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Art Criticism & Theory

Voices of Fire

Art, Rage, Power, and the State

edited by Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut & John O'Brian

University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division
Initial publish date
Oct 1996
Criticism & Theory
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    Publish Date
    Oct 1996
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    Oct 1996
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On 7 March 1990 the National Gallery of Canada issued a press release announcing its purchase of a large abstract painting by the American artist Barnett Newman for $1.8 million. Within 72 hours the gallery was under attack both for its selection of Voice of Fire and for the price tag attached to it. Objections came from across Canada and from all quarters.

The Voice of Fire controversy was the most extensive and heated debate over visual art ever to have taken place in Canada. This anthology can be seen as a case-study, providing both a historical account of the outcome of the National Gallery's purchase of the painting and an understanding of why the gallery's actions provoked such strong opinions and feelings. In this volume the editors also address the peculiar and paradoxical character of abstract art in general and the problems it consistently poses for viewers. Newman's work is presented as the focus of these concerns.

The attack on the gallery by the press, the general public, Canadian artists, and politicians is documented in the first section by a broad selection of cartoons satirizing the painting, press photographs, news releases, editorials, letters to the editor, and public exchanges. In the second section three essays offer contrasting accounts of the controversy and its significance. The first considers the social processes by which art becomes art, the second focuses on the role of the media in shaping public opinion about art, and the third compares the reception of Voice of Fire in two distinctive frameworks, first at Expo '67 in Montreal and then in Ottawa in 1990. In the final part four papers given at a symposium on Voice of Fire organized by the gallery in October 1990 (a combined effort at damage control and art criticism) are presented, as well as a transcription of the public dialogue between speakers and audience which followed.

About the authors

Bruce Barber is an internationally known artist, writer and curator. His interdisciplinary studio work has been included in the Paris Biennale, the Sydney Biennial and many exhibitions in Canada and abroad. Barber is the editor of Essays on [Performance] and Cultural Politicization (1983); co-editor, with Serge Guilbaut and John O'Brian, of Voices of Fire: Art Rage, Power, and the State (Toronto, 1996) and editor of Conceptual Art: the NSCAD Connection 1967-1973 (Halifax, 1992).

Bruce Barber's profile page

Serge Guilbaut is a professor of art history at the University of British Columbia. He received his PhD in Art History from UCLA in 1979. His books include How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (University of Chicago Press), Voir, Ne pas Voir, Faut Voir (Chambon, France), Sobre la desaparici�n de ciertas obras de arte (Curare/Fonca, Mexico), and Los Espejismos de la imagen en los lindes del siglo XXI (Akal Ediciones, Spain). He lives in Vancouver.

Serge Guilbaut's profile page

John O'Brian teraches Art History at the University of British Columbia. He is author of David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting: The Flat Side of the Landscape and Degas to Matisse: The Maurice Wetheim Collection, and editor of Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism.

John O'Brian's profile page

Editorial Reviews

'The book examines the controversy from every conceivable angle, bringing together essays, newspaper stories, verbatim texts (including the National Gallery of Canada news release that lit the flame) and editorial cartoons. It appears that everyone from Felix Holtmann, an outspoken pig farmer-turned-MP, to deputy minister Don Mazankowski, to ordinary citizens had something to say, usually prefaced by "I don't know much about art but I know what I like...."'

Halifax Daily News

'The essayists stay light on their feet with lucid writing that gives insight into why and how Voices of Fire became a symbol for other social, political, and economic uncertainties of the time.'

Quill and Quire

'This excellent book gives the reader not only a scholarly document but an example of what abstract art has had to endure in the 20th century'


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