The art of the soapbox
by greg blanchette, Tofino
Where? Up here? My goodness, is this an actual, real soapbox? Oh yes, 'Sea Wench,' I see it now. Impressive. And the microphone's on? Can everybody hear me? Lovely!
"Ahem. Thank you, Adam and Baku, for allowing me to appear on this edition of Tofino Soapbox. This venue is a godsend for our town, the Complaining Capital of Vancouver Island. Ha-ha, joke. Maybe.
"I know this Soapbox is aimed, at least in part, at the visitor market. But it's January, face it, and the only tourists left in town are the masochists, so let's dispense with the tourist-town whitewash and just get down to it, okay?
"I'm talking art, darlings. A-a-art.
"I mean Westcoast art, the stuff carved out right here in our drafty garages and slopped onto canvas in our back-room studios and tapped out at our cold, gloomy desks. The stuff that springs from our Westcoast fingertips and oozes from our Westcoast brains.
"Okay, Steve, I see you rolling your eyes and thinking, Here we go, another boring Canadian praise-the-arts lecture. That's where you're wrong, luvvie, for (to borrow an artistic phrase) I am not here to praise Caesar, but to bury him.
"Don't we just love to pat ourselves on the backs and tell ourselves how thrilling and diverse the local art scene is? But I beg to differ. Darlings, I grovel to differ! Exhibit one: our local music scene. Take a look at the living rooms and bonfires and stages around town and what do you see? Guitars! Electric gee-tars, acoustic gee-tars, red gee-tars and blue gee-tars. Nothing but gee-tars. Add the requisite drum kit and bass and you have ... an exact clone of every rock band that ever existed since the Beatles.
"Spank me if I'm wrong, sweethearts, but there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of different musical instruments out there. (Try googling it, you'll go insane.) And the best Tofino can come up with is the three-piece rock band? Please! It's got so bad I practically faint from delirium when I see anything but gee-tars on a local stage. Like Ronnie at the Mermaid's Ball, with his lips wrapped round a big, bright trumpet. Gorgeous!
"Oh, 'tain't hopeless, I know, I know. Therese bangs a mean djembe; I've seen Ava plinking a ukulele. But eight of ten Tofino musicians lugging around gee-tars is a sacrilege! It's like every painter in town deciding to use only blue in their paintings.
"And now that we're on the subject of painting (such a clever segue) ... if you examined the entire visual arts output of Tofino for the last ten years, you'd pretty much conclude that Clayoquot Sound is one gigantic, flaming billboard of breathtaking sunsets, dramatic beachscapes, and noble members of the animal kingdom romping in the wild as they've done since creation.
"I mean really, urchins: If all you had to go on was local art, would you ever guess there was a single clear-cut or barren salmon stream or social problem anywhere in Clayoquot Sound? 'Struth, not even a solitary, pining, dark hour of the soul, come those long winter nights! I ask you: how representative is that of this delicious town we all know and love/hate?
"And more to the point: Who, my fine feathered friends, dares say so out loud?
"Where in Westcoast photography or painting does our human face appear, or our human story? Passing rare -- aside from the madding throngs in rented wedding duds and pasted-on wedding grins. I hate to say it, (and yes, yes, always there are exceptions!) but pretty much every visual artist in Tofino pumps out elaborate, high-end postcards for the tourist market.
"Ouch! What the hell was that, Jeremy ... a Brussels sprout? That hurt! Who carries Brussels sprouts around with them? Oh, angry artists do? Yes, well... could we possibly channel that passion into something a bit more productive? No, no, Julie, I'm not attacking you. Oh, very well, I suppose I am; but I much prefer the word 'challenging.' I'm challenging you.
"Yes, of course I'm generalizing. Shamelessly -- that's my job description! And yes, of course the Westcoast arts scene has much to recommend it, much to applaud: its tenacity; its celebration of landscape; its... affordable prices. Bravo! But let me also remind you burning heretics of something playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his 1987 memoirs: The whole country seemed to be devolving into a mania for the distraction it called entertainment, a day-and-night mimicry of art that menaced nothing, redeemed nothing, and meant nothing but forgetfulness.
"Is that what artists are now: Mimics? Entertainers? Jesters? Purveyors of pleasant-looking knick-knacks to mount over the mantelpiece? A bit of doggerel to fill the idle beach hours? Tell me it isn't so!
"Speaking of doggerel, another wise old guy -- yes, princess, those existed once, before rampant advertising polluted the entire culture -- named Wallace Stevens gave some thought to a sense of place and what it means to the folks who live there. People, the old codger said, live not in places but in descriptions of places.
"And who provides those descriptions for us? The Canada Council? The Premier of B.C.? I can hear you groaning inwardly, all of you, convinced I'm about to shout Artistes! and lecture you about going to boring Canadian movies. But I'm not, honeybunch. Because we all describe this place, every one of us, in an ongoing, collective act of imaginary creation. We describe it to ourselves and each other every time we sit down in Tuff Beans or knock elbows in Beaches. 'Did you see the mist this morning?' 'The house sold, I'm being evicted.' 'Beach walk in the rain, you coming?' And from that whirlwind of self-description settles out the dynamic, ever-shifting place where we live.
"We all describe. But you artists in the crowd, you writers, photographers, painters... even you potters and, yes Marcel, wind-chime makers... you have a sacred place in this process, for your descriptions are the ones that circulate. They travel out into the world and affect (or maybe infect) other people. You bring our descriptions to the rest of humanity, and they're reflected back to us from there.
"Oh, you laugh, do you? Philistines! I see you rolling your eyes, all you hot-blooded business tycoons. 'What does description matter?' you say. 'What matters is jobs and money!' Let me remind you of the 1990s, a collective act of description in Tofino that caught fire beyond anyone's expectations and burned this town into the imagination of the world. And gave us much of the description we still live in today, for better or worse.
"Description, cellmates? Hah! At a Green Breakfast two months ago I met a man from Ontario -- the very fellow Dee works with to distribute her infrared heaters. He's an environmental consultant -- a hard-nosed greenie -- and he told me sheepishly he was nervous about coming to Tofino, in case he slipped up and accidentally did something non-green like idling his car or tossing a recyclable into a trash can. Can you imagine, dearies -- he thought we might lynch him! Little old harmless us! But such is the power of description, and apparently, out there across the mountains, we're some kind of rabid national beacon.
"And all this has consequences, doesn't it? Wade Davis, the famous Canadian anthropologist, nailed it beautifully in his recent Massey Lectures when he said it hardly matters whether our descriptions are true or false. 'What matters is the potency of the belief and the manner in which the conviction plays itself out in the day-to-day lives of a people. For this in a very real sense determines the ecological footprint that any particular culture will have on the earth and its environment. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is simply a pile of inert ore ready to be mined.'
"That airy-fairy notion, my darlings, takes on real weight the moment you learn that your local mountain, one you can see from almost anywhere in town, is suddenly in the sights of a mining conglomerate. Our collective description of innocent little Clayoquot Sound has up till now not included 'open-pit mine,' and it comes as a shock to our systems -- especially since those seeing the pile of ore are not you or me or our friends and neighbours, but men we've never met, sitting in a Vancouver office in expensive suits. And if the dynamite came and the dust filled the air, we'd find the description of the place we live altered beyond our recognition.
"Yes, description always comes home to roost -- sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, sometimes both. Now I'm not saying yea or nay to anything, dearies. I'm saying that as townsfolk, we are all artists... and we have a sacred trust. We are voodoo. We are witch doctors. We don't just live in this land, we are its creators!
"My goodness, is it getting hot out here? I'm sweating. Oh dear, I've been blathering again, haven't I, and you're getting restless. I'll be quick -- shout all you want but please, no more Brussels sprouts!
"I'm just saying that we're out there as a creative town: an arts town. And that's the nub, isn't it, dearies? Art is not just about purple paint on canvas, or harmonics slipping through the air, or brave words nailed onto paper. It's about creativity of all sorts, and in a proper arts town that creativity spills over into breakfast, into business, into every blessed corner of our lives.
"And I say make it so: this goulash of a world needs all the fresh ideas it can get, in art, in government, in business. Christmas in a tree, if the Tofino marketing geniuses who pulled the storm-watching craze out of thin air could pick up the greenie ball and run with it ... we'd be up to our garters in gawkers year round.
"Tofino, your artists have bigger fish to fry than ... postcards. (Ha! There's a mixed metaphor for you!) So for the gods' sake, O heathens, do an El Kabong with your gee-tars on your way to the music store to pick up your didgeridoos and your zithers. And start writing a song a week that isn't a love song (or a surfing song). And start painting a picture a week that isn't scenery.
"Whew! Thank you, thank you, for this time on Tofino Soapbox. I did run on a bit, didn't I? I must say, I don't like the look of this crowd. I don't like it one bit."
Tofitian lower case greg blanchette occasionally goes off on a roaring tangent, and he encourages the same in you. He's at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- The art of the Tofino soapbox
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Tofino writer greg blanchette's 'obnoxious rant' about the current state of the art scene in tofino...