Honorary Degree Citation - Robert Ayre*

by J. Russell Harper, November 1976

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Robert Ayre, a distinguished Canadian art critic.

Robert Ayre has had the good fortune to be born in the unpolluted air of rural Manitoba. At an early age he learned to observe with great clarity. He has been distinguishing good from bad art ever since. His newspaper association began in 1917 with the Winnipeg Telegram and Free Press Leaving what was then a comparatively sterile and conservative prairie art scene, he decided that his mission was to civilize the East. To Montreal he brought western warmth, feeling for humanity and clear thinking. Here his criticism appeared in the Gazette and Standard until he joined the Montreal Star in 1950. He has written short stories, a book on Indian legends, supported many cultural activities, and received a Canada Drama Award in 1942.

This man declares that his hobby is looking at pictures. I suspect that he has seen more Canadian paintings than any other single individual. In looking, and in writing about what he sees, he has demontrated enlightenment in the finest humanitarian tradition. He has written about the art critic's role. His pure Irish ancestry has endowed him with a tinge of quiet humour, and he chuckles about the complaints of the English artist Sickert with whom he does not completely agree. This distinguished painter considered critics to be really very small people charging around on the backs of elephants like a tribe of noisy little beasts dressed in fancy costumes. But the more perceptive Ayre has sought out deeper goals and sees true criticism as a discipline. Like taxes, no one welcomes it but we can't get along without it. The critic's function is to estimate qualities and character, and to assist in the interpretation of values. Ayre believes that the good critic speaks both to the public and on its behalf. The critic, with his heightened sensibility, specialist's knowledge and experience, should seek to discriminate between what is worthwhile and what is trivial, what is real and what is sham. Far from dragging the artist down to the common level of appreciation, the critic should endeavour to raise the common level towards the artist. Robert Ayre has always aspired to be a "good critic".

We honour Robert Ayre for other reasons. He has supported the idea that Canadian paintings should be hung in our schools. He hopes thereby that our people will not be Philistines in their attitudes towards good art. He has championed the purchase of Canadian paintings for the good of Canadian art, but warns against mediocrity whether at home or abroad. There is greatness in his spiritual and philosophical attitudes. During what he analyzes as an age of melodrama, he writes of the creative individuals who have deepened and intensified the meaningful quiet things of life. His many hundred critical reviews have chided charlatans and helpfully assisted others through isolating their imperfections. His words are respected for their great sincerity, honesty and integrity. His has been an enobling endeavour. It has enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of Canadians. It has done incalculable good in this nation.

Mr. Chancellor, I am honoured to present to you, on behalf of the University Senate, and by authority of the Board of Governors, Robert Ayre, that you may confer on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

* deceased