Fraser Forum

Frozen Pinecone for sale—should your tax dollars buy it?

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Let’s suppose that I painted a 10 x 20-foot canvas in a brilliant white colour. At the bottom in the centre I have painted a small wind-blasted pine tree. Above the tree, I glued a pinecone onto the painting.

For at least two years I tried to sell this painting to private individuals around the country, but no one was interested.

I have now decided to befriend certain art critics and have explained the genius of the work: the white canvas simultaneously represents the frozen emptiness of the Canadian North and the social alienation we experience in a decentralized, thinly populated land. The wind-blasted tree is a brilliant reference (if I may say so myself) to one of Canada’s great painters, Tom Thomson. It pays homages to our history, but more specifically, to an artist who understood the North, and indeed died while painting on northern Canadian waters. The image of the tree also points to the paradox that rock and cold can produce such vitality.

The pinecone pulls the painting into a third dimension, startling the viewer with a non-paint medium, arresting the aesthetic sensibility and foreclosing comfortable conclusions about traditional canvasses. The pinecone, a vessel of seeds for new trees, represents the fertility of experimental artists—artists who inspire future generations with their bold creations.  

The piece is called “Frozen Pinecone.” It mystifies me that no one wants to buy it, especially with so much compelling theory provided by the artist.     

Given that I can't sell my painting on the open market, should I convince a special group at a public museum to buy it using your tax dollars?

If I do, I will be moving clearly from free expression to expression for free, raising a multitude of morally complex questions about how art is promoted.

It’s always justifiable to question why we are compelled to support the arts, but it’s all the more understandable that taxpayers recoil at arts funding when that art is particularly esoteric and inaccessible. More often than not, it seems, the funding of high culture amounts to a wealth transfer from the poorer to the richer, since it is normally the more well-off who visit galleries, ballet and theatre, all subsidized by the public at large.

In many instances, artists, critics and others will argue that certain works of art would never find supporters in the free market, and this justifies public funding of those artists. But from the Medici family to the present day, there have been many private individuals, families and companies that have been great connoisseurs, benefactors and supporters of the arts.

In keeping with the aesthetic outlines of "Frozen Pinecone," I can point to a fitting contemporary example: Steve Martin, the American comedian, is currently sponsoring an exhibition of Lawren Harris' work at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Harris, an iconic Group of Seven figure, is best known for his stark images of Canada's North—blue-green icebergs, frozen lakes and dramatic modernist interpretations of mountains. Martin, a collector of modern art, has been a fan of Harris for some time and felt it time to introduce his work south of the border. He’s not only sponsoring part of the exhibition, but also curating it (it’s also worth noting that the Hammer Museum was founded and funded by Armand Hammer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and former chair of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation).

In the instance of this Harris exhibition, the moral questions about funding the exhibition are not on the table. Since Martin and his colleagues at the Hammer museum are operating within the free market (I am simplifying the funding issues, but the basic point remains), they can theorize all they want about Harris or any other painter for that matter.

I wonder if they would consider an exhibition on pinecones?


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