October 24, 1999
In the grand scheme of things, which is more important for understanding a charismatic figure—the person he really was or the image he presented? Put another way, is the man more important than the myth, or the other way around?
The historical figure of Jesus, for example, is utterly different from the mythologized man-god that his followers created centuries after his death, yet belief in Jesus’s divinity persists. In Russia, many older people long for the regimented good ol’ days of Josef Stalin’s iron rule. The image of a benevolent Stalin presiding over Russia’s glorious war effort has greater truth for these people than any cold, hard fact about his butchery, paranoia and network of gulags. He, too, was a virtual man-god.
The curious thing about these and other myths—see last week’s column “A&E should stick to entertainment”—is that people will go to great lengths to insulate them from critical analysis. They do so, not because a myth is true, but because they know it isn’t.
Myths are important and necessary for a healthy society. They define who we are, and create a common culture within which everyone becomes a member of a larger whole. Myths help regulate life and give it meaning. So long as a myth is kept at a safe distance from the real world, it maintains its integrity and inspirational value.
In Western societies, though, myths are hard to maintain. Knowledge, the engine of progress, leads inexorably to disillusionment because the scrutiny that comes with it destroys the protective barrier that separates myth from reality. When faced with such knowledge, defenders of a myth are left with a no-win proposition—accept the new evidence and adjust their beliefs accordingly, or persist in the old belief and try to denigrate the new knowledge. Since for many the first option is virtually impossible, the second option predominates.
This happened when Charles Darwin’s scientific investigations proved that the biblical account of the origin of life was incompatible with observable data, and therefore had to be discarded. With no facts to support their position, defenders of the Creation myth, now on the defensive, denied the evidence and resorted to specious, self-serving arguments.
We can see the same behaviour in the wake of Jane O’Hara’s detailed, iconoclastic piece about the late part-Haida sculptor Bill Reid in the Oct. 18 Maclean’s.
From 1980 onwards, Reid suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, so much so that he needed other artisans to execute his ideas. Notwithstanding Reid’s renown as a sculptor and his status as cultural icon, O’Hara showed Reid to be an exploitative, ungrateful taskmaster who paid his assistants poorly if at all; took full credit for their work; and lived in opulence.
The reaction in defence of Reid has been of the “how dare you!” variety—Reid is a great Canadian artist, and that’s all that matters; who cares if he didn’t or couldn’t do the work?; his ideas and inspiration are the essence of his work, and his assistants were merely instrument of his genius.
The significance of this wailing and gnashing of teeth is that it has nothing to do with the substance of O’Hara’s story. It’s as if her facts didn’t matter. Reid’s defenders bridled at the notion that Reid should be seen as less of an artist because he employed assistants. After all, other great artists did, too. However, O’Hara dutifully noted this fact in her story, so trying to make hay out of it is pointless.
The crux of O’Hara’s piece is that Reid made no effort to acknowledge those who did the real work, or treat them with respect. Yet those carvers who spoke of Reid’s parsimony and abuse have been called disloyal and uncompassionate. Are they supposed to be loyal to Reid for the rest of their lives just because he let them bask in his reputation?
To go by Sarah Milroy’s comments in the Oct. 25 Maclean’s, the answer is yes: “While many of the Native carvers who worked with Bill are talented carvers in their own right—[how kind of her to say so!]—their disloyalty and lack of compassion following Bill’s death are astonishing.” Milroy’s mother, Liz, is co-owner of Equinox Gallery, which sold Reid’s work from 1981 to 1991.
Reid’s artistic reputation is not the only aspect of his image to come under question. As Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation, told O’Hara: “The real value of Bill Reid was in raising our international profile. He gave us a lot of support.” Yet privately, we learn that Reid openly disparaged Native carvers, and hired mostly non-Natives.
Whether for his art or his political utility, many people have a lot invested in the popular image of Reid as a venerable, dignified Native sculptor. When O’Hara pulled the rug out, that investment took a hit, which is the real story behind the attacks on O’Hara and Maclean’s—selfishness.
Gallery owners, museum curators and art critics wouldn’t be rushing to defend the myth of Bill Reid if they hadn’t been responsible for helping create it.
Other than self-interest, what could move people to defend a self-aggrandizing tyrant against the legitimate grievances of exploited workers? I don’t suppose that the nettlesome question of artistic authenticity or personal reputations might be factors. One gets the impression that Reid’s reputation was built more upon political pull than on his art. Ironically, the picture of Reid that emerges from O’Hara’s story is of a man who was himself exploited.
Without doubt, Reid deserves our respect for his earlier accomplishments, but why can’t we all admit that he behaved less than honourably, and correct the historical record. After all, apologizing for our past is what we Canadians do best.