The Habitus of Mackenzie King: Canadian Artists, Cultural Capital and the Struggle for Power
Wagner, Anton Reinhold
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This dissertation analyzes the struggle between William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister (1922-1930, 1935-1948), and Canadian artists to define and determine the nature and distribution of arts and culture in Canada prior to the 1949 Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of habitus, “fields” of knowledge and power, and religious, social and cultural capital, the dissertation analyzes the central paradox of why—despite his decades-long involvement in half-a-dozen artistic disciplines—King failed to implement cultural policies as Prime Minister that would have benefited Canadian artists and the arts and culture in Canada. The dissertation applies Pierre Bourdieu’s model of social change in which “priests” with conservation strategies and charismatic “prophets” with subversion strategies compete among the “laity” for consumers of their respective symbolic goods to document how artists organized locally and nationally to accumulate social, cultural and political capital in their attempt to compel the federal government to implement their cultural objectives—state support for the arts. The dissertation posits that Mackenzie King’s inability to control his sexual impulses led him to espouse a conception of art whose primary function was to project Christian character and ideals. By establishing King’s religious and sexual habiti, I am able to show why he felt compelled to project such an idealized characterization in works of art depicting himself, members of his family, and public figures whose service to the nation he felt should be emulated by Canadians. As Leader of the Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament and as Prime Minister, King was able to use his political and economic power in the political field over three decades (1919-1948) to define who was a real artist and who was not, what constituted artistic legitimacy and what was the artistic and economic value of Canadian cultural production. The dissertation suggests that the analysis of King’s relationship with the arts and artists provides the key to unlocking the enigma of Mackenzie King and that in the struggle between artists and the Prime Minister over the nature and distribution of arts and culture in Canada, the artists won.