Censorship and Artist-run Centers
In Visual Arts In Canada: The Twentieth Century and “The Humiliation Of The Bureaucrat” we see a question arise around artist-run galleries. What is their purpose if they are destined to continuously converge both in art and institutionalization with mainstream galleries? Whitelaw proposed that in the 80’s artworld, artist run centers recentered their purpose to exhibiting artwork with a political point of view (10). We saw an example of this in the early 1980s in Peterborough Ontario; the Canadian Images Festival and artist-run gallery Artspace made the decision to purposely exhibit A Message From Our Sponsor, a film that had been rejected by the Ontario Censorship Board. The resulting coverage from this act of rebellion exposed the arbitrary nature of the censorship board and publicly damaged their image therein likely aiding in the dissolution of the board. Drawing on an interview with a key participant in this event, I argue that in the picture that Whitelaw now paints of the current undefined purpose for artist-run centers, we can look to this act of past rebellion for inspiration (10). Bronson in“The Humiliation Of The Bureaucrat” explores the want by artists in late 60s Canada for a robust Canadian art scene. Yet he problematizes the practical necessities to create that transcanadien connective tissue, as the antithesis of artists want to idealize. There is a tension between the “poetic aspiration and the idealisation of the obsessed, [the artist] on the other, empirical reality and the anti-poetic [the institution]'' as he describes it (Bronson). It was the institutionalized nature of Canadian Images and Artspace that allowed those involved the support they needed to accomplish this screening but it was the rebellious fearlessness of artists that pushed the idea forward. How do we continue to differentiate from mainstream galleries when formal acceptability broadens at a rate to match artist run centers?
The Ontario Censorship Board as we know it started in 1921 with the intention of "basing its decisions on the fundamental principles laid down by the respectable and law-abiding general public" (Wise 22). There is a recurring theme within the censorship rhetoric that censorship is meant to reinforce the Canadian identity. The same rhetoric was being spread years later by The Senate of Canada, Proceedings of the Special Committee on Sale and Distribution of Salacious and Indecent Literature in1952: “[T]hose who print, import, distribute or exhibit for sale salacious and indecent publications will feel the force of this public opinion and be made to realize that they are doing a filthy, immoral and nasty thing to the detriment of Canada in its present position [and] anything that undermines the morals of our citizens and particularly of the young, is a direct un-Canadian act” (41). Here we can see things like nudity and vulgarity being branded as thoroughly un-Canadian. There is also the subject of harm. Censorship laws are normally built around the idea of reducing harm: While retrospective analysis may reveal fears that have been overstated, the hypothesis of harm is always present. In 1959, there was a fear that young men "would have their morals perverted" by looking at photographs of naked women; now, a growing body of empirical literature focuses on specific kinds of harm flowing from images that may promote or condone sexual violence (45 Boyd).
Yet with the lack of institutionalized rules in the Censorship Board the decisions were often left up entirely to whoever was the head of the board at the time. Ian McLachlan has been active in the artistic community in Peterborough many years, at the time of this happening he was prominent in both the Artspace, and Canadian Images boards. He remembers the head of the Censorship Board, Mary Brown, saying, “there is no regulation that regulates our power to regulate.” It is also important to point out The “P” Squad, a combination of provincial and Toronto morality police, the Censorship Board used for enforcement were also responsible for the bath house raids in the 80s which were done to persecute and expose homosexual men (Doyle). From a queer perspective, historically the subject of what's inappropriate or harmful is often used to further oppress. Mclachlan echoed this sentiment in our interview “because it was all defined as community standards and community standards can mean absolutely anything to a whole variety of different consumers of the object”. While some institutions like The Funnel, a prominent experimental film theatre at the time, sought to argue that art films should be exempt from the Censorship Board, Canadian Images Festival and Artspace sought to expose these problems that are at the very core of censorship itself (Mclachlan).
The Humiliation of The Bureaucrat starts with a quote from Nietzsche that is emblematic of many artists' approach to practice: “Intoxication must first have heightened the sensibility of the whole machine before it can come to any art. And all kinds of special varieties of intoxication have the power to work in this way” (Bronson). Artists are intimately familiar with this concept of intoxication, all fringes of the human or non human experience: imagery, sounds, and text with which draws forth emotions, good or bad, complex, melancholic or sexual. These elements are all central to art as a larger institution. Nietzsche continues that idealization, is when this intoxication is ridden to the end, when a feeling, or idea is continuously expanded until all else falls away “And this compulsion to change things to perfection - is art"(Bronson). It is the nature of artists to explore these topics and so it comes to reason that if a line exists, artists will push at it. What is censorship but a line in the bureaucratic sand? Ian Mclachlan described the attitude of the artists in the early 1980’s: “I think everybody held [The Censorship Board] in contempt in art circles and also in the left wing political circles that I was involved in. I was somewhere between Marxism and anarchism in my own thinking, a bit of both. And so the whole idea of censorship and what it was protecting-thought to protect-people from was a big topic of debate generally.”
The decision to show Al Razutis' film A Message From Our Sponsor was born of this environment. The film had been included in a collection of Canadian experimental films by the National Gallery of Canada but opposition from the Ontario Censorship Board led the National Gallery to drop the film from current and future cross country screenings (Doyle). This contradiction of not legally being able to screen a film that had shown at the National Gallery only strengthened the frustration with the Censorship Board at the time and cemented the film as an object of protest. A Message From Our Sponsor is a 9 minute film that combined images from ads with images from films the Censorship Board had previously deemed pornography: a rather direct statement meant to criticize the Board. The scene of contention in the film was a 15 second clip that contained fellatio, something Al Razutis refused to cut from the film (Mclachlan). The decision to show the film despite warnings from the Censorship Board was surprisingly unanimous considering those involved in the decision were risking criminal charges (Mclachlan). Those charges did come about in part because the event got a lot of press, something that made certain the Censorship Board could not ignore the otherwise small screening. The press coverage also served to highlight the unfair ways in which the Board functioned.
Those involved were so committed to exposing The Censorship Board, that instead of accepting fines for showing the film they committed to a trial. Amusingly, rather than artist-run centers being humiliated by their own bureaucracy as Bronson describes, in this instance artists sought to humiliate using their institutional resources. It was the Canadian Images Festival’s position as a Trent University organization that provided the funding needed to cover the lawyers needed to pay for a trial (Mclachlan). “I think what happened at this trial was that they overstepped. This kind of culture runs on the basis of a set of tacit political assumptions and compromises generally. And people don't flex their muscles too much unless they really have to in order to protect themselves. People in power in this case, they did expose themselves to this kind of ridicule” (Mclachlan). While it cannot be said decisively that this event directly led to the dissolution of the Censorship Board it can certainly be said that it exposed the flawed logic in a very public forum; marking it in the public consciousness in a way it hadn't been before. It was only a year after the trial that Supreme Court of Ontario found the Board of Censors was in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that it “had been ‘vague, undefined, and totally discretionary’ in using its powers under The Theatres Act and that it had no legal right to decide what the public should be prohibited from viewing” (Wise 34-35). The culmination of this one screening at Artspace in 1980 shows the potential power of artist-run centers.
Perhaps the lesson here is to embrace the institution of it all. To spread out our fingers and grow like vines, thoroughly entangled in the community, to both provide support and be supported. For in this case in 1980 we needed both the rebellion and the anarchy, as well as the lawyers and the money. There is a lesson in using the institutional structures to the artist’s benefit rather than seeing them as diametrically opposed. Perhaps the tension Bronson references between “poetic aspiration” and “empirical reality” doesn't actually exist as Bronson seems to approach himself at the end of his essay.“And what better place to develop the interior kingdom of the soul, than in the humiliation of the bureaucrat… this idealised vision of the "museum", of history, in which the artist animates the quaking body of the institution with his own obsessive will?”(Bronson) Perhaps instead of tension we can reframe this relationship as harmonious, as two sides of a rapidly spinning coin. A Message From Our Sponsor is currently owned by the National Gallery of Canada. What is appropriate evolves over time, and as artists we are often at the forefront of pushing and redefining boundaries. Censorship and artist run centres will always collide because change is a process and artists are the process manifest. So how do we continue to differentiate from mainstream galleries when formal acceptability broadens at a rate to match artist run centers? Maybe we don't have to. After all, mainstream galleries following the lead of artist run centers becoming more inclusive and politically aware is a good thing. Having influenced is not a negative, and perhaps artistic run centers don't have to live in a state of constant opposition. Maybe they can just be, and live in the joyful convergence of it all.
“A Message From Our Sponsor”. By Al Razutis, 16mm, 1979.
Boyd, Neil. "Censorship and Obscenity: Jurisdiction and the Boundaries of Free Expression." Osgoode Hall LJ 23, 1985, PDF.
Bronson, AA. “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists.”, Timothy Comeau Projects, https://goodreads.timothycomeau.com/aabronson/#1def.
Doyle, Judith. “A Chronology of Censorship in Ontario by Judith Doyle (1981).” Mike Hoolboom, https://mikehoolboom.com/?p=12775.
Mclachlan, Ian. Personal interview. February 2 ,2023.
Whitelaw, Anne. “Art Institutions in the Twentieth Century: Framing Canadian Visual Culture .” Visual Arts in Canada: The Twentieth Century, edited by Brian Foss et al., Oxford University Press, Don Mills, ON, 2012, pp. 3–15.
Wise, Wyndham. "A History of Ontario's Film Industry: 1896 to 1985." Take One: Film & Television in Canada 9.28, 2000,PDF.