The Politics of Cultural Power: Canadian Participation at the Venice and São Paulo Biennials, 1951-1958
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Biennials, both historically and in the present, form a significant part of the contemporary art world. However, beyond simply acting as platforms for contemporary art, these extensive, recurring international exhibitions also facilitate complex dialogues involving a variety of agents, both cultural and political. With the inherently political nature of these exhibitions in mind, this thesis examines Canadian participation in the Venice and São Paulo biennials from 1951 to 1958. By examining what I identify as the triple purpose of the biennial - the exhibition of contemporary art, the facilitation of cultural diplomacy, and the creation and reinforcement of cultural nationalist narratives - this paper further explicates the National Gallery of Canada’s role in defining Canadian culture and the relationships between visual culture, cultural nationalism, cultural diplomacy and institutional politics in the postwar era. Drawing upon Judith Balfe’s conception of the utilization and manipulation of visual culture for nationalistic or diplomatic ends, I argue that participation in the Venice Biennale served as a means of reinforcing the presence of an NGC-defined culture of Canadian art to an international audience comprised mainly of artistic and diplomatic elite. Conversely, participation in the São Paulo Bienal served primarily as a conduit for the Department of External Affairs to project a positive image of Canadian culture to other nations and foster cordial relations between like-minded nations. I contend that a comparative analysis of Canadian participation in the two biennials highlights the complicated relationship between the NGC and the Department of External Affairs as well as the ideological adherence of both institutions towards liberalism and liberal democracy.