Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Toronto Mediocrities

Historic ancient castle--Toronto

Growing up in Montreal, I always thought of Toronto as a cultural desert. This perception is common among Montrealers. In the 2009 Montreal film “The Trotsky,” the protagonist must move to Ontario, and is consoled by his mother, “I’m sure Ontario is more than just Alice Monro stories.”

Not at all to knock Alice Monro; but the perception was that she was all they’d got.

I still actually think this is true. Toronto has no culture in comparison to Montreal. Toronto is charming in its agricultural, Main Street way, but it has no sense at all when it comes to art or literature. Growing up, visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMBA) were a favourite pastime. I lived ten years in Toronto, and rarely went to the Art Gallery of Ontario. In recent years, I again visited both. The MMBA still exudes something the AGO does not. The MMFA collection, although smaller, seems well-chosen. The AGO collection feels more like a jumble. “Okay, we need something here by Emily Carr.” Not anything of special merit; the point is the signature.

Even the donations differ. The MMFA has the Weider collection of Napoleonic memorabilia. The AGO has a sampling of shrunken knock-off busts collected by Ken Thompson. Perhaps no important art in either, perhaps just businessmen trying to buy a cultural pedigree, but the Weider legacy at least has a theme and a vision. It is not just stuff.

Toronto itself is of the opinion that it has no culture. That’s why it is so big on, and so proud of, its multiculturalism. Culture is always something from somewhere else. It is some quaint foreign thing. Entertaining every now and then, like visiting the zoo. Hey, let’s do a Greek restaurant!

Montreal, by contrast, has its own food: poutine, Montreal smoked meat, Montreal bagels, St. Hubert chicken, spruce beer, Oka cheese, Vachon treats.

In Montreal, the arts are central to the city’s sense of self, central to the city’s life. When Leonard Cohen died, the city quickly threw up two massive commemorative murals; Leonard Cohen expressed something to Montreal of the real Montreal. Even though he was an Anglophone poet in a Francophone city. The art gallery launched an exhibition in his honour, even though he was not a visual artist. In Toronto, b contrast, art is always an add-on, something people vaguely feel they need to have to be a proper grown-up city, but take no personal interest in. Kind of like vitamin supplements.

A distinctly Toronto phenomenon that has no Montreal parallel is that of the famous mediocrity. Artists or entertainers quite commonly become big names in Toronto without actually having much talent. And in Toronto, nobody seems to notice. They just needed an artist in this slot, and nobody actually looks or listens. Such a thing would be unthinkable in Montreal.

A few examples of the classic Toronto mediocrity:

The Group of Seven—absolutely nothing there but hype.

The Royal Canadian Air Farce—with a special shout out to Luba Goy. If they even heard a good joke, they probably would not get it. Dave Broadfoot was the exception; but he did not last with them, did he? Not to mention that he was originally from Vancouver, not Toronto.

Peter Gzowski. For a time, he was everywhere and did everything in Canadian journalism. He even passed as some kind of intellectual. By why?

Ben Wicks. Could never draw, and was never funny. Compare Montreal’s Aislin: da Vinci versus childish doodle.

The Irish Rovers. Always going for whatever’s cheapest and easiest. The first of Toronto’s cute ethnics.

Murray McLaughlin. Out to rescue the neglected working class. Apparently nobody else ever noticed them…

Casa Loma. No history, no special architecture, no connection with the arts or even some culturally meaningful business enterprise. Just ostentation. And an imitation of foreign models.

The CN Tower. Wow; it’s high. So what? Nouveau riche.

“The Henry Moore.” Hey, look how sophisticated we are!

To be clear and to be fair, there are also some legitimate talents who have come through Toronto. Glenn Gould; Marshall McLuhan; Northrop Frye. But even there, there is sometimes something off. Robertson Davies, for example, wrote one great novel, Fifth Business; but he also was also guilty of a lot of posing and hype, with his wizard-like beard and his Jungian mystic prattle. He was trained in drama, and he was an actor to the end. Margaret Atwood really is a fine poet and a better literary critic; but she also lived on hype with her feminist politics, as if the writing was secondary.

Perhaps not their fault. In Toronto, talent and art does not count. You need an ulterior motive to justify it.

This is, in the end, I think, the difference between Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism. Montreal is more or less the Paris of North America. But not so; Montreal would not settle for being an imitation. In the old days, Toronto was known as the Belfast of North America. It still is, in its soul. “Toronto the Good.”

To Catholicism, beauty is one of the three key aspects of divinity, along with truth and the good. To Calvinism, beauty is from the devil, and not legitimate unless it serves some practical, earthly purpose like selling dry goods.

As a Catholic, I never could reconcile with that attitude.

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