Art Gallery of Ontario Lecture on General Idea, Canadian Art & Marshall McLuhan, Toronto


AGO Celebrates Iconic Canadian Artist Group General Idea with Major Retrospective

McCready Lecture on Canadian Art by Philip Monk Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and Me! (Audio)

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Download 43.7MB MP3

Recorded: Wednesday, November 9, 7 – 8:30 pm in Jackman Hall
Duration: 01:16:25

Inaugurating their collective enterprise in the heyday of the “medium is the message,” General Idea were often dismissed as camp “triviality.” Yet they created a fictional system based on popular culture that was as coherent as the media analyses of Marshall McLuhan and the International Situationists. The lecture considers General Idea’s contribution to the Toronto School of communication theory.

Philip Monk is Director of the Art Gallery of York University and has served as a curator at both the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Power Plant. A published writer since 1977, he currently is finishing his eighth book Glamour is Theft: A User’s Guide to General Idea, a book as if written in the 1970s and as if written by Roland Barthes (in English translation).


Haute Culture to occupy AGO’s contemporary tower through January 2012

“This is the story of General Idea and the story of what we wanted. We wanted to be famous, glamorous, and rich. That is to say, we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamorous we could say we were artists and we would be.”

— General Idea, excerpt from “Glamour,” FILE Magazine, vol. 3, no. 1, fall 1975.

(TORONTO – June 22, 2011) 
Next month, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) will open an exhibition of unprecedented scale that celebrates the work of the Canadian artist group General Idea. Occupying more than 20,000 sq. ft. of Gallery space on the fourth and fifth floors of the AGO’s Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art, Haute Culture: General Idea — A Retrospective, 1969 – 1994will be on view July 30, 2011, through January 1, 2012. The exhibition features 336 works by the groundbreaking multidisciplinary group, including 107 works from the AGO collection, spanning their prolific and influential 25-year career.  

Curated by Paris-based independent curator Frédéric Bonnet, Haute Culture is the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to General Idea, a collaboration between artists AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal that began Toronto in 1969. The group’s transgressive concepts and provocative imagery challenged social power structures and traditional modes of artistic creation in ever-shifting ways, until Partz and Zontal’s untimely deaths from AIDS-related causes in 1994.  

“General Idea is a truly seminal Canadian artist group whose diverse and increasingly influential production warrants deep and comprehensive consideration,” says Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO’s Michael and Sonja Koerner Director, and CEO. “We are so pleased to mount an exhibition of their work on this large a scale, as I know that our visitors will find their exuberant and exacting vision to be intensely rewarding.”

About General Idea:


Among the many reasons to celebrate this week’s centenary of media guru Marshall McLuhan’s birth is that he gave life to General Idea (GI), one of the world’s most subversive art practices……….

Quickly the three earned a reputation as a gang that was redefining the role of the artist. “For GI, he was no longer someone who made things to hang on walls,” says Frédéric Bonnet, Haute Culture’s curator, “but a commentator on society.” They attended parties in matching outfits, obsessively documented themselves as real and fictionalized characters, and lived together as a threesome. “They introduced the idea that a relationship can be a triangle,” Bonnet says, “and not just a couple with two kids.”

The group chose the name “General Idea” to describe their practice, which was media omnivorous and favoured intellect over technical virtuosity. GI demonstrated this to the world in 1971, when they staged the Miss General Idea Beauty Pageant at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where contestants were both men and women. With this piece of performance art, Bronson, Partz, and Zontal imitated popular culture to plug themselves into one of the most important dialogues of the day: the questioning of gender stereotypes. 

“It was the era of McLuhan,” says Bronson, explaining how GI used every available form of mass communication—including TV, mail, balloons, and contests—to create art they could spread “like a media virus.” Soon, the group was more conscious of how its work was “presented through media than through exhibitions.”

Another McLuhan-inspired tactic was Bronson, Partz, and Zontal’s refusal to apply an individual signature to any of their works. Like their spiritual godfather, GI believed the future of art lay in collaboration, appropriation, and subversion. GI’s approach wasn’t for everyone. As with McLuhan, the group was often described as jokesters making impenetrable puns.

All this changed when AIDS hit the world and Partz and Zontal found out they had it (both died in 1994 of causes related to the disease). As Haute Culture masterfully documents, General Idea’s output from 1987 onward became exclusively focused on bringing attention to AIDS. Until the mid ’80s it was known as “gay cancer,” Bonnet explains. “GI was the first to market the disease.”

No Mean Feet, 1973-1974 Courtesy the Estate of General Idea

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