Voice of Fire represents a lot of loonies

Twenty years ago, the National Gallery of Canada displayed a painting that enflamed a nation.

As an art student, I traveled to Ottawa to see Barnett Newman‘s “Voice of Fire”, and loved it.

But all across the country there were fiery voices of anger and disbelief…

As arts commentator Greg Buium notes in a recent article in The Walrus, the purchase of “Voice of Fire” from the late Barnett Newman’s widow was a watershed moment for Canadian culture. It represented a clash of values between those who felt the Gallery should reflect the hearts and minds of ordinary Canadians, and those who felt it had a higher mission. Each side thought the other was nuts.

The popular sentiment was that 1.8 million of the tax payer’s dollars was a colossal waste of money for a painting widely dismissed as three stripes of colour. “My kid could have painted that” about sums it up, with a fair sprinkling of “He’s not even Canadian!”

But supporters of the acquisition held that fine art shouldn’t have to be accessible; it’s there to challenge, and to push the boundaries. Newman’s work did that, especially when on display in the Gallery, where its enormous size and bold colours really were quite startling to behold. Plus, it was a work of some relevance to Canadians, even if Newman was an American painter: it had hung in the geodesic dome American Pavilion at Expo67 in Montreal.

I remember discussing the painting in the Gallery with a Canadian curmudgeon who cared about none of that. His idea of art was limited to Robert Bateman prints of loons and the like, and the Group of Seven. I stood up for the curator. He stood up for Common Sense. And we hooted at each other like a couple of loons.

Telling him the Group of Seven had been just as controversial as Newman for their radical way of depicting nature did no good.

So I tried to justify the purchase of “Voice of Fire” by noting that government money had also supported the building of the Skydome, home to his beloved Toronto Blue Jays. That held no water either.

Finally, I marshaled my financial facts: Newman’s widow had sold the painting to the National Gallery at a bargain basement price, to ensure it went to a public collection. It was already worth twice what they’d paid for it. “At least,” I said, “you have to admit they made a smart investment.” No dice.

But that was a bad move on my part anyway. The value of art isn’t financial, and when you reduce it to monetary terms you strip it of its inherent worth. That goes for expensive abstract paintings, and loon prints alike. What art means is what it’s worth, not the other way around.

Twenty years after its purchase, “Voice of Fire” may be worth upwards of ten million bucks. Now, I wouldn’t want to see it cashed in to buy Bateman prints. But the curator and the curmudgeon can probably agree on one thing: for better or worse, Voice of Fire represents a whole lot of loonies in a nation of lovable loons.

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