The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission

Paul Litt

An historian, Paul Litt takes a sceptic's view on the intellect that informed the Massey Commission. He ranges across his period sources like a shrewd writer of an ironic narrative told from a contemporary Canadian perch. His readable analysis of the Commission's processes, its players, and times (late 1940s, early 1950s) employs the term "cultural élite" so often that it becomes a pejorative mantra for identifying what drove the Massey Commission, and for explaining why the valorization of the Commission has obscured its ideological biases (liberal humanism, "culchah"); its class basis; and its principal function as a "cultural lobby" of nationalist, educational purpose: "high culture as national culture... [made] more accessible to the average Canadian."

One vein of Litt's thesis is that the Commission's official investigation of the state of Canadian culture and its agencies acted "to rally its supporters, confound its enemies, and seduce the uncommitted public." He concludes that some of the commission's recommendations had already been earmarked by Liberal Prime Minister St. Laurent's government for possible action, some were being investigated by others (e.g., the Woods-Gordon audit of the National Film Board), and others came to naught. Litt calls the Massey Commission Report's rhetorical style and pyramidal structure, with the creation of the Canada Council at the "apex," a document that appears to be founded on "general public opinion rather than the views of interest groups in the cultural field."

If Litt's well-documented argument tempers the historical weight of the Massey Commission's purposes and legacy, it also foregrounds an abiding fear of the times: American imperialism, particularly the influences of U.S. mass culture on Canadians through radio and that impending medium, television, with its commercial interests. "High culture," and specifically Canadian culture, was to be our liberator, because mass culture was perceived to be a materialist and homogenizing force against which we had to arm ourselves. This is familiar territory, with compelling twists.

Some of the archival photographs (usefully placed at the beginning of Litt's book) at first glance suggest a merging of popular culture with "high" culture. In retrospect, upon reading Litt's book, these photographs convey an overcoming of mass culture with Canadian culture. By extension, what Litt seems to be asking his readers to re-see is the museum imagery surrounding the Massey Commission.

A string quartet plays before Canadian landscape paintings. Prominent is a Tom Thompson work. "Canada's first festival of ballet" occurs in an Odeon theatre in Winnipeg. The ballet patrons appear to be walking away from the prominent "Candy Bar" sign in the lobby. A Regina sports announcer conducts a radio interview with the hockey players Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach. The "Habs" logo on each player's hockey sweater appears to frame radio's purpose, emanating from folk heroes and pointed in the direction of Canadien hockey culture. A rural audience watches an NFB film. The properly suited men and women share the demeanour of a social family attentive to a special, state-staged event. In Yellowknife, men and women take an art class. The live male model holds the pose of a farm boy, influenced, it seems, by the imaginary Huck Finn. A demonstration of television at the CBC in Montreal has Davidson Dunton, Chair of the CBC Board of Governors, standing with federal politicians before the camera--in effect, monitoring the gaze of Canadian television culture to come.

Litt never uses the term colonization to describe the Massey Commission's preoccupation with Canadian culture, particularly where Canadian culture is equated with the interests of the "cultural élite" and where these interests stand on guard against the incursion of mass culture. Yet implicit in his argument is a defence of popular culture, which rings through his cryptic asides and anecdotes, and through evidence quoted from briefs to the Commission. The commissioners sound like those realist characters of docu-drama, including George Grant's uncle, the Commission's Chairman, Vincent Massey. The only female commissioner, the academic Hilda Neatby, is described by Litt as a player who came "to recognize and respect other ways of life... even bringing her to a grudging acceptance of such alien forms of culture as sports and soap operas." Litt flags her "lone woman" role, but seems to miss the sexism of the day in recounting one newspaperman's commentary on Neatby ("that lady commissioner who heads a University History Department, but looks feminine despite that and asks questions in the manner of her sex: twice"). Spotting the omissions of two male writers from two different periods becomes the reader's task.

Litt's book is not revisionist so much as generational in its historical address and focus. A writer with voice and style, Litt not only critiques the thinking that shaped the Massey Commission, but also the historical place it has been granted through academic traditions prior to his. The debates he raises from the past on Canadian culture resound in the present, though currently the public and academic discussions are more inclusive of popular culture. It might take a deliberate, greater suspension of disbelief, however, on the part of today's official defenders of Canadian culture ("CanCult") to conceive of the persistence of popular culture as a form of resistance to the Massey Commission--a pleasure that the acerbic spirit of Litt's book would seem to welcome.



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