The Social and Political Efficacy of Art Music in Canada

  • Robinson, Dylan (CoI)
  • Ingraham, Mary (CoI)
  • Elliott, Robin (CoI)

Project: Research

Project Details


This project is a collaboration between Dr Mary Ingraham (Principle Investigator, University of Alberta) and Prof. Robin Elliott (Co-Investigator, University of Toronto) that seeks to better understand Canada's turn to socially relevant forms of art music production in the late 20th and early 21st century.

In Canada's current political environment where the arts are increasingly subjected to scrutiny for their economic viability, and sometimes disparaged by politicians and journalists for their perceived lack of social value, this poject re-considers both the potential and limits of art music’s precarious relationships with partnership and community connections. Historically, contemporary art music composers have asserted their autonomy from social and political issues. While an increasing number of artists and arts organisations have begun to re-define their relationships to their community partners and audiences, and to consider with these partners precisely what their responsibility to benefiting society should entail, critiques of artistic instrumentalization have begun to examine the correlation between the rise of artistic efficacy and the erosion of the welfare state (Bishop, O’Donnell, Miessen, Jackson). Such critics claim that the mobilization of socially-efficacious artistic endeavours (such as artists working with disenfranchised communities, and on issues ranging from the environment to homelessness) might, in fact, substitute ‘feel good’ artistic spectacle (Bishop) for the necessary societal function of social work, environmental change, and political activism.

Additionally, non-representational forms of art, and contemporary art music in particular, have often found significant challenges in negotiating between aesthetic innovation, with its emphasis on formal abstraction, and social engagement, with its emphasis on direct action and efficacy. Questions that this project attempts to address include: Are aesthetically innovative values of contemporary art music at odds with social and political activism? How might ‘difficult music’ – music that is dissonant or challenging to listen to – work in partnership with social and political causes?
Effective start/end date1/07/121/05/15