In Montreal, art is a key element of the intensely complex collective identity that stretches across this beautiful island city.
Today, as Montreal is being celebrated as a centre for cutting edge art in North America, a heightened critical reflection on artistic production and its representation is necessary. There are contesting visions on the directions forward for cultural movements in this city, visions that often overlap, but just as often clash. Now is the time for us to intensify our collective thinking on the multitude of difficult questions that confront the arts today in Montreal.
Are the corporate sponsorships for indie festivals or efforts to push ‘underground’ culture into capitalist-driven art markets the best way forward for the long-term health of the arts community in Montreal?
On the flip side, are artists working hard enough to build bridges with the community organizations and activists who struggle daily to sustain the political and economic space that works to create the room for independent culture to thrive in Montreal?
The complex issues of gentrification in neighbourhoods like the Mile End and the Plateau need to be addressed. Are Montreal artists contributing to sustaining a livable city for all, or is the rapid fire mainstream celebration of local artists contributing to creating economic conditions that exclude people living in poverty?
As corporate box condos are dispatched to artistic hotspots in our beloved city, areas that have fostered and nurtured the arts for so many years, are artists doing enough to confront this process of gentrification that stands as the antithesis to the rugged beauty that has inspired so many living here?
Are we giving attention to and supporting organizations like the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a grassroots organisation that fights for social housing on a policy level while employing direct action campaigns and street protests to challenge the injustices of gentrification. As artists interested in preserving the vital character of Montreal, lending solidarity and support to activist groups like FRAPRU, and the many others with similarly inspiring mandates, is a clear necessity.
Are the independent cultural institutions working seriously to challenge a Ville de Montréal administration that is diligently working to co-opt the global hype surrounding the city’s art? When the Place des arts is no longer a Place des peuples, what are we left with?
As all cultural workers understand in the heart, inspiration for our best work rests in the difficult and beautiful realities of the world around us, not in the monotone words or florescent-lit halls of political power, guided by an economic logic that works to close the social spaces in which creativity flourishes.
Certainly, the struggle to survive with dignity as artists, to sustain ourselves economically, is a challenging reality that needs constant focus. In the context of global financial systems now failing at hyper-speed and rooted in a race to the bottom economics, sparking inspiring street protests globally, let us look to community based economic alternatives.
Failed corporate economic models will not address our collective economic challenges as community-based and independent artists. Quick fixes are never healthy in the long term, and today’s economic implosions certainly offer a clear argument in that direction. Urgent economic thinking and exploration outside of capitalist boxes of commodification and corporate sponsorships is needed.
Difficult questions confront all visions of the arts in Montreal for the next years, but in stepping towards the future, we should recognize the incredible accomplishments over recent years; a thriving indie music scene built from the ground up, an internationalist hip-hop scene that speaks to the reality of Montreal as a global city, a cinema culture that inspires globally, and an internationally respected design and publishing culture, all performed in two ‘official’ languages. This cultural reality is rooted in the daily work of thousands of artists, cultural workers and activists, a process far removed from the empty words of municipal politicians or corporate types now moving to claim credit and profit from the global attention on Montreal arts.
The celebratory reception of Montreal’s current artistic culture in the mainstream press, both locally and globally, does little to address the history of political struggle that worked to construct the spaces for these visionary arts practices to take root.
Montreal’s artistic renaissance over the past decade is deeply connected to Québec’s turbulent political and economic history. Across Québec, protests confronting social injustice in the late 1960s and early 1970s influenced a generation of artists. Major worker and student strikes from the era continue to shape our reality today, from official government policy to a popular culture rooted in the struggle for independence.
And though the mass social movements in Québec certainly spoke to struggles linked to the economic and linguistic oppression of Québecois, these popular mobilizations also spoke to the international revolutionary spirit of the times that reshaped modern artistic practice across the board. Beyond the common contemporary representation of the Quiet Revolution as being directly focused on Québec nationalist demands, the reality of its political language and dreams were largely visioned as revolutionary, internationalist and rooted in cultural expression.
It was in this era that spaces opened for serious artistic exploration, from the artist run centres showcasing contemporary art practices, to the cafés and bars that acted as venues for popular musicians and storytellers, to a political culture that gained widespread support for significant public funding for the arts. Montreal began to solidify an artistic voice that stood in stark contrast to the commodity culture that would soon sweep across most of North America.
In The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal by historian Sean Mills, the relationship between art and activism is addressed:
“Quebec’s political independence had to form part of a comprehensive transformation that would affect all spheres of life, from poetry and literature to cinema and sexuality. [...] Literature, and culture generally, were deeply constitutive of this leftism, and were central to the new world of freedom and creativity that needed to be built.”
Today the Conservative attack on public funding for the arts, alongside an austerity economics that presses for corporate tax cuts as a solution to financial crisis, are a very real affront to Québec’s tradition of patronage of the arts, a reality that was only achieved via the struggles of social movements of past generations.
In a globalized world, struggles stretch beyond borders, and questions concerning how the arts will deal with increasingly stringent austerity measures, a growing conservatism both economic and social, are being raised to cultural workers across the world.
However, there is also the specific context of Montreal’s history of struggle that is directly responsible for the spaces that exist today to create the unique art that has come to shape our collective identity. As artists operating in a city that stands in discord to Wall Street economics — a city which, for the most part, rejects the destructive capitalist economics of the box store/shopping mall/condo model — we should take inspiration from this history, and honour and learn from past struggles. From the sonic explorations challenging musical genres, to the street art that beautifies our urban environment, to the spoken poetics that reshape contemporary literature, arts in this city must not be isolated from Montreal’s political history.
Let us focus on this contested moment in history and move forward in a way that stands in solidarity with the social movements that create independent spaces, who value and love the arts, the same movements for change that have inspired the most incredible artists throughout time.
This text originally published in edition twelve of Four Minutes to Midnight, launched in November at Expozine in Montreal. Ideas expressed in this article largely are linked to and inspire the work of the Howl! arts collective in Montreal.