High Culture in Canada

Vincent Massey

In 1949, Vincent Massey (1887-1967), a prominent Canadian academic and philanthropist, was commissioned to investigate the state of culture in Canada. His recommendations, chronicled in the so-called "Massey Report," called for more state funding for Canada's cultural community and triggered a renaissance of sorts.

As a young, solidly middle-class nation with humble immigrant beginnings, the creation of a distinctly Canadian style of “high culture,” which is to say, distinct Canadian traditions of art, literature and theatre, has been a long and often difficult struggle. For ages, Canada’s most wealthy and elite citizens simply imported the finest paintings, books and plays from Britain and Europe (and much later, America), and were openly disdainful of Canadian “amateurs” who clumsily tried to copy. And to be fair, a lot of what they made was pretty bad.

Things began to change in the early decades of the 20th century, when a growing sense of nationalism, sparked by the two world wars, suddenly turned the creation of “Canadian culture” into a major priority of the federal government. From henceforth, Canadian artists, writers and playwrights became more respected, acclaimed and — most significantly — subsidized, and several interesting “high culture” traditions emerged as a result.

The importing of European, British and American high cultural products still runs rampant, of course, as it does in every other cultural realm of Canada. The ironic thing, however, is that the country has today more or less come full circle, with Canadian “high culture” now more likely to be respected by the country’s elites than the common rabble.

Canadian Art

"The West Wind" by Tom Thomson

"The West Wind" (1917), perhaps the most famous painting by Canada's most famous artist, Tom Thomson (1877-1917).

If there’s been a single defining genre of Canadian art over the years, it’s probably the landscape. Though Canadian artists had been churning out still lifes, portraits and sculptures since the earliest colonial times, it was not until the early 20th century, and the art community’s newfound embrace of realistic, haunting depictions of the vast Canadian wilderness, that Canadian art truly gained a distinct character all its own.

As was the case with Canadian literature (see below), Canada’s most influential landscape artists often sought to capture the grim and melancholy emotions evoked by Canadian nature; many of the most famous Canadian paintings do not make Canada look like a particularly happy place, and contrast greatly with the sort of bright, sunny photos of brilliant evergreens and shimmering lakes one often finds on postcards. Without a doubt, the most famous artists of this school were the so-called Group of Seven, seven artists who produced a number of great pseudo-impressionist works in the 1920s and 1930s. Though not a formal member of the Seven herself, Emily Carr (1871-1945) remains almost equally acclaimed for producing similar work during the same period.

In recent years, the Canadian art scene has largely moved away from depictions of nature and towards edgier, modern stuff, reflecting the increasing urbanization of the Canadian population. A downtown Canadian art gallery these days is just as likely to feature abstract sculptures, mixed-media collages, carefully-staged photos and avant-garde videos as traditional drawings and paintings. Like everywhere else in the world, this evolution has not been without controversy.

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Canadian Literature

Canada is home to authors aplenty, so it’s obviously hard to generalize all of Canadian fiction under a single broad banner. Nevertheless, there is a distinctly Canadian literary tradition, the so-called “Can-Lit” school, containing a number of standard themes and tropes that will be well-known to any Canadian high schooler forced to study them.

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985) may well be the most famous work of modern Canadian literature, though the story itself has nothing to do with Canada.

At the dawn of the 20th century, large segments of the Canadian population were still living rural, agrarian lives. For these struggling families — frequently the offspring of poor immigrant pioneers — daily life was often little more than a series of grueling chores and physical labour. The country’s cold, harsh climate and desolate environments provided little comfort, while economic uncertainty spawned anxiety for the future. It was these happy themes that authors of the distinctive Can-Lit tradition began to explore.

The cliched Can-Lit novel will usually describe a rural Canadian family from around this time period, whose survival is dependent on some traditional, resource-based industry like farming or mining. They probably won’t have any sense of Canadian identity, but will remain closely tied to whatever European culture they recently migrated from. The story’s climax usually arises from some sort of family drama, often an ambitious child moving away or someone dying tragically, but it’s just as possible not much will happen at all, beyond the dreary passage of time. Vivid descriptions of the unforgiving natural terrain will be sprinkled throughout. Margaret Laurence (1926-1987), who lived this sort of life herself, is among the best known authors of this school.

Traditionally depressing Can-Lit stories continue to be written to this day, though it’s not a stretch to say they’re usually more popular with English professors and literature awards panels than the public at large. The most commercially successful Canadian authors, such as Margaret Atwood (b. 1939), Mordecai Richler (1931-2001), Douglas Coupland (b. 1961) and Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943) tend to write stories with more diverse themes, some of which might not even involve Canada at all.

Links About Canadian Literature:

Canadian Non-fiction

Along with literature, Canada also has a fairly strong (perhaps stronger) tradition of producing prominent non-fiction authors whose works of journalism, philosophy, or social commentary have made a considerable impact on global intelectual life. Among the notable, we can include the famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980, discussed in more detail in the famous Canadians chapter) the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), literary critic Northrop Frye (1912-1991), and multiculturalism philosopher Charles Taylor (b. 1931).

A few American intellectuals such as the late urban studies scholar Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), self-help guru Eckhart Tolle  (b.1948), social theorist Malcom Gladwell (b. 1963) and anti-capitalist critic Naomi Klein (b. 1970) are sometimes considered “Canadian authors” as well, due to the fact that they lived at least part of their adult lives in Canada, and have made clear that the experience left some influence on their work.

Canadian Theatre

Hunchback

In recent years, Canadian plays have often become more extravagant and avant-garde, as in the case of "Hunchback" (2011), a wild rock musical by the Alberta-based Catalyst Theatre group.

Though you can certainly see massive-budget Broadway shows in any of Canada’s major cities, it’s the smaller-scale, more intimate style of plays that have come to define the Canadian theatre tradition. As is the case with so much Canadian “high culture,” however, this distinct style was a long time coming; most consider the “Golden Age” of the Canadian stage to have only begun in the 1960s.

Many of the themes explored in Canada’s most famous plays tend to be similar to those explored in “Can-Lit” (see above), which is to say, sentimental, nostalgic and often dreary recounts of rural life, family drama and early 20th century history. This interest in telling deeply personalized, highly descriptive stories has made the “one man show,” where a single actor narrates a long, anecdotal life story, one of the most quintessential tropes of the Canadian stage. Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978), perhaps Canada’s most famous play, is a notable example, and features a single actor playing no less than 18 parts as he recounts the true story of a rural Canadian boy who went on to become Canada’s most decorated fighter pilot in World War I (1914-1918).

Today, almost all Canadian cities of any significant size will possess their own theatre companies, which host a variety of plays of both domestic and foreign origins.

Links About Canadian Theatre:

Quick Facts:

  • Since the 1950s, there has been a stronger campaign to create uniquely Canadian art, literature, and plays.
  • A lot of Canadian "high culture" evokes reoccurring themes such as nature, isolation and family.
  • As the years progress, Canadian artists and writers are starting to move beyond certain cliched traditions.
  • Canadian high culture often enjoys its greatest popularity with critics and academics, rather than the public.