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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hideous Public Art (5)

Today's Hideous Public Art draws your attention to an eyesore that was recently unveiled in Toronto. Erected a musket shot away from historic Fort York, Douglas Coupland's Monument to the War of 1812 is not only gimmicky, childish and banal, but it is in astonishingly bad taste for a sculpture meant to commemorate a formative event in our nation's history that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and the burning of the city of York (now Toronto). Not only that, it panders to an unfortunate tendency in Canadians to go out of their way to thumb their noses at our American neighbours - it's a $500 000 flip of the bird disguised as art. But what can one expect from Douglas Coupland, the writer and aesthete who gave us Generation X - the novel that elevated that nihilistic slacker generation from mere annoyance to cultural icon?

The Battle of York was fought on April 27, 1813 when an American naval fleet carrying a force of about 1500 troops under Zebulon Pike landed on the shore of Lake Ontario west of the town. The defending British force at Fort York abandoned both it and the nearby town. When American troops took over York, many acts of arson and looting took place, and the Upper Canadian parliament buildings were burned to the ground. The later British attack on Washington DC and the burning of the White House was said to be in retaliation for the arson at York. In all, 132 people were killed and over 300 wounded on both sides during the action.

So what has Mr. Coupland given the good burghers of Toronto to commemorate this event? A styrofoam & resin installation depicting two huge toy soldiers - a victorious British soldier looming over a toppled American.

The work is described in a November 3 National Post article thus:

The two soldiers are made of styrofoam over a steel armature, then blanketed with a resin hardcoat. They were built in Calgary, and transported on an open air flatbed truck to Toronto. The Monument to the War of 1812 cost about $500,000, and was commissioned by Malibu Investments, which developed the Malibu at Harbourfront. The sculpture is located on its front steps.

What the hell? Surely this is a joke. Someone from the Christmas-window display team at the downtown Bay store is using up some leftover Christmas decorations for a seasonal display, right? This can't be a monument to an actual war where people died to protect their country, can it?

Well, here's what our betters have to say about it (again from the National Post):

Deputy Mayor of Toronto Joe Pantalone said he is not worried about offending American tourists.“It’s really a statement about the nature of war, as much as about the War of 1812,” Mr. Pantalone said after the launch. “It’s not in my personal interpretation, it would not be that one side won and one side lost, it’s just that both sides would be affected by it, and both sides moved on.”
Toronto historian Ron Fletcher, who was at the unveiling, said his first reaction was that the monument was comical. Then he worried if it trivialized the war.
But he noted that the plaque attached to the monument describes “two abandoned toy soldiers.”
“Now that you see the word abandoned you get a little sympathy towards them, which is a different attitude than, isn’t’ this disrespectful. I kind of like controversial art because it makes you think. A lot of war memorials don’t make you think ... what does the War of 1812 mean to me?”
Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson called the sculpture a “wonderful thing, by not only a great visual artist, but writer.”

Mr. Coupland himself had this to say about his masterpiece:
“I grew up thinking the Americans lost the War of 1812, and it turns out there’s this creeping revisionism happening. Americans are saying maybe we didn’t lose. Maybe we won it,” Mr. Coupland told a crowd of onlookers gathered to see his first permanent installation... The monument is not meant to rub Americans’ noses in their loss — rather “gently” remind people of what actually happened during the War of 1812 “because history is a fluid notion and it can be rewritten.”

Well, I'm glad we cleared that up. Excuse me, Mr. Coupland, but didn't we lose the Battle of York? If this thing is installed a few blocks away from the site of the garrison that failed to protect the city from destruction by an invading American army, isn't it a bit, oh, I don't know, arrogant to show a British soldier victorious over a fallen American? I guess history is a fluid notion and it can be rewritten after all.

You know, the War of 1812 used to be a big deal in Canada. We used to take pride in the fact that the British army and Canadian militia held the attacking Americans off for almost three years and preserved Canada as an independent nation. The men who died in that war used to be considered heroic figures. We used to erect monuments to them that were, well, monumental and heroic. Take, for example, the monument in Queenston, Ontario to Major General Isaac Brock who died on October 13 1812 while defending the Niagara frontier from an American attack at the Battle of Queenston Heights. A huge statue of Brock, uplifted arm pointing across the river at the threat from across the border, surmounts an enormous classical column guarded by stands of armour. The bones of Brock himself and his aide Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell are interred in a crypt in the base.

The current monument is in fact the second one on the site - the original was considered so important that it was blown up in 1840 by anti-British terrorists. The re-burial of Brock's remains in the second monument was done with great pomp and ceremony, as this contemporary poster attests:

Other War of 1812 monuments show the reverence we once had for this period in our history. Consider this magnificent tower commemorating the Battle of Stoney Creek:

Or this memorial to the Battle of Fort Erie:

Or this simple but elegant obelisk at the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane:

So this is Toronto's contribution to commemorate the upcoming 200th anniversary of the Battle of York? What an embarassment. And what do Americans in Toronto think? A spokesperson from the American Consulate politely told the press that the Consulate had no comment on the monument, but said the U.S. government is committed to freedom of speech. Well, what else can one say?

(Thanks to one of my two regular readers, Ted at Edward Michael George who e-mailed me to say "not only is it mind-bogglingly ugly, not only is it graspingly anti-American, it is clearly meant to belittle the historical role of the military. Words fail.")


Cool Blue said...

I like Coupland. His "thing" though is kitsch, irony and sarcasm which shouldn't really be applied to such serious subjects.

I like the monument as a statement on the War of 1812, but not as a public memorial.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if, at the time, the families of the fallen sodiers thought of them as "toys". This depiction denigrates the sacrifices of those lost in any war. In our smug hindsight we may think this war was rather silly, but to the people of that time it was deadly serious.
It's about what I would expect from Toronto and Ms. Clarkson.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of historical revisionism, it was the BRITISH, not Canadians that had the strongest armed forces on the planet at the time. It was the BRITISH, not Canadians that won the war of 1812. If the CANADIANS went to war against the strongest armed forces on the planet today (the USA)who do you suppose would win? And one final question, if the Americans had fought ONLY the "Canadians" in 1812, without the presence of the British, who do you suppose would have won then? Hmmmm?

Anonymous said...

At least you can tell what it is.

But yes, it does trivialize a very important war.

Anonymous said...

Clarkson is now Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. Would she consider some "artist's" rendering of an abandoned toy soldier Patricia standing over a representation of a dead "toy" Taliban as a “wonderful thing"? Would she say so to soldiers in "her" regiment?

MikeM said...

Well, let's see. The Brits dominated on the ocean, the Yanks dominated the Lakes. The Yanks invaded and burnt some government buildings. The Brits did the same. Impressment and trade embargoes of the Continent ended, but for other reasons. And in the end, no boundaries were changed. That sounds like a draw to me.

So why is one soldier fallen over? And why are they "toy soldiers"?

Anonymous said...

I don't know-- not my favourite, but it's not overwhelmingly negative. Have you heard conservative Americans talk about us sometimes? It's not pro-Americanism that is the conservative principle, it's patriotism, which in this country means being pro-Canada. Eff yeah we won the War of 1812. "And then we'll go to Washington... and we'll burn the White House twice! And it burned burned burned, and we're the ones that did it. It burned burned burned, while the Americans ran and cried..."

(I do agree that it is insultingly flippant for a war memorial)

Revnant Dream said...

They look like two Stretego pieces.
We paid for this?
Honor , dignity, bravery have no place in the NEW Canada.
Might as well mention the Art is plastic looking nihilistic trash.
There is no emotion or “feel” of the events for a supposed tribute to arms.
I call this Totalitarian art. Fits right in with the Soviet or Nazi ideas of culture.
Of course it had to be anti American as well. Like we all don’t have relations down south.
The northern States almost ironically succeeded over fighting this war. Its was more a civil one from Empire loyalists. You know the Americans who lost the revolutionary war. Who made up a considerable population in the Canada’s
To many family members where dying for Napoleon, who instigated it. With British arrogances help.

Hoarfrost said...

The war of 1812 was deadly serious. Toronto and Ontario was founded by refugees from the American revolution. Some of these were driven from their homes and farms in upper New York state from Jamestown to Niagara. Many of them had no interest in the revolution but wanted to be left alone to raise their families on their farms. They ended up in Ontario.

When the Americans raided and burned York (now Toronto) it enraged and coalesced the locals. Militias were formed which came together alongside British regular troops to help overcome the later American incursions at Stoney Creek. Their rout of the Americans in that battle was the true founding of Canadian cohesiveness.

Somehow the only hatred of Americans left in the modern era is among the social engineering leftists that seem to dominate Toronto these days.

See what we lose when we fail to teach history in our schools!

jaycurrie said...

Thank you for your reminders of the War of 1812.

Coupland is an interesting minor artist and perpetual "of the moment" writer. He is also a very nice guy. But why anyone would think to commission him for a piece of public war art is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

If you Canucks had indeed "won" the War, we Americans would all be speaking English right now.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering about another commission to do a styrofoam American frontiersman standing over a dead Highlander (one of Wellington's veterans sent to America) to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans. Eight Americans dead and 3,000 Brits killed and wounded in an hour. Cool huh? said...

dCoupland has his historical facts right.
As American History Professor Donald Hickey states in his new book (Don’t Give up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812): Who Won the War? "there are actually five groups of participants that must be considered: The biggest winner was Canada; then came Great Britain; and then the Indians living in Canada. The biggest losers were the Indians living in the United States [98% of them were exterminated by the end of the19th Century]; after them came the United States itself, which ... for the first time in its history lost a war.”
When the War of 1812 started America's leaders thought an invasion of Canada would be "a mere matter of marching," as Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted. How could a nation of 8 million fail to subdue a struggling colony of 300,000? Yet, when the campaign year of 1812 ended, the only Americans left on Canadian soil were prisoners of war. Three American armies had been forced to surrender, and the Canadians were in control of all of Michigan Territory and much of Indiana and Ohio.
After two more years of War and another seven invasion attempts, none of Canada was occupied by American Forces and Canadian/British/Native forces occupied large chunks of land within the U.S..
By the end of the War U.S. trade had been strangled to practically nothing, the economy was grinding to a halt, the US Navy was blockaded in port, the US Army faced increasingly hostile odds on land, and the nation's capital city lay in ashes. ... And the issue over which America had gone to war -- the impressment of seamen -- was tactfully ignored in the peace treaty and the captured American territory returned. Too soon, the construction of reassuring myths in the immediate aftermath helped transform a futile and humiliating adventure that aimed to conquer Canada into one of defending the republic.
These facts can all be found in books by Pierre Berton (2001), Donald Graves (1999), Jon Latimer (2007), James Elliott (2009) and Donald Hickey (2008).
Yours respectfully, 
Harold Cockburn

Eric said...


Canada may have been the biggest "winner" of the war, but there's no disputing that we lost the Battle of York, so putting up a monument to that battle which shows a British soldier standing over a vanquished American is a bit much.

Hoarfrost said...

It was not a bit much at all. The militias formed to resist the armed incursion were raised right here in Toronto and the rest of southern Ontario. Loyalist families are rightly proud of that heritage. It brought us together as a proud people and a proud nation. Unfortunately the Brits screwed uo on the peace treaty and ought to have kept Ohio and Indiana.