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Antony Anderson: How an ambitious group of terribly romantic artists became Canada’s most famous painters

Commentary

The Hub is pleased to present a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

May 7-27, 1920: The Group of Seven holds its first-ever exhibition

In May 1920, the world was, as always, a busy place. The triumphant allies of the recent European bloodbath were carving up and remaking the defeated Ottoman empire into a cluster of countries called the Middle East. The British had maneuvered backstage to ensure they would administer the portion hived off as the Mandate of Palestine. The Canadian government was presenting a report to the House of Commons and Senate concerning its fledgling personal income tax program, brought in during the Great War to help finance the conflagration. American and British officials, it was noted, had praised the Canadian tax form for its simplicity. People in Toronto were debating whether they would stick with daylight savings time. Drivers going over 30 miles an hour in the city would now be charged with reckless driving. 

On page three of the May 7th edition of The Toronto Daily Star, a small headline noted, “Seven Painters Show Excellent Work: Fine Portraits, North Country Views, and Winter Scenes are Depicted.” The exhibit displayed 114 sketches and paintings, all Canadian landscapes. The seven painters were Frank Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. (There were also three painters from Quebec and the members would change but I dare not digress).

Unknown to the public at large and to the miniscule Canadian art world, many making their living as commercial designers, they proclaimed themselves the Group of Seven, and for this, their first joint exhibit, they produced a small catalogue pulsing with astonishingly grand ambitions. 

Imbued with the essential egotism if not narcissism needed to get an artist out of bed in a typically indifferent world, the group declared that “they do most emphatically hold that their work is significant and of real value to the country.” They were painting and sketching not just for themselves but for the young Dominion, then in the throes of self-discovery.

Canada had made a formidable military contribution in the recent war enabling Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden to demand equality of status with the Mother Country. Canada would now field its own diplomats, take its own seat at the League of Nations, and essentially start to speak for itself on the world stage. (Of course, this being Canada, staunchly loyal to the Empire, there was a fair bit of muddle and haze in this progression). Nonetheless, Canada glowed with promise, if with no clear identity. 

In this exciting vacuum, the Group of Seven told one and all of their conviction “that an Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people.” Here was a group of artists, consciously Canadian, painting for Canadians, and striving, as the late great Robertson Davies would later say about himself, to forge the soul of their nation in the smithy of their work. They expected to encounter “ridicule, abuse or indifference” and indeed some had already been dismissed by one reviewer as belonging to the “Hot Mush” school of art.

They knew they must invariably confront “so-called Art lovers” who saw art as mere commercial transaction, soulless purchases, based on an “imported standard of the picture-sale room.” The Group of Seven painted emotional landscapes rather than straightforward, comforting reflections. In the face of barren cultural terrain, these painters would put their faith in and would speak to those Canadians who realized, “that the greatness of a country depends upon three things: ‘its Words, its Deeds, and its Art.’ Recognizing that Art is an essential quality in human existence they will welcome and support any form of Art expression that sincerely interprets the spirit of a nation’s growth.”

This is an October 2, 1971, photo of artist A. Y. Jackson painting at the Kleinburg Gallery where he works and lives. Blaise Edwards/CP Picture Archive.

It’s all so terribly romantic and optimistic, especially in contrast to our age of indignant statute topplers and self-righteous name vandals who amplify a deep current that sees Canada itself as immoral, illegal, and illegitimate.  

As cultural historian Jamie Bradburn points out in his excellent piece on the exhibit, reactions were more complicated than perhaps even the group itself seemed to remember. Only two sketches were sold, both by Frank Carmichael, so clearly the 2,100 visitors were not overly inspired to own examples of this new vision of Canada. And one review, as the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, compared the paintings to “the contents of ‘a drunkard’s stomach.’” These insults stand out in their retelling. However, the group had its champions as well. There were good reviews in various newspapers and the National Gallery of Canada bought three paintings and would later include Group of Seven works in traveling exhibits to the United States and Great Britain. 

Despite individual examples of rudeness from their fellow Canadians, the Group of Seven caught, amplified, and embodied the wave of postwar Canadian nationalism just as it was building, and soon enough they would evolve from irritating, confounding iconoclasts to the dodgy status of “national treasure” before becoming cliches inflicted on generations of indifferent school children— almost cultural white noise. 

To my amateur eye, I don’t see them now as formal innovators as they were following in the wake of the truly innovative magic created by the French impressionists, but who cares who did what first? They did their work here for Canadians and that was radical enough. Fortunately, that work would transcend fleeting ideological imperatives, the nationalism properly becoming a side note. The masterpieces endure. You forget how incredible some of the work is until you are standing before an actual physical canvas, immersed in those vivid, impassioned brushstrokes and colours that no reproduction in a book or screen can capture. And then you can marvel that it happened here, by us, for us.  

The Weekly Wrap: Being young doesn’t make you right

Commentary

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Student protestors aren’t on the ‘right side of history’

As the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel encampments on Canadian university campuses marked another week, we increasingly heard the dubious argument that we ought defer to these student-led protests because they’ve been right in the past.

Daniel Manulak, a historian of Canada’s anti-apartheid movement, took up this case in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed. His basic argument is that the anti-apartheid movement, like the current pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel protests, was similarly driven by young Canadians’ demand for equality and justice and that while it was seen as radical in its days, it’s now rightly viewed as a crucial catalyst for moral progress. 

Two weeks ago, the New York Times Matter of Opinion podcast made a comparable argument about today’s student protests and the American civil rights movement which was by and large fueled by the passions of young people. 

While it’s of course true that social movements tend to be overly represented by young people—and in fact, there’s even evidence that youth participation is associated with successful movements—it’s a historical fallacy to assume that young people necessarily have better moral judgment than others or every social movement involving young people must be self-evidently just.

For the examples of the civil rights or anti-apartheid movements, one can point to highly destructive cases of youth-driven movements, including, most notably, twentieth-century communism and fascism. Think for instance of student-led movements to help establish Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, violent French student strikes in 1968, the Marxist students who helped Ayatollah Khomeini come to power in Iran, and of course various instances of harmful student radicalism in North America. 

One can argue in fact that the positive examples of youthful radicalism are aberrations and the negative cases of radical or reactionary movements driven by young people have tended to be the norm. They’ve just as frequently—and actually more frequently—been on the wrong side of history. 

This doesn’t mean of course that a political or social movement comprised of young people should be summarily dismissed. But it also shouldn’t be instinctively affirmed. We owe young people the same treatment that we ought to grant anyone in a democratic and pluralistic society: a fair hearing of their ideas and agreements. 

This topic was taken up this week in the Munk Debates podcast. If you haven’t listened to the episode, I’d encourage you to check it out.  

We shouldn’t just accept economic stagnation—despite what our leaders say

Statistics Canada released a study this week that reinforced what has increasingly become conventional wisdom: Canada is suffering from a sustained period of economic stagnation. One has to go back decades to find a comparable period in which output per person was flat or declining for as long as we’ve seen in recent years. 

The paper’s key contribution to understanding our economic challenges is as follows: given that GDP per capita has fallen in five of the past six quarters, it’s now 7 percent (or $4,200 per person) below its long-term trend and would need to grow faster than the historical norm over the next decade (1.7 percent rather than 1.1 percent) in order to get back to its pre-pandemic trajectory. 

The paper has generated considerable discussion and debate including a reference in a Conservative Party fundraising email. It hasn’t been fully endorsed though. Claude Lavoie, a former Department of Finance official, published a column in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday that was critical of Statistics Canada’s paper on the grounds that the agency ought to have known that its findings would be politicized. 

Setting aside the obvious problems with the argument that the federal bureaucracy ought not to say or do anything—including releasing basic economic data—that’s contrary to the political interests of the incumbent government, there are other problems with the column.  

The main one is what can be described as a “secular stagnation” mindset. It effectively says that we shouldn’t take for granted that historical growth rates are still possible. There are inherent limits to comparing past economic growth with the future. And we should reconcile ourselves to lower growth—we’re living inescapably in an era of the “new mediocre.”

This line of fatalistic thinking is flawed for three principal reasons.  

First, it’s ahistorical to think that the technological developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that drove our step-change growth were somehow easy and inevitable. No one thought that the steam engine or the automobile or penicillin or whatever other major technological advances that pushed us onto a different economic trajectory were low-hanging fruit. They depended on a culture that was committed to progress.

Second, not every advanced market democracy has experienced the same economic stagnation as Canada. The idea that this is somehow inexorably rooted in our current economic and demographic condition loses its explanatory power when compared to the rates of growth elsewhere. U.S. GDP per capita, for instance, has grown by an average of 1.6 percent per year since the onset of the pandemic. 

Third, it underestimates the inherent risks of the politics of degrowth. The implicit bargain of our governing system is that people defer collective decision-making to political elites in exchange for rising living standards. If the political class is now throwing up its hands and saying it can no longer live up to its end of the bargain, the consequences could be huge. 

If one understands the rise of Trumpian populism in the United States as a demand for better economic outcomes among people and places facing economic stagnation, then calls to reconcile ourselves with lower growth amount to extending those populist conditions at scale. 

The good news is that, notwithstanding Lavoie’s pessimism, there’s reason to believe that we’re on the cusp of major technological developments that can pull us out of stagnation, including mRNA medical technology, the rapid growth of AI-driven large language models, and so on.

As the StatsCan report itself notes: 

The ability of Canadian companies to harness the benefits of new competitive technologies related to artificial intelligence, robotics and digitalization will be critical to the link between investment and productivity in the coming years and potentially important contributors to changes in living standards.

The key point: we have greater agency over our economic future than Lavoie and others seem to appreciate. It’s incumbent on political leaders to advance a renewed pro-growth agenda rather than condition people to lower their expectations. 

PSAC National President Chris Aylward and New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh cheer with workers during a Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) protest on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 26, 2023. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.
It’s time for Canada’s public servants to return to the office

On last week’s Roundtable podcast, Rudyard Griffiths and I were critical of the public sector unions’ over-the-top reaction to the federal government’s new policy that public servants must be in the office three days per week beginning in September. 

Our weekly exchange generated a bigger reaction than normal. Most of the response was positive. But some were critical of our comments, including those who support remote work in general and those who believed we were wrong to single out public sector workers in particular. 

I thought it might be useful to elaborate on our objections to the union reaction to Ottawa’s back-to-work plan. 

Although we generally think that the negative effects of remote work are underestimated and that all things being equal, workers benefit, individually and collectively, from being in physical proximity with their colleagues, we believe that it’s reasonable to have asymmetric expectations of public sector workers. 

That is to say, while our personal belief is that people should generally be back in the office, we recognize that in the private sector those decisions will be made by employers based on their understanding of the interests of their respective companies. 

Government workers, by contrast, should, in our view, be thought about differently. As taxpayers, we have a collective interest in their workplace arrangements.

There are three chief reasons why we think public servants should be back in the office.

First, we’ve discovered through the We Charity scandal, the ArriveCan scandal, and the details of public servants earning millions of dollars as third-party contractors that there’s a “crisis of culture” in the federal government. One proof-point: The federal public service has grown by more than 40 percent since the Trudeau government took office and yet its service standards and state capacity seem to have deteriorated. Getting back into the office is a crucial step to restoring a more performance-driven culture.

Second, the unionization rate is almost five times higher in the public sector which means that there are inherent limits on the employer’s ability to terminate unproductive or underperforming staff. This is important because we know that public-sector productivity is already generally lower than the private sector’s. Working-from-home can enable public sector workers to lower their productivity even further and yet the government has little to no recourse to address it. Getting back into the office should be understood as a key mechanism for accountability in an employer-employee environment in which traditional forms of accountability are weak or essentially non-existent.

Third, as we discussed on the podcast, there’s something inherently unfair about public sector workers who already benefit, on average, from higher wages, more benefits, and greater job security relative to their private sector peers to also have more flexible workplace arrangements. But there’s also a risk that, in an era of labour scarcity, an asymmetry between the public and private sectors could create perverse incentives for where people want to work. A growing concentration of scarce talent in the public sector due its long list of advantages could come at the expense of Canada’s long-run dynamism and productivity.

That’s because, whatever the strengths of the public sector, it’s not generally viewed as a source of productivity. Many in fact would argue that Ottawa is actually a drag on productivity—which is to say, the deadweight loss of financing and staffing the government typically subtracts from the more productive deployment of these resources in the broader economy. Therefore, as we face a combination of slowing labour growth and ongoing weak productivity, we cannot afford for the government’s workplace arrangements to distort the labour market.

The upshot: Federal public servants—it’s time to return to the office.