The National Gallery is wise it will use this post and other recent blunders to begin a search for a new director.”

    Hear hear!

  • Rat Fink

    Mayer reminds me of this terribly uptight man where I live who posts rants on Youtube about the train horn blaring through town or the college student using his phone in the library. He presumes some pretty amazing stuff to justify his argument. The sense I get from both of these guys is they both feel powerless in a world that is constantly moving past them. No one wants to be left behind.

    LET THE FLOWERS OF CONTROVERSY BLOOM!

  • Rat Fink

    Mayer reminds me of this terribly uptight man where I live who posts rants on Youtube about the train horn blaring through town or the college student using his phone in the library. He presumes some pretty amazing stuff to justify his argument. The sense I get from both of these guys is they both feel powerless in a world that is constantly moving past them. No one wants to be left behind.

    LET THE FLOWERS OF CONTROVERSY BLOOM!

  • http://www.lorenmunk.com James Kalm

    Your nervousness is well founded, these statements by Mr. Mayer represent to me, a prime example of political correctness run amuck. It makes me respect the sacrifices made by those of you who have escaped socialist regimes, to prosper here, all the more.

  • http://www.lorenmunk.com James Kalm

    Your nervousness is well founded, these statements by Mr. Mayer represent to me, a prime example of political correctness run amuck. It makes me respect the sacrifices made by those of you who have escaped socialist regimes, to prosper here, all the more.

  • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ L.M.

    I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it here, in Canada people fail up to these institutional positions. In fact whenever we discuss a particularly incompetent curator or gallery director, we always predict that he/she will head the National Gallery of Canada some day.

  • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ L.M.

    I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it here, in Canada people fail up to these institutional positions. In fact whenever we discuss a particularly incompetent curator or gallery director, we always predict that he/she will head the National Gallery of Canada some day.

  • Joseph Boys

    Paddy, I don’t know how long you have been out of Canada, but you definitely did spend way too much time north of the 49th parallel. I guess the moralistic overtone of your text simply gave that away. On one hand you point out that, in the information age, artistic opinions are abundant, plural and coming from all directions. On the other you are hitting on someone who’s not hiding behind the net but rather in a very visible position, for expressing his point of view. If the same comments had been made by a fellow artist you would have either ignore it or at best said “interested” and move on to the next smallish idea. If Mayer has any luck at all, that would be that the one taking arms against him are such weak thinkers.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Art Fag City

      Joseph, I have approved this comment for now, but others will not approved unless you provide your real name and more substantial commentary.

      There is no issue with observing that debates amongst artists exist, and that Marc Mayer offers opinions that have no relationship contemporary art making in Canada. Mayer is not an underrepresented artist, he’s the director of the Canadian National Gallery. Anyone working with that level of public visibility needs to be held accountable for statements such as these.

  • Joseph Boys

    Paddy, I don’t know how long you have been out of Canada, but you definitely did spend way too much time north of the 49th parallel. I guess the moralistic overtone of your text simply gave that away. On one hand you point out that, in the information age, artistic opinions are abundant, plural and coming from all directions. On the other you are hitting on someone who’s not hiding behind the net but rather in a very visible position, for expressing his point of view. If the same comments had been made by a fellow artist you would have either ignore it or at best said “interested” and move on to the next smallish idea. If Mayer has any luck at all, that would be that the one taking arms against him are such weak thinkers.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Art Fag City

      Joseph, I have approved this comment for now, but others will not approved unless you provide your real name and more substantial commentary.

      There is no issue with observing that debates amongst artists exist, and that Marc Mayer offers opinions that have no relationship contemporary art making in Canada. Mayer is not an underrepresented artist, he’s the director of the Canadian National Gallery. Anyone working with that level of public visibility needs to be held accountable for statements such as these.

  • http://www.getguerilla.ca Tony Martins

    Marc Mayer is not my hero, but he’s getting way too much flack for having the balls to state his opinions. I don’t agree with everything he says or does, but he’s nowhere near the disaster as is so fashionably described in countless blogs and Facebook critiques. The above debunking of Mayer’s blog post could just as easily be debunked as bunk. But what would be the point? To attack the man’s character because his logic and opinions may be suspect merely calls into question the character of the attackers. Let’s have mature debate, not giddy mud-slinging.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Art Fag City

      This post makes no charges about his character. It questions his ability to run the museum effectively, because his logic and opinions are as you say, “suspect”.

      If you’re looking for a mature debate, please start by engaging the substance of this post and the one it cites.

  • http://www.getguerilla.ca Tony Martins

    Marc Mayer is not my hero, but he’s getting way too much flack for having the balls to state his opinions. I don’t agree with everything he says or does, but he’s nowhere near the disaster as is so fashionably described in countless blogs and Facebook critiques. The above debunking of Mayer’s blog post could just as easily be debunked as bunk. But what would be the point? To attack the man’s character because his logic and opinions may be suspect merely calls into question the character of the attackers. Let’s have mature debate, not giddy mud-slinging.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Art Fag City

      This post makes no charges about his character. It questions his ability to run the museum effectively, because his logic and opinions are as you say, “suspect”.

      If you’re looking for a mature debate, please start by engaging the substance of this post and the one it cites.

  • http://roygreenart.blogspot.com royston

    As a Canadian I remember all too well the media debacle that the acquisition of Newman’s Voice Of Fire caused. ..the National Gallery always seems to be immersed in some sort of curatorial/management controversy…Ottawa can be a very provincial uptight town and overflows with politcal bullshit…as a west coast canadian artist I feel little or no connection to “The National Gallery”…check out the latest edition of The Walrus Magazine for more of Mayer and his art-shopping adventures…

  • http://roygreenart.blogspot.com royston

    As a Canadian I remember all too well the media debacle that the acquisition of Newman’s Voice Of Fire caused. ..the National Gallery always seems to be immersed in some sort of curatorial/management controversy…Ottawa can be a very provincial uptight town and overflows with politcal bullshit…as a west coast canadian artist I feel little or no connection to “The National Gallery”…check out the latest edition of The Walrus Magazine for more of Mayer and his art-shopping adventures…

  • Emily Falvey

    @ Joseph Boys: I invite you to watch the video posted below, in which Mayer “expresses his point of view” about the art of new immigrants to Canada. I would also like to point out that as a public servant appointed by the government of Canada his job is not to hold forth on various topics of interest, but rather to make sure the National Gallery of Canada realizes its Mandate. This includes responding to concerned members of the public, especially when it relates to matters of race. A blog might be one way to do this, but instead he continues to make veiled references to, and insinuations about, the public outcry prompted by his appearance on the National. To me this is the opposite of having the courage of your convictions. If he wants a debate he needs to address the issue directly and try to have a conversation with someone other than himself.

    http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/TV_Shows/The_National/Arts_and_Entertainment/ID=1402664008

  • Emily Falvey

    @ Joseph Boys: I invite you to watch the video posted below, in which Mayer “expresses his point of view” about the art of new immigrants to Canada. I would also like to point out that as a public servant appointed by the government of Canada his job is not to hold forth on various topics of interest, but rather to make sure the National Gallery of Canada realizes its Mandate. This includes responding to concerned members of the public, especially when it relates to matters of race. A blog might be one way to do this, but instead he continues to make veiled references to, and insinuations about, the public outcry prompted by his appearance on the National. To me this is the opposite of having the courage of your convictions. If he wants a debate he needs to address the issue directly and try to have a conversation with someone other than himself.

    http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/TV_Shows/The_National/Arts_and_Entertainment/ID=1402664008

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  • http://neditpasmoncoeur.blogspot.com Leah Sandals

    Hey Paddy – wow, thanks for bringing this issue up. I hadn’t even noticed the blog until you mentioned it. I just wanted to let you know I linked to this post:
    http://neditpasmoncoeur.blogspot.com/2010/08/links-roundup.html

  • http://neditpasmoncoeur.blogspot.com Leah Sandals

    Hey Paddy – wow, thanks for bringing this issue up. I hadn’t even noticed the blog until you mentioned it. I just wanted to let you know I linked to this post:
    http://neditpasmoncoeur.blogspot.com/2010/08/links-roundup.html

  • http://www.ABCartbookscanada.com Lawrence Boyle

    Marc Mayer has opened himself to public criticism by expressing the the view that excellence is the only quality in evaluating art. He did it again by criticizing the absence of debate in the Canadian art world. I disagree with the former and agree with the latter but I agree with what he has done. The director of the NGC has initiated a debate. Why shouldn’t this be part of his mandate? This is 2010 and 1910. We want more from leaders in the art world than fundraising and entertainment. If you believe feel he has failed in his job by expressing personal opinions, take him on. Let’s define the job we expect him to carry out. And do it in public. Why not? He is apparently willing to take the heat. The lack of public debate in the Canadian art world does it no good. The recent public controversy at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal had real and positive results as one can see even on their web site.

  • http://www.ABCartbookscanada.com Lawrence Boyle

    Marc Mayer has opened himself to public criticism by expressing the the view that excellence is the only quality in evaluating art. He did it again by criticizing the absence of debate in the Canadian art world. I disagree with the former and agree with the latter but I agree with what he has done. The director of the NGC has initiated a debate. Why shouldn’t this be part of his mandate? This is 2010 and 1910. We want more from leaders in the art world than fundraising and entertainment. If you believe feel he has failed in his job by expressing personal opinions, take him on. Let’s define the job we expect him to carry out. And do it in public. Why not? He is apparently willing to take the heat. The lack of public debate in the Canadian art world does it no good. The recent public controversy at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal had real and positive results as one can see even on their web site.

  • http://www.ABCartbookscanada.com Lawrence Boyle

    Marc Mayer has opened himself to public criticism by expressing the the view that excellence is the only quality in evaluating art. He did it again by criticizing the absence of debate in the Canadian art world. I disagree with the former and agree with the latter but I agree with what he has done. The director of the NGC has initiated a debate. Why shouldn’t this be part of his mandate? This is 2010 and 1910. We want more from leaders in the art world than fundraising and entertainment. If you believe feel he has failed in his job by expressing personal opinions, take him on. Let’s define the job we expect him to carry out. And do it in public. Why not? He is apparently willing to take the heat. The lack of public debate in the Canadian art world does it no good. The recent public controversy at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal had real and positive results as one can see even on their web site.

  • Mike

    Painters are consumers of painting history/mythology and we have an infinite virtual space, in the form of art historical scholarship, to travel through. I am a tourist with a time machine. The odds of any two time travelers meeting in the infinitude of the documented past and speculative future is astronomical. Only certain tourist traps like the Kennedy assassination or the march on Washington (expressionism, geo-abstraction, conceptualism etc.) will always be full of “time tourists”, but those are the worst kind of ugly Americans. Smart painter/tourists of on their own “authentic” “local flavor” adventures where they don’t want to be found.

  • Mike

    Painters are consumers of painting history/mythology and we have an infinite virtual space, in the form of art historical scholarship, to travel through. I am a tourist with a time machine. The odds of any two time travelers meeting in the infinitude of the documented past and speculative future is astronomical. Only certain tourist traps like the Kennedy assassination or the march on Washington (expressionism, geo-abstraction, conceptualism etc.) will always be full of “time tourists”, but those are the worst kind of ugly Americans. Smart painter/tourists of on their own “authentic” “local flavor” adventures where they don’t want to be found.

  • Mike

    Painters are consumers of painting history/mythology and we have an infinite virtual space, in the form of art historical scholarship, to travel through. I am a tourist with a time machine. The odds of any two time travelers meeting in the infinitude of the documented past and speculative future is astronomical. Only certain tourist traps like the Kennedy assassination or the march on Washington (expressionism, geo-abstraction, conceptualism etc.) will always be full of “time tourists”, but those are the worst kind of ugly Americans. Smart painter/tourists of on their own “authentic” “local flavor” adventures where they don’t want to be found.

  • Mike

    Painters are consumers of painting history/mythology and we have an infinite virtual space, in the form of art historical scholarship, to travel through. I am a tourist with a time machine. The odds of any two time travelers meeting in the infinitude of the documented past and speculative future is astronomical. Only certain tourist traps like the Kennedy assassination or the march on Washington (expressionism, geo-abstraction, conceptualism etc.) will always be full of “time tourists”, but those are the worst kind of ugly Americans. Smart painter/tourists of on their own “authentic” “local flavor” adventures where they don’t want to be found.

  • Beeper

    Closest thing to diversity at the NGC are the security guards – all of whom seem to reflect a particular old world continent and do not see themselves fairly represented in the professional offices of the institution. Good enough not even for admissions office/booth? Bell hops? Shame…

  • Beeper

    Closest thing to diversity at the NGC are the security guards – all of whom seem to reflect a particular old world continent and do not see themselves fairly represented in the professional offices of the institution. Good enough not even for admissions office/booth? Bell hops? Shame…

  • Beeper

    Closest thing to diversity at the NGC are the security guards – all of whom seem to reflect a particular old world continent and do not see themselves fairly represented in the professional offices of the institution. Good enough not even for admissions office/booth? Bell hops? Shame…

  • Beeper

    Closest thing to diversity at the NGC are the security guards – all of whom seem to reflect a particular old world continent and do not see themselves fairly represented in the professional offices of the institution. Good enough not even for admissions office/booth? Bell hops? Shame…

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