At first glance, Vincent Massey (1887-1967) was precisely the wrong man to ignite popular interest in the arts. To judge by his public demeanour, he was what his generation called a stick: His manner was so dry that he appeared calcified. He exhibited neither passion nor humour. If a lifetime's exposure to Shakespeare, Beethoven and Rembrandt had produced this human iceberg, what did that say about the arts?
Yet the St. Laurent government's decision in 1949 to have him chair its royal commission on culture was logical. He collected paintings, he had been an amateur actor and director, and for many years his financial backing had sustained the Hart House String Quartet, the most admired chamber players in Canada. No one else in public life knew that world so well.
For two years, Massey and his fellow members of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences held hearings across the country and worked hard to generate public interest. The crisply written report they delivered in 1951 became the most important official document in the history of Canadian culture. This year, it's half a century old, but celebrations of the anniversary have been muted, perhaps in unstated acknowledgement that it was not quite the success it once seemed to be. Possibly, like John Grierson's dour leadership at the National Film Board a decade earlier, the Massey Report did a wonderful job and at the same time got us going in the wrong direction.
Its recommendations led eventually to the creation of the Canada Council and the National Library, but the report exerted other influences that were less obvious and less beneficial. What seems clear now is its political bias. It framed support of the arts in essentially political terms, and we have been burdened by those terms ever since.
Massey was, among other things, a politician. In 1925 he had been appointed briefly to Mackenzie King's Cabinet but had failed to win a seat in Parliament. Yet he still imagined he might be prime minister some day. Partly for that reason, he aroused King's enduring suspicion and hatred.
The Massey Report politicized the subsidy of the arts. Its central argument was that the nation should support the arts so that the arts could support the nation. Artists would eventually create what Massey called a "national Canadian consciousness" and would even become "the foundations of national unity." All nonsense, of course. As it turned out, the arts became far more regional than national, and in Quebec most artists have favoured separatism.
In 1951, the idea of artists as eager nation builders did not seem so futile. Still, the argument needed something more, an outside enemy and a threat. Massey, whose sympathies lay entirely with English culture, knew where to direct negative attention. In the report, the U.S. emerged as both bad example and menace. The commercialized American arts lacked sensitivity and intelligence. Worse, they were monstrously popular. The report warned that they could saturate Canada and make distinct Canadian expression impossible.
The report recommended many positive steps based on an optimistic view of Canadian potential, but the tone was defensive. We were to support culture not for its own sake but to save us from Americanization. Ever since 1951, that idea has haunted the discussion of the arts in Canada. In our collective imagination, the arts have come to resemble an isolated fortress in the wilderness that we must defend at all costs. Certain key words dominate our language when we discuss this subject: save and protect and rescue and preserve. A headline in Maclean's a few years ago said, "On guard for thee: Sheila Copps turns up the volume to protect the culture." Those words alone, "guard" and "protect" seem to prophesy defeat, or at best stasis.
There's good reason to fear being swamped, and we expect Ottawa to insist on Canada's right to support its own institutions. But with Massey's encouragement we have over-emphasized this struggle, as if it were more important than what artists actually produce. Making survival the focus of our attention hardly encourages a vibrant cultural atmosphere. It's a downer.
Certain elements of the Massey Report were dated even before it appeared. It showed little interest in popular drama just when a powerful new medium for drama, television, was finding its feet. The report worried about U.S. influence but did not suggest supporting feature films, as the governments of Sweden, India, Britain and other countries were doing.
On the subject of mass culture in general, the commissioners seem to have hoped that it would go away if they mostly ignored it. Massey himself did not like mass culture -- or, so far as one can tell, the masses. Suspicious of "the delights of materialism," he looked with disdain on people who thought refrigerators, cars and TV sets were necessities. That's an ungracious opinion when expressed by the heir to a fortune. He was even more insensitive than the man in the famous metaphor who was born on third base but convinced himself he had hit a triple. Massey went farther. He scorned people desperately hoping to get to first base. He was an elitist and couldn't help himself. In the end his history-making report was not about culture but only one slice of it.