From My Library

Philip Monk | Is Toronto Burning?: Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Community

Philip Monk, Is Toronto Burning?: Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2016.

Jack Pollock, Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess, McClelland & Stewart, 1989

“Each day I write. I’m not sure what it’s all about, but most days I write about art and the constant raping of its values by pseudo intellectual acrobats.” (Jack Pollock, Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess)

Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind.  (Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook)

“Culture has replaced brutality as a means of maintaining the status quo.” (Philip Monk, Is Toronto Burning? Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene)


A spate of old issues of FILE magazine came into my hands over the past year (it’s worth noting that they were a gift from Elizabeth Chitty, who also gave me the copy of Monk’s book that spurred this essay). They’re a bit ragged, but that seems appropriate, as they’re like flashbacks (the magazine began publishing in 1972 and ran for 17 years, with 26 issues) that don’t resonate with many, more nostalgia than substance. 

They seem very dated, at times very juvenile, and more of an exercise in artistic onanism than anything else. This is, of course, a generalization, and it’s broken in certain points quite clearly. The issue that is almost entirely colour images of the three poodles, one of the many symbolic personas of General Idea, engaged in various tumbling and enthusiastic sex acts is one to keep (as I was impressed when I saw one of the large paintings from this series on a trip to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, installed amidst other notable Canadian works from Graham Coughtry to Attila Lukacs).

But many of the other copies of FILE are easily dismissed, even by someone like myself who has made a career of excavating in spaces that are too often ignored as pertains to Canadian Art history. The odd flash of brilliance, or the appropriation of mainstream media narratives and iconography, the sampling of authors from Burroughs to Acker, are the exception, not the rule. 

Perhaps, this many decades later, our expectations of how artists engage in appropriation is more sophisticated – or more jaded. Edit as you will. 

But all this reminded me of my long overdue response to Philip Monk’s book Is Toronto Burning? Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene), published several years ago, and that is focused upon the same era. I found the book uneven, and some players and characters in this story seem somewhat incongruous to their later roles or personas (true or assigned, in that vague way of art history and cultural narratives). But Monk’s own words lead to this: “In a sense, what follows is a story, a story with a cast of characters. These characters are pictured in video, photography, and print – not necessarily as portraits but rather as performers.” (from the chapter 1977). But in finally offering my impression of Monk’s narrative (considering personal and public factors and all the sites where those contested narratives collude and collide), I’ll begin with the following assertion: “All narrators are unreliable. Especially when they are characters within their own story.”

In light of that, I am finally revisiting my thoughts about Is Toronto Burning? Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene by Monk, but I also will bring to the table a book to act as a balance, or challenge: Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess, by Jack Pollock, which intersects with the same era that Monk focuses upon. 

Monk’s book was lauded upon its release, with glowing ‘reviews’ in a variety of ‘proper’ spaces. But before we delve deeper into this comparison, a bit of background is necessary: Philip Monk is a Toronto writer. His latest book, Migrating the Margins: Circumlocating the Future of Toronto Art (AGYU, 2019), was co-written with Emelie Chhangur. Monk is the 2021 recipient of the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts Founders Achievement Award. All of his writing, from 1977 on, can be accessed at Reading Philip Monk:

Monk is well known, still a pillar of the Canadian Art world, with his criticism and curatorial work. Unlike Jack Pollock, who seems to have been shamefully forgotten, or dismissed. The synopsis for his Dear M is as follows: Until 1983 Jack Pollock was the owner of the Pollock Gallery in Toronto, where he exhibited new Canadian artists. Then, abruptly, he lost both his business and his health. A broken man, he retreated to the south of France, expecting to die. These letters provide an assessment of his life. They are in the form of letters, as outrageous and courageous as the man who wrote them, written to “M”, a psychiatrist he had consulted briefly before his departure, in which he confides his deepest feelings. They speak of his daily life, his past, of religion and of the power of sexuality. This book was shortlisted for the City of Toronto’s Toronto Book Awards in 1990. 



Monk’s book is divided into a number of chapters, headings that hint at how he guides us through his history of that time: 1977, Was Toronto Burning?, Posturing (A Penchant for Posing, A Fashion for Politics), Antipathies and Sympathies (Antagonistic Couples, Allegories of an Art Scene), Desiring Machines (House Punk, Tele-Transgression). On reading those, are you exhausted yet – or perhaps the density of these are a bit excessive? Having consumed the book a few times, I still found most of those sections less engaging – and less enlightening – than Pollock’s reminiscences of how Norval Morrisseau was nearly defrauded by an unethical government employee, or Pollock’s raging against the pedantic nature of the formal ‘art’ institutions of the city of Toronto, during his heyday there. The balance between information and engagement is always a challenge, in historical writings. 

But “I would be the first to admit that this remark savoured of flippancy.” (I enjoy quoting Doris Lessing, when considering history, and historical texts, as her irreverance is wonderful). Monk’s book offers many insightful considerations, from numerous individuals, that are still very relevant – if not more so – today, than they were nearly half a century ago. Susan Britton’s comments about “..naïve politics and bad art” definitely is relevant today. Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge are described at one point as being problematic, for the characters in their various tableaux  “are never more than cartoon people with cartoon problems. And this reflects, not so much on the contradictions of capitalism, as on the failure of the Left to address these contradictions effectively, in human terms.” Anyone who witnessed the recent Ontario Provincial Election can see truth in that comment, where the NDP seemed to work very hard to lose another election that should have been theirs to – if not win – succeed within. It’s a fine point, if your work has significance decades later, even if not in the manner intended – or perhaps, in the opposite….

This is a book that functions well as an overview of that seminal era: Monk’s words are direct but also personal. He hits the “highlights” but also is honest in that some archives are no longer there, and also intersperses the text with images and other sources that directly reference the events he endeavours to chronicle. His own investment in this story – and thus, the inherent unreliability of his narrative – is acknowledged and really only adds to the “story”, making it more genuine, if I dare use that word, these days. 

General Idea weighs heavily in this history: unsurprising, as Monk’s perhaps best known for his Glamour is Theft: A User’s Guide to General Idea, but also because General Idea merits it (I’d suggest the Art Canada Institute’s fine research on GI). And some of the comments Monk parses from General Idea are among the most entertaining and challenging, in looking back nearly half a century, such as how “glamor replaces Marxism as the single revolutionary statement of the twentieth century.” (Consider that in light of what is produced, and passes, for mainstream culture, with what fills our screens and media consumption….) 

There is an authenticity to what Pollock offers, too – but after reading his book, and talking to several who knew him, and were his friends, it seems that he could not really have been anything less. Monk, on the other hand, is more of that space between art critic and art historian, less about a sense of (perhaps excessive, looking at Pollock) honesty than posturing (or to cite from Monk’s book, where he quotes Amerigo Marras’ On Organization :“The artist defends the privilege and the entrenchment he / she holds in a capitalist society”). 

A recent experience with a university gallery that is engaged in the vagaries of purging their collection of works deemed unnecessary by a new ‘director’ has also informed my thoughts, here: it seems, at times, that those who are supposed to be stewards of art history are actually laughing towards cultural amnesia.

As I stated earlier, it’s been some years since Monk’s book was published. The reviews at the time were glowing, but even then I had questions. For example, Murray Whyte, in the Toronto Star, offered the following : What they made, ultimately, is the foundation the city’s artistic culture stands on today. This was the era of artist-run centres, the founding of such places as YYZ and Mercer Union, which have evolved into the present day to foster careers and conversation and international connections in a grassroots way in which the commercial and big-museum art world never seemed to have time or interest. Is Toronto Burning? reminds us that nothing comes from nothing, not here and certainly not now. That’s worth remembering, no?

I’m a member of the generation that came after, watching how the artist run centres and other related notions of community shattered and faltered; but I would agree, that yes, these are things worth remembering. But it’s necessary to remember them accurately, and not through self aggrandizing ‘rose coloured’ glasses: the majority of artist run centres I’ve worked with, exhibited with, been on the boards of, since the 1990s, are no longer what they were. Some have become what they originally opposed. Part of this was the rise of neo liberal ‘austerity’ (like Mike Harris in Ontario), but also a generational dismissal of those who came after them. Monk writes frequently about Condé & Beveridge, and living in the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, I can’t help but draw an analogy between the auto unions’ neglect of younger workers and the decline of respect for unions, and labour activism, from my generation and younger, that demonizes us but doesn’t acknowledge the barriers put in place by these same ‘critics.’ This parallels with how too many denizens of the art world Monk lauds, and Whyte praises, for ‘changing’ things, really only changed things for themselves, and left scraps for those who came after…but perhaps my Gen X is showing. I am reminded of an art education panel I was on where tenured faculty lauded the PhD in visual arts, forgetting that most of them had obtained jobs, and security, not only without such credentials, but by actively opposing any such ‘gatekeeping.’ Hypocrisy, in historical accounting, is an issue in culture as much as any other area…

As someone who works researching and writing about art and art history (most notably over the past few years with AIH Studios’ ongoing Artists You Need To Know series), the trope of who is remembered, and who is forgotten, and the institutional assumptions and biases that inform ‘remembering’ that make it an arbitrary act is often on my mind. A recent experience with a university gallery that is engaged in the vagaries of purging their collection of works deemed unnecessary by a new ‘director’ has also informed my thoughts, here: it seems, at times, that those who are supposed to be stewards of art history are actually laughing towards cultural amnesia.

My words about Monk’s book may be a bit harsh: it’s a very personal, particular accounting, but in a manner too many of us are familiar with, when dealing with both his generation, and the locale of Toronto, as they both presume the specific to be universal. That’s also a reason why I found I could only gird myself to return to Monk with Pollock’s book as a tonic: Pollock’s book is intensely individual – and idiosyncratic – but has moments and stories with pertinence that is a bit wider, while looking back on the same contested era.

The three quotes that opened this essay are, in some ways, the encapsulation of my response. Pollock offers skepticism, having become an outsider or exile; Monk recognizes the power of the institution, having spent his career as both gatekeeper and arbiter; while Lessing reminds us that it’s all fleeting, like any act of remembrance, and to be met with humourous self reflection.

~ Bart Gazzola

This article was supported by the Ontario Arts Council, through their Writers Reserve Grant.