RM Vaughan, Compared to Hitler: Selected Essays, Toronto, Tightrope Books, 2013, 264 p.
RM Vaughan’s essays are sharp. Sharp in the sense of keenly intelligent of course, but also in the sense of knowing: being aware or au courant. The range of subjects covered by the articles in Compared to Hitler is irrefutable evidence of this; the pieces articulate a broad understanding of contemporary art and culture that actively enlarges the possible conversation(s) around the subject. The texts deal with everything from Vancouver Photo-Conceptualism to the work of Carolee Schneemann, from Toronto artist Will Munro’s legendary “Vazaleen” club nights to the social and cultural dimensions of The Toolbox leather bar.
Beyond the insights offered by individual articles however, and they are considerable, the curious title of the book is worth noting, for both its provocation and the strange tale behind it. In fact, the aforementioned essay on Photo-Conceptualism is – in a pointed illustration of much that seems troubling in the current Canadian art world – the source of the collection’s moniker and gives us another sense of why Vaughan’s essays may be called sharp. Apparently, the title arises from an unfortunate comparison of the author to the Nazi leader that a member of the West Coast art scene made in response to an article Vaughan wrote on a European exhibition and to which the individual took exception. Paradoxically, such a comparison underlines not only how—admittedly—provocative these essays are, but how vital too. If, the somewhat devil-may-care tone of some of the essays aside, the critical discourse around art has sunk to so complacent a level that simply questioning established canons can provoke hyperbolic nonsense, then the occasionally contrarian observations of critics like Vaughan are a valuable corrective. The fact that they are also insightful, carefully written and witty, without unduly sacrificing rigour, adds to the pleasure of reading them.