Why do we organize the study of art by national boundaries?

This week’s reading in my Canadian Art History course is about the Emma Lake Artist’s Workshop, held in northern Saskatchewan from the 1950s to present day.  In the early years, the organizers invited famous artists from New York (such as Barnett Newman) to lead the participants out of their isolation.  The federal government feared American cultural annexation, but the Prairie pragmatists instead resented Eastern Canada.

My feeling on the matter echoes my perspective on studying “Canadian art” as a whole:  why ever do we organize the study of art by national boundaries?

There are so many influences on an artist: personal, practical, political, temporal as well as geographical.  And that geographical effect is mostly local:  the landscape of their region, the galleries in their city, the attitudes of their community.  Art is considered Canadian when it shows some slice of our country, be it a Prairie wheat field or Kent Monkman‘s queering of the aboriginal/colonist discourse, but those slices are quite disjoint.

Today we can share art via the Internet and the airplane, so an artist in rural Saskatchewan need not be isolated from the trends in New York, or Venice, or Tokyo.  American art is not stopping any other nation from publishing creative works.  To elevate a Canadian artist over others is an obsolete form of nationalism.  Let us recognize great works of art, no matter where they come from.

Side note: This summer, Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre had multiple exhibitions of Saskatchewan art, from the Aboriginal to the academic.  I was particularly impressed by Clint Neufeld‘s engines dressed up for a tea party.  So apparently the Emma Lake workshops have effectively cultivated the arts in Saskatchewan.

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