A World Apart: The Multicultural World of Visible Minorities and the Art World of Canada

By Li, Peter S. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, November 1994 | Go to article overview

A World Apart: The Multicultural World of Visible Minorities and the Art World of Canada


Li, Peter S., The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Much empirical research on racial inequality in North America has focused on differences in life opportunities and career outcomes (Jencks, et al., 1972; Featherman and Hauser, 1978; Boyd, Goyder, Jones, McRoberts, Pineo, and Porter, 1985; Li, 1988a), with the theoretical debate revolving around whether racial inequity can be attributed to culture as a primordial feature or to unequal opportunities arising from the social construction of race (Banton, 1983; van den Berghe, 1985; Miles, 1982). Thus far, little attention has been paid to the process of cultural reproduction as a dimension of inequality, by which the art and culture of the dominant group are promoted and legitimized, and those of the minority are artificially redefined and marginalized.

In this paper, I examine Canada's official policy and support towards art and minority cultures, and argue that the Government's differential approaches towards them encourage the development of two worlds of art that are characterized by differences in infrastructure and rules of operation. The first is a formal, legitimized and high-status art world of mainly white Canadians, and the second is a marginal, folkloric and low-status multicultural circle reserved for immigrants and made up largely of visible minorities. The formal art world is legitimized by the dominance of European and American art and culture in Canadian society, and patronized by the state through its support of a relatively autonomous professional body. The more nascent multicultural circle is sustained by Canada's official policy of multiculturalism through the Government's direct funding and control of activities under its multicultural programs. This social bifurcation reinforces the artificial differences between racial minorities and majority Canadians, and marginalizes the artistic development of visible minorities.(1)

In the following sections, I argue that the arts belong to a cultural domain which is subjected to the influence of the state. As a major patron of arts and culture, the state provides the financial support and infrastructural conditions for the development and maintenance of dominant arts. In a multicultural society like Canada, the state also maintains a separate policy towards the promotion and preservation of minority cultures and arts. In so doing, the Canadian state, through its role as the major sponsor and patron of arts and minority cultures, creates the unequal infrastructural conditions which are conducive to developing two types of art and culture. In this sense, dominant arts and subordinate minority cultures are at least partly perpetuated by state intervention.

ART, CULTURE AND THE STATE

Like religion, language, rituals and traditions, fine arts and performing arts are major components in the domain of culture. As a coherent system which provides an internal order by which actions are given meaning (Alexander, 1990), culture is best conceived of sociologically as a way of life which people develop in the process of adapting to some given material and social conditions. The latter point is elucidated by Valentine (1968) in his insistence on separating the external and therefore prior conditions of life from the cultural responses of people as they experiment and devise social mechanisms for altering and accommodating to the existing conditions. Hence, culture not only provides people with a technical rationale of how things are to be done, but also an ideological rationale for why they are done the way they are. For many social theorists, capitalist modernization represents an unlimited proliferation of instrumental rationality at the expense of aesthetic value and causing the destruction of the meaning of life (Marcuse, 1964; Alexander, 1990).

An essential feature of culture is that through symbolic manifestations in art, but also in religion and rituals, the philosophical and artistic meaning of existence that transcends the present-day life of a people, its past and its mythologies, is infused into their experiences. …

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