Sun, 8 Oct 2000 11:43:45 -0400
"Robert Downing" <rdowning@idirect.com>


Please grant me a few moments of your time. I want to tell you that I'm
surrendering. I've come to realize the error of my ways and promise that I
will no longer be a practicing Canadian fine artist. I well know that this
will not be of direct interest to everyone. Indeed, because of what I'll
say here it would be ludicrous for me to assume that anyone at all is
especially interested in me giving up a forty year calling, through which
I've expressed my love for Canada and my enjoyment of life. Nevertheless, I
do feel obliged to make public this deeply personal decision, shall we say,
for the record.

Doubtless, there will be some who will react to this declaration in rather
nasty ways. However, I've learned that it sometimes serves no purpose to
concern myself with even those who may respond in pleasant ways. It is well
known that the task of striving to be honest demands, at times, a
willingness to overlook what others may think. Of course, it helps to also
keep in mind that contradictions are an essential aspect of creation.

Let me start by admitting I'm not the only person to have noticed that when
the more influential members of a society decide, for one reason or another,
the fine arts are essentially irrelevant, most of the population
automatically regards fine artists, and what they may have to say, as

Currently, business leaders, government mandarins, academics, people working
in the media and our elected political representatives, all plead ignorance
about what is happening to the fine arts in Canada. Or worse, they join
forces in support of the populist notion that every hobbyist, part-time
craftsperson and amateur doodler should be awarded the same degree of social
importance as those few seriously dedicated individuals who have given their
lives to furthering the fine arts.

In the midst of this bewildering state of affairs one is open to attack
simply by raising the issue. For example, art teachers tend to become
defensive and those who have lovingly painted a landscape mural on their
basement wall demand to know why their efforts should be degraded. The very
foundation of democracy appears to become twisted in a time when
hairstylists, cooks, journalists and even engineers proclaim that their
contribution should also be thought of as artistic expression.

Under such conditions it becomes easy to confuse devoted fine artists with
those who may choose to employ their intuitive abilities commercially in the
advertising industry. To avoid that fate some fine artists have committed
themselves to teaching, in the hope of gaining economic freedom to pursue
their fine art interests on weekends and during summer holidays. While
raising my children I found it necessary to teach various aspects of the
fine arts, both full-time and part-time, at eight colleges and universities
in four countries and I learned firsthand how much time and energy teaching
takes away from a fine artist's true vocation. Mind you, many people have
long believed that a fine artist cannot survive unless they are willing to
work under an academic umbrella. In fact, that fixed idea is so entrenched
in Canadian culture I'm amazed it hasn't become a law.

These kinds of circumstances are prevalent in most countries of the world,
but here in Canada, where we also live under the constant shadow of the
American media giants, the dilemma is compounded. For instance, the
American entertainment industry dominates our television and motion picture
screens and most Canadians willingly submit to that kind of cultural
imperialism. Our newspapers often include some sort of arts or
entertainment section, yet those sections of our daily newspapers are
invariably filled with promotional gossip about American movie stars. The
National Post proudly tells us about the international awards it has
received for it's Arts & Life section, but close to a year has passed since
I've seen them include an article about a living Canadian fine artist.

In much of the western world there is now a great deal of talk about
education policies. In the midst of these discussions no one seemed to
flinch when Ontario schoolteachers announced they could no longer offer
extra curricular courses in the arts because of work overload and lack of
funding. This turn of events is not surprising when we allow that most
people have never thought about the fact that we lack even the most basic
textbook on the history of contemporary Canadian fine art. A proper
unbiased, academic reference of Canadian fine artists still waits to be
compiled. We are told that grievous cultural omission is a result of there
being more important matters at hand.

An example of the bases for that excuse may be seen here in Toronto, where I
have spent most of my 65 years. Recently, our city fathers were called upon
to spend nearly two million dollars on the production of life-size plastic
moose, which were decorated by local "artists," in order to support the
tourist industry. Our mayor was so taken by this "expression of creative
excellence" that he was inspired to ship five of these grotesque sins
against the natural environment all the way to Australia, in support of the
city's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. His fervor for "the arts" further
motivated our trusted civic administrators to spend thousands more of
taxpayers dollars to produce little furry moose key chains, which were given
away free of charge to "art lovers" from around the world. But then, I
overheard a neighbour say, "You try to do something nice and there's always
some spoilsport wanting to tear off the antlers."

There is no doubt whatever that humanity is faced with innumerable serious
problems. We all know, for example, that millions of children die from
starvation every day and that millions more are suffering from the effects
of extreme poverty. We are told that many people still remain in a state of
denial regarding the environment and the horrific changes taking place in
our ecosystem. Natural disasters have become so abundant that the media no
longer bothers to report on the misfortunes of nearly twenty million people
who are flooded out of their homes at this moment. Some claim that today's
escalating tensions in the Middle East pose a direct threat to all the oil
hungry, consumption structured, socioeconomic systems around the world.
Others believe that aliens from outer space are walking among us. What is
even more disconcerting is the growing awareness that most people are living
such stressful personal lives that they are unable to give more than a
disheartened nod to the awesome spectacle.

Turning a blind eye seems to be the answer for those who feel powerless to
make constructive changes and for them noninvolvement has become the
philosophy of survival. The socially destructive potential of this kind of
stance may be glimpsed in the widespread escapist slogan: "We've heard it
all before, so let's get on with the party." These days, attempts to
discuss social issues are interpreted as nothing more than a negative
inclination to disturb someone's tranquility. At the very time in human
history when it has become most appropriate, manifestations of passion are
dismissed as displays of emotional imbalance and proponents of truth are
urged to hold a more positive attitude.

A short while ago, when I first learned about the death of our former Prime
Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, my immediate inclination was to donate an
example of my work to The National Gallery in his memory. But having been
born and raised in Canada I knew that such a gesture would be viewed as
merely an attempt to draw attention to myself. Besides, my social standing
as an artist being what it is I recognized that it would be next to
impossible for me to donate an example of my work to anything or anyone. It
has already been made quite clear to me that my fine art works are neither
needed nor wanted.

I've lost track of the number of times I've been told it means nothing to be
listed in Canadian Who's Who, and so many people have told me that it means
nothing to be an elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts that I
sometimes wonder why the Governor General isn't arrested for being the
patron of it. It's the same old story; whatever I do just isn't good
enough. For instance, yesterday I discovered my name has been omitted from
Anne Newlands' new book, Canadian Art: From Its Beginnings to 2000, in which
she lists more than 300 Canadian artists. Call it sour grapes on my part if
you like, but how is it possible for her to overlook the fact that I was the
first Canadian artist to be invited to hold a solo exhibition in a major
European public gallery? It was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in
London, England in 1969. The internationally renowned art critic Bryan
Robertson was director at the time. Confirmation that my contribution to
Canadian culture is considered irrelevant may also be seen in Canadian Art
in the Twentieth Century, written by Joan Murray and published by Dunbar
Press last year. That author also found it easy to exclude my name and
apparently had no problem ignoring the fact that an archive of one hundred
and fifty of my works has been in the permanent collection of the Art
Gallery of Hamilton, my hometown, since 1986. Perhaps the board of
directors for the Art Gallery of Hamilton should also be arrested for
wasting taxpayers money to house my fine art works. I know, I've heard it
too, who cares.

Several months ago I managed to personally produce a limited edition of
sixty-four CD ROM disks. It was a major fine art work of multifarious
dimensions. I titled it Purusha, which is a Hindu word meaning one's true
self. The disk is described as an introduction to my life's work. It
offers 333 examples of my digital art, sculpture, painting, and photography,
dating back to 1956, as well as a series of images from 1971, when I first
made use of the computer to generate fine art. In addition, it also
contains 9 written works including "Confessions of a Canadian Sculptor," my
hilarious early memoirs, (1935-67), which unfolds the years of growing up in
Hamilton, joining the Royal Canadian Navy at age seventeen, later becoming a
police constable and then the hippie owner of a San Francisco furniture
shop, etc., et cetera.

I designed and printed a cover for all sixty-four disks and mailed them,
along with a hardcopy README text, to selected public galleries, artist
colleagues, friends, art collectors, journalists, government officials and a
few well known CEO's. The written text informed the recipients that the
disk had no fixed price. They were free to send me whatever they may
choose. I tried to make it clear that the disk was a concept piece in the
whole new category of fine art shareware. I also informed them that the
disk contained a half dozen separate image files of recent digital art
works, which were large enough to be made into four-foot square prints,
providing they sent me something as a gesture of good will.

I've documented every stage of this fine art work in a loose-leaf notebook,
complete with a list of the people to whom it was sent. Unfortunately, most
of them have never even acknowledged receipt of it. Out of curiosity, three
months after I mailed it out, I telephoned a very well known art collector
and asked him to send it back if he didn't want it. He told me that he
couldn't find it, but that he'd call me when he did. Needless to say, I'm
still waiting to hear from him. A couple of friends did send me cheques for
$20.00 and one for $100.00, which I much appreciated, seeing as how I worked
over a period of two years preparing material for the project. Out of
courtesy, I also sent one to the Honorable Sheila Copps, Minister of
Canadian Heritage. Her Director General of Arts Policy sent it back to me
along with a note saying they had no budget for such works, but they found
it to be "a unique marketing tool."

I knew then I was finished, but I wanted to clear up a few loose ends before
letting go entirely. Neither the Canada Council nor the Ontario Arts
Council had seen fit to give me their blessing since the mid 1980's and I
felt that I must take one final crack at them. I shouldn't have done that
because once again they didn't give me anything but a hard time and I ended
up telling a smooth talking visual arts officer that I hoped the whole lot
of them would be punished in hell.

My work has been included in 77 exhibitions in 7 countries and I've
completed 16 commissions in 3 countries. I've spent so much time and money
making art and representing Canada abroad that I neglected to shore up my
Canada Pension Plan for my old age. As a result, now that my health is
starting to fade my income amounts to just enough to cover basic living
expenses. This means I can't be expected to support Canadian culture
anymore. So, in all probability you'll not be hearing a word out of me ever

Robert Downing
Toronto, Canada
October 7, 2000