keep canada canada, part 1: arts funding

One of my favourite columnists, Russell Smith, asks if arts and culture matter to Canadians. He thinks the answer is a sad one.
Nothing like the back-to-school blues: September begins with news from everywhere that the arts are simply not important in this country. CBC Television has decided it's easier to show American game shows than make our own entertainment. Light and cheery pop music blares from the national, publicly funded radio network, where orchestras and chamber groups used to be. And, oh, by the way, the government - faced with several reports in this newspaper - publicly acknowledges plans to cut millions of dollars from programs that promote our artists, writers and intellectuals overseas, that promote Canada itself as an intellectual powerhouse and as a tourist destination, and this just before an election. It's official: Canada does not care about the arts.

How is it possible that this idiotic and ruinous gesture will not become an election issue? It won't, of course. It never does. The arts are not important to the average Canadian. The response I have read to the arts and new-media cuts in online forums has been overwhelmingly positive: Let the arts pay for themselves, say the majority (of the kind of person who argues with strangers in online forums); if a piece of art is good, people will pay for it, and so private investors can be found to create it. Leftist or shocking art should not receive public funding anyway. Furthermore, the artists who were travelling to foreign capitals to participate in conferences, group shows and readings were rich and spoiled. Business is business; sink or swim.

Most people are simply unaware of the importance of culture in diplomacy and for international reputation - unaware that it might perhaps be a problem if Canada is simply not on the radar of powerful people in Berlin and Tokyo and Dubai, and that culture is a powerful symbol of a nation's identity.

These things are difficult to explain and even harder to measure. And so, cruelly, Stephen Harper's poll numbers rise just as he and his crew have inflicted great damage on Canada's international reputation and general level of intellectual sophistication. Politically, it has been a wise move. Here is the frustrating paradox facing the cultural community in its impotent rage: The more protests we mount, the more we bring attention to this popular stance. The Conservatives love divisive issues. They love issues that appeal to the least-educated voter. Polarization is not a good thing for marginal groups.

Should the cuts to the creation and promotion of Canadian intellectual culture be an election issue at all? Certainly the media don't think so. A recent poll, sponsored by The Globe and Mail and CTV and whose results were published in The Globe on Tuesday, asked respondents to choose the most important election issue for them. They could choose from a long list of issues, actually quite a nuanced list: It distinguished between "economic" concerns, "taxes," and "government spending"; it offered national unity, "social and moral" policies and gas prices as issues. There was a lot to choose from.

But no mention of art or culture. That's strange, after so many articles and editorials about the importance of the arts cuts. So it was impossible for any respondents to choose it as an issue, and therefore impossible for it to be mentioned in any subsequent media discussion of the poll results. That makes it not an issue. Clever.

One wonders if pollsters and political reporters by and large share the same baffled incomprehension of this issue as those sink-or-swim rednecks on the discussion boards. It's a minority issue, something that is not going to win or lose an election, so forget it. And really, if we lose a few dozen trips abroad by Canadian academics and literary agents and film producers and other people in strange spectacles, does it make any difference, when we've got a war going on?

It's exhausting to have to have this argument year after year, from its very bottom up, the argument about why extremely wealthy nations should pay for the development and promotion of non-commercial art. It's exhausting to have to explain to intelligent people - people who love travelling to Paris for the museums, Berlin for the architecture - the value of advanced intellectual inquiry that may not appeal to large numbers of people but which may well last for centuries. To have to explain that funding for arts must be administered at arm's length from the political arena, so that a critical or provocative stance will not disqualify an artist from receiving support from the administration of the day. To have to explain once again that in fact much of the great art of the past was considered shocking or intolerable to community standards of the day. To have to show them the statistics for government arts funding from other Group of Eight nations.

To have to explain patiently and calmly, as if to restless children, that we fund scientists and philosophers whose work also has no tangible practical application, and which also may not be understood by you and me, and that this is how society advances. To have to explain, over and over again, that the money required to promote our great artistic accomplishments overseas is a small fraction of the tens of millions spent in subsidizing unprofitable industries. To have to explain that there is indeed an economic reward for a country that is considered, in the universities and ministries of London and Copenhagen and Buenos Aires, to be an intellectual powerhouse with a fascinating culture.

It is exhausting to continue to explain all this because no one is listening. No one, that is, in the current government.

It is now up to the media to at least recognize that this is and should be an election issue.

I came of political age during the Reagan era. I was beginning a career in arts management, mostly because the arts were hugely important to me and it was a way I thought I could be involved and earn a living at the same time. Reagan destroyed the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his ignorant public cheered.

Last year during our annual (US) Thanksgiving trip to New Jersey, we showed the film "Breaking Ranks" for some of our family. It's a National Film Board film.

When one of our nephews saw the Canada wordmark in the credits, he was confused, knowing that the current Government does not support war resisters. He asked, "Was this a government film? The government put it out?"

I explained about arts funding, the tax credit, and such. It took two or three rounds of explanation: he was incredulous. He said, "Funding for the arts? Universal health care? What are your taxes like?" I answered, truthfully, "The same as they were in New York." I saw a light bulb go off in his head. He said, "I guess that's what happens when you don't have a giant military industrial complex."

As I'm writing this, and thinking about my next few posts, I realize that they are all linked, politically. I'll call it: keep Canada Canada.

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