Skin in the Game. When a vaguely worded Parliamentary bill threatened the virtues of artistic merit, four Fredericton art galleries joined a national protest that eventually saw the bill put on ice.
Porn was a particularly hot topic in Canada during the 1980s. Long before the internet gave us access to every conceivable act of deviance and then some, the ingress to controversial material of the adult persuasion was relegated mostly to the top rack of newsstands, book stores and smoke shops. And thanks to the rising popularity of video rental stores at the time, the 1980s introduced another point of entry: the shaddy backroom. In their own way, these tiny closet spaces with their saloon style swinging doors or hanging bead curtains seemed designed to pique curiosity. And they often did.
To combat what they saw as an increase in accessibility and popularity of x-rated material, a number of concerned Fredericton residents formed a group they called People Opposing Pornography. POP was formed in 1985 as an attempt to inform citizens of the industry’s darker realities. Among several initiatives they came up with, the group planned to write and produce a film. Writer Paul Hanna had a range of content planned including filming people’s reactions to viewing pornographic material. He also planned to interview a “battered wife and an abusive husband,” and craft his own “pseudo rock video” to further convey what the group saw as an ongoing pornography problem. Fredericton-based Atlantic Media Works was named as the local production company and the project’s $14000 budget was to be covered in part through a grant from the Federal government. People Opposing Pornography also announced plans for the city’s first Anti-Pornography Week, which was to take place March 17-23, 1985 and include a number of guest speakers and an information booth at a local shopping mall.
But the growing presence of pornogarphy wasn’t just a local concern. On May 5, 1987, Fredericton’s local newspaper ran with the front page headline, War Declared on Pornography. In the article, Conservative Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn vowed to “attack pornography head-on.” And he did. Or at least he tried to.
Enter Bill C-54.
Bill C-54 was drafted in part as an attempt to amend criminal code definitions of pornography and erotica. But the vagueness and subjectivity of the bill’s wording blurred these distinctions and ignited a national debate over what was what and who could potentially be prosecuted, and for what exactly. Simply put, it was a mess. One outspoken critic, NDP Member of Parliament Svend Robinson said portions of the law “could have been written by a combination of Queen Victoria and Jimmy Swaggart.”
While Hnatyshyn maintained his belief the bill was aimed primarily at combating violence against women and children, artists, art galleries, museums, and film and theatre makers worried the bill would challenge the equally vague understanding of artistic merit, and could therefore lead to criminal charges against individual artists and/or exhibition facilities and theatres should certain works be deemed pornographic.
To voice their opposition to Bill C-54, several Fredericton art galleries came together in an act of protest. On March 20, 1988, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the UNB Art Centre, Gallery 78 and the city’s artist-run-centre Gallery Connexion opened simultaneous exhibitions of work they felt would be threatened under the new legislation.
In her Visual Arts Review column for The Daily Gleaner on March 19, 1988, writer Christina Sabat profiled the upcoming protest exhibition and outlined some of the larger concerns surrounding Bill C-54.
“Ultimately what is undermined by Bill C-54 is freedom of expression – something that is fundamental to creative viability and development. The Charter of Rights upholds freedoms. Bill C-54 proposes to deny artists aesthetic and moral judgment, deny curators and writers intellectual freedom to critically look and assess all aspects of artistic production in context of contemporary attitudes and points of view – sexuality included.”
For art galleries, there was a lot at stake. The Bill held the power to ban the showing of specific works and require galleries to enforce age restrictions on certain exhibitions. Offending works could be subject to seizure and possible destruction. If that wasn’t enough, artists, art administrators and art dealers could face up to ten years in jail for violations of the proposed law.
When the week-long, city-wide exhibition opened, nudity was everywhere. It was as much an act of protest as it was a celebration of the human body. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s exhibit included 23 works by many of the most prominent artists associated with the gallery including Alex Colville, Miller Brittain, Bruno Bobak and others. The UNB Art Centre displayed 14 pieces including work by Lawren P. Harris and Kate Kollwitz. Gallery Connexion’s participation saw 20 works by local artists on display. It is interesting to note that work by Bruno Bobak appeared in all three of these exhibitions.
While much of the work included across all the exhibits dealt with the human form in a traditional sense, Gallery 78 chose to do something completely different. For their participation, galley staff chose to showcase work by artist Heather Spears. Spears’ images of childbirth and premature babies were also at risk under the proposed bill.
Following the exhibition’s March 20 launch, additional exhibits opened at the Fredericton Public Library and the Harriet Irving Library and continued throughout the week. The city wide series wrapped up the following weekend with a public forum and debate on Bill C-54 hosted by Gallery Connexion.
This was just one of many protests that took place across Canada in 1988 as a result of this proposed bill. Acts of awareness for what was at stake took many forms. The Art Gallery of Ontario placed notices beside 38 works on display that summer stating, “This material could be on restricted viewing or banned if Bill C-54 is passed.”
By the end of the summer, the Conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney placed Bill C-54 on the back burner where it eventually faded from conversation.
Social graphics for this post feature Nudes on Shore by Alex Colville, 1950, tempera on Masonite, 61 x 96.5 cm, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton.