Thursday, 28 July 2016

Arthur Shilling and the Value of Humanist Art

Arthur Shilling's self-portrait as seen at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery
Many renowned commercial art galleries in Canada represent Arthur Shilling’s work, with price estimates at a few thousand for each painting, prices not unusual for a living Canadian artist showing in a contemporary gallery. Shilling’s work is therefore greatly undervalued, easily worth many times its current value, which should be up there with the likes of David Milne.
     Ojibway artist, Arthur Shilling, was a great portraitist who played with a number of styles and treated his subjects, mostly of Anishnaabe decent, with heartfelt reflection, revealing his subject’s individuality and their connection to their community. His bold expressionist use of line and paint are immediately awe-inspiring. The grand sizes of some of his paintings help in this regard, but it is the unrestrained power of his works that will grip you immediately.
     The Thunder Bay Art Gallery is currently hosting a show organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Peterborough till September 25. Titled Arthur Shilling: The Final Works, the show covers a ten-year period between 1976 and 1986 when Shilling’s boldness of style truly became identifiable. Many of the works in this show are on display for the first time, garnered from private collections. One of the most outstanding paintings is a nine meter long painting titled, “The Beauty of My People.”
     Sadly, as reported by the Huffington Post in June, “a Mainstreet Research poll found that 54% of adult Canadians cannot name a single Canadian visual artist, living or dead.” The author of the article, Grant Gordon, posits a few good reasons why this is so, but misses what could be the prime reason for this problem.
     In this show of Shilling’s work you can see the quality and dedication he has for his own people and for general humanist concerns. Shilling boldly and beautifully expresses himself with great spontaneity and imaginative gusto while allowing us to connect with the very real people that he painted from life. Very few artists can master his skills and the added value of his work comes from his being a fighter and a rebel for a great cause at which he is successful; bringing dignity and beauty and awareness to a people that our Western forefathers intended to extinguish.
     That Shilling is undervalued is a sad statement in itself. In comparison there has been a major effort for many years to make David Milne Canada’s greatest artist. I don’t intend to be mean by picking on Milne’s work so much, but he is the best representative of a major problem we have in Canada and a reason why many Canadians can’t name a single Canadian visual artist.
      Milne’s works are somber landscapes of trees, trees and more trees, featured in thousands of little paintings, each worth many thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet limited talent is required to produce these works, especially in comparison to that of Shilling’s. Over the years I’ve met art connoisseurs, heard talks and watched documentaries about Milne all making the claim that Milne is an underrated Canadian artist who should be known to all as one of our greatest artists if not our greatest.
     Despite all the talk I never bought into it. I was never moved by Milne’s late 19th century and early 20th Century work, which I first saw at an early age of fourteen when at the National Gallery in Ottawa. At the time I thought he painted at a high school level. To me the land and trees in Milne’s works were used primarily as a means to an end, the end being aesthetic experimentation, a dedication to style above all else no matter what the subject matter. This is most obvious in Milne’s war art. Where there could and should be statements of human tragedy Milne’s works reveal a distinct lack of humanism. There is no sympathy, empathy, heart or reflection. Soldiers and guns, fields of debris and bomb craters are all painted as if people didn’t matter.
Wrecked Tanks Near Sanctuary Wood by David Milne
     Milne’s focus was with shape and form and colour scratching, which says nothing about the victims of unparalleled violence. His paintings of war look rather peaceful in comparison to any photograph or any other artist’s work. It even takes the viewer a few moments to see the intended subject matter. The paintings are not totally without merit, but they are lacking in the most basic functions of what art can do with such dramatic subject matter.
     For thousands of years the hierarchical value attached to art started at the top with the subject being humans in conflict, battles that were physical or intellectual or religious where the victors could claim authority. This was High Art and it included humans at the top, with portraiture above landscapes and landscapes above animals and children.
     Fine Art, which existed in spurts throughout history until the present day, were experimental and/or entertaining excursions only witnessed by the wealthy which did not influence the popular arts celebrated by both wealthy and common people. High Art influenced the popular arts throughout history, until the present day. High Art exists in popular art, in spurts, but no longer in major institutions or contemporary galleries. Popular Art today influences Fine Art, but Fine Art rules the day in an intellectual’s mind and for anyone recording art history.  
A better than usual landscape painting by David Milne
     For example: the federal government, at the turn of this century spent a million dollars to properly document, collect and promote Milne like no other artist before him. A grand show of his work crossed the country with pomp and ceremony. In 2012 another million dollars was spent for the David Milne Study Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
     Despite the attempt to make David Milne a household name the public continues to expurgate their confusion (a confusion brought on by the effort of having to compare the big claims of value with the obvious inadequacy of the art), by opening their mouths wide and letting out a big collective Canadian yawn.
     Likely you have no idea who David Milne is. Milne is an example of a Canadian artist firmly ensconced in the world of the gallery system, supported and loved by those in the know (and especially his collectors who have a vested interest in keeping their stock of Milne’s work highly valued), but to whom the public finds next to impossible to feel connected.
A typical landscape by David Milne
     David Milne’s little exercises in aesthetic quiet and stillness are a cold celebration of a land without people. In this respect his work is similar to the more dynamic works of the Group of Seven, whose works command even higher sales figures, yet also reveal a great and sad neglect that is distinctly North American and continues to go largely unacknowledged.
     These landscape painters are firmly ingrained to the settler’s myth of the Canadian experience, a Conservative Harperist view of the land, an “Old stock Canadians” understanding that Canada is a land free and unsoiled, always ready for exploration and exploitation by anyone with enough motivation. Sadly, this ideal completely ignores the existence of First Nations people who have lived on this land for thousands of years before Western settlers arrived.
     Emily Carr, unlike her male Group of Seven counterparts is a great exception to the rule. She acknowledged First Nations people in her work whereas David Milne is a perfect example of an artist wholly uninterested in the people who lived on the land. His work reflects, by neglect, an adherence to the myth of the land as a rugged and free space.   
     The Huffington Post article most notably ignores the fact that visual art can exist quite well without sitting quietly in a gallery. The author suggests that art step out from the gallery from time to time. This comment indicates that the author is biased against popular art, an art form never requiring a gallery in order for the work to be accepted by the larger public. Popular Art is humanistic in nature. Technological advances allowed Popular Art to morph from illustration, cartoons, painting and sculpture into photography, television and movies. Meanwhile a desire to be better and different from the masses has forced cultural elites to value something the public sees little value in celebrating.
     The overused example of the Emperor’s New Clothes can be brought to this argument, but a darker element at play is the negation of human values art is capable of expressing in favour of a history of aesthetics where a minimalist anti-humanist purity has an almost authoritarian resolve to ignore what popular art so brilliant offers and which the public loves. By furthering the divide Canada’s cultural elite is inadvertently creating the kind of division we see in England with its notorious anti-democratic class system; a class divide that resulted in Brexit where the disadvantaged lower classes, kept down and ignorant for centuries (which the EU tried desperately and quietly to help) had an opportunity to go tribal and lash out against the English upper class. This could likely end in England being ripped out of the European Union.
     Ford Nation in Canada represents a similar growing divide and friction with Toronto’s cultural elite out of touch with the average Canadian. Aiding in that process is an art forced upon us rather than celebrated. It is they, the wealthy, who can collect valuable works of art that are in fashion while the rest of us gaze at coffee table books. And it is mostly they who claim to see the value in David Milne’s work where most of the rest of us cannot.
A screen shot on Google's Image Page for Arthur Shilling
     Art can at its best can delve into who we are in our own time and when we do this honestly, representing everyone, we leave a history of art that reveals who we are to future generations. Anything else is a fog. If criticism in the arts is dedicated to appeasing a cultural elite we will continue to undervalue great artists in our midst who could do wonders for celebrating diversity and help create a peaceful world, a world where artists like Arthur Shilling can receive as much attention and be valued as much or more than an artist like David Milne. And I’m not talking about money.
     We have to understand that in our time art historians and critics and artists themselves have so refined their understanding of what art is that the entire history of art can be changed with one word. What if art is not the history of aesthetics, but a moral history? Every painting ever created in this country suddenly gets valued differently. Or change the word to beauty or humanism or democracy or diversity or… you see the point? Art is not any one thing and to make it so, to put the emphasis so heavily on one word, destroys the value of art.
     At the age of twelve I was an enthusiastic visitor to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, attending openings and dropping in often for a second look to check out a show, biking all the way across town. Since the age of twelve I was a great admirer of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s classic paintings. Three months ago at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg I was fortunate enough to lay my eyes on a few more original painting by Rembrandt, some of his best. It was a thrill, but not like it used to be when I was a young adult.
     In comparison, I remember the time when I first laid eyes on Arthur Shilling’s work in the 1980s at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. I was immediately inspired. I recognized Rembrandt in Shilling’s work. I even tried my hand at copying Shilling’s style and I’ve never forgotten Shilling’s name. A promotional card featuring a Shilling self-portrait was nearly always within eyeshot, taped to the side of a bookcase. I’ve always had his imagery in my head, and that of First Nations people, painted as glorious, strong and vibrant individuals sometimes within a swirling world of creatures, myths, and nature surrounding them. That impression on my young mind had value, not only as an artist, but also as a person.
      Drawn to an expressionistic style of painting made popular before the 1950s Shilling adopted a natural drawing style and spontaneous approach to painting which suited his talents. His style and subject matter was a perfect rebirth and statement as to the value of an art where people are more important to an artist than artistic ideology or the whims of fashion in the art world. 
     Clement Greenburg, an American Art critic who made Jackson Pollack famous, practically overnight, anointed David Milne a great Canadian artist back in the 1950s. Greenburg also anointed Canadian Jack Bush, an abstract artist, equally celebrated at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
     Greenburg is also famous for destroying the Expressionist movement that existed before World War II. He wrote extensively about the value of modernism over the moribund art of the past and the popular arts. There’s no direct evidence, but Greenburg came along at exactly the time when the CIA launched propaganda campaigns against the Soviet Union, funneling millions of dollars into literary magazines, art shows, and public performances in Europe and around the world to convince Europeans and others that the United States was far more progressive and accepting of modernism than the USSR. The Soviets made a huge mistake, unlike modern China, in rejecting modern art. They murdered and cast out their artists, which helped to convince Europeans that communism was a dangerous ideology.
     However, CIA agents admitted back in the 1970s that the most successful campaign that convinced Europeans of the American elite’s cultural acumen were the touring modern art shows, shows that featured Jackson Pollock and the like. Fashion in art changed quickly around the world in the 1950s, and all the progressive Expressionist artists, black, white, women and men, gay and straight, vanished due to complete lack of support. With the Guggenheims and the Rockefellers funneling millions of CIA dollars through their institutions the art world was changed forever and for the worse, to the point where no art historian dares mention this alternate, factual and well-researched account of art history.
     These huge influences are with us today and continue to influence how we value art and artists. The undervaluing of Shilling’s work and overvaluing of Milne’s and Jack Bush’s and hundreds of others is a result of mass influences totally unrelated to the human heart and unrelated to our needs. It is weakening the best of what art has to offer and diminishing the ability of artists to change the world to better the world for all of us.


  1. Few paintings that I have seen, and I have owned art galleries for 20 years, had such a powerful effect as viewing his self portrait (the 2nd painting in the collage in the article) - he literally jumps out of the painting, when viewed at a distance, and reveals his soul. Strong, strong work, take the time to see this incredible exhibit.

  2. A life changing exhibit! Wonderful pieces.