(In 1990, with the country in recession, the National Gallery sparked public outrage when it spent $1.8 million for a painting Voice Of Fire by U.S. artist Barnett Newman. The single artwork cost more than half the Gallery’s yearly acquisition budget. Protests were led by Conservative MP Felix Holtmann, then-chair of the Commons culture committee. Holtmann, a hog producer from Rosser, Man., recalled the furore in an April 19, 2011 interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan. Following is a transcript of Holtmann’s remarks)
It was a terrible time. Unemployment was 10 percent. We were darn near starving in Western Canada in terms of economic activity. It was a bad slump. And in the middle of this, we had this elitist group spending this kind of money on a piece of abstract art that nobody wanted. It was sitting in the basement of a gallery in New York. This Barnett Newman may have been famous, but nobody wanted his painting, so our people went down and discovered it for $1.8 million.
They just went too far. The Gallery said it represented some kind of “borderless society”, but I was not impressed. How do you read that into an 18-foot stripe on a wall? Somebody could say, oh, the blue’s the ocean, the red’s the autumn leaves, no the red is the sun. To me, it was like somebody was pulling a quick one. Anybody could paint that. I could do it in 10 minutes: two cans of paint, two rollers, I could do this. In Ottawa they said, oh, the Gallery is at arm’s length, but the buck stops with Parliament. Arm’s length be damned.
Well, people were outraged. I received many, many letters. Had Ottawa gone mad? Do they just like to waste money? The debate was really hot. Even the National Enquirer did a story on it. The Ottawa Sun did a poll and 94 percent said they didn’t like it. This wasn’t about being against art. These were dollars that were poorly spent.
Some people said, “Oh, Holtmann is a pig farmer, what does he know?” I was proud to be a farmer. They just wanted to discredit me. Sheila Copps used to turn around and say, “Felix, how’s everything in the pig barn now? Soo-ee, soo-ee!” What’s wrong with being a pig farmer?
I thought the controversy was a good thing. They tell me Gallery attendance went up 20,000 because people had to see this damnable picture. To this day I think I probably saved taxpayers a lot of money.