The twentieth century has witnessed many transformations in the ways we produce and respond to works of art. It has seen the rise of altogether new media, approaches, and a wealth of new interpretative frameworks. The emergence of manufactured goods, modernism, and a ubiquitous mass culture contribute to the upheaval, in the 1960’s and 70’s, of established art practices and approaches. Pop Art emerges as an important response to, extension of, or parody of what Clement Greenberg called “Ersatz culture” and “kitsch”, which, to paraphrase Greenberg, represent the omnipresent abominations of commercial and replicated art (Greenberg 9). This essay will observe and discuss the interaction of Canadian pop culture, art, and identity in Joyce Wieland’s “O Canada (Animation)”, and will underline how works of Pop Art serve to elevate kitsch into “a new state of aesthetic dignity” (Eco 228).
Made in 1970, the year of Wieland’s return to Canada, “O Canada (Animation)” is a large embroidery piece on fabric depicting a series of luscious, bright red lips mouthing the words to the Canadian anthem, ultimately a visual rendition of its lip-synching. (It also exists as lithographic prints, where the mouths are similar to lipstick). The mouths are analogous to those of pin up girls and advertisements; the piece hangs loosely like a banner or flag. Wieland has just spent several years living in New York City and is now delving into works dealing with Canadian nationalism and traditionally feminine handcrafts. “O Canada” would not become the official Canadian anthem until 1980, but already in 1966, Lester B. Pearson is placing motions so that the song may become the country’s anthem. Similarly, the maple leaf flag is first flown in 1965 – nationalist feelings in Canada are de mise. On the pop culture front, 1970 sees the foundation of the Walt Disney Archives which, it seems, alone can epitomize the widespread exposure of mass culture cinema and animation techniques to the mass public: comic strips, pulp fiction and film are part of the popular language.
“O Canada (Animation)” would then, in this context, strike resonant chords in the public. Wieland’s artistic choices (the pulp Canadian red lips, the filmic/animation format, the use of a song with massive national exposure and significance) are all borrowed from the contemporary common pop language. Is her piece, then, kitsch, or does it transcend that label? I would like to answer the question on two fronts: first and for the next 2 paragraphs, I will answer based only on the visual aspect of the work, second by taking into account notions of identity.
As Dick Hebdige writes,
“Pop, it is frequently suggested, was indulgent and decadent because it refused to adopt a morally consistent and responsible line in the commercially structured popular culture which it invades, plunders and helps to perpetuate. […] “Americanized” pictorial forms had come to stand as […] a hermeneutic – a cage full of codes and...