Columnists

Rick Salutin
The arts funding cloud

| September 5, 2008
Personally, I think Stephen Harper is calling an election now to get out from under the arts funding cloud — all the protests against his harsh cuts added onto leftover charges about trying to censor films. The issue has legs. It won't go away as he likely thought it would — after some predictable mewling by artsy types alongside some gruff appreciation from the good ol' boys. I imagine he can't understand why. I'd say it's because something has basically changed about the role of art and culture in this society. Lissen up, Stephen:

We have a long tradition of artists and cultural elites groaning about the philistine stinginess of governments. It goes back to the 1951 Massey report on the arts. There was a lingering whiff of it in yesterday's Globe and Mail. Russell Smith: "It's official. Canada does not care about the arts." Noah Richler: "We are on the brink of a dangerous, philistine age." But artists and politicians, like generals, always fight the last culture wars. This one is different.

Culture used to be a baaad word. Goebbels said it made him reach for his revolver. CBC producer Mark Starowicz joked that he felt the same, as he ghettoized culture in news shows the way the old Communist Party dumped artists into "the cultural part of the evening." This changed, IMHO, around the time that pop group Culture Club had a No. 1 hit in 1983. Since then, there has been a culturization, or artsification, of our entire society.

Artist isn't an effete term now. Any drummer or cosmetician is an artist. Rich business people hang around film festivals and wish they were producers. Working-class kids who once wanted to get into the factory aim to be gofers on movie sets. This isn't just so in places such as Newfoundland or Quebec, where culture was always a survival strategy in a hostile surround. It's true in the Scarborough basements where Mike Myers could have made his Wayne's World TV show. Everyone does art and imbibes culture. Look at the reams of art and culture in this paper. It used to be a single page known as the pansy patch.

By the usual serendipity, I received a piece yesterday that helps explain this upheaval. Blogger/author Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody suggests that economic, medical and other changes after the Second World War "forced onto an enormous number of ... citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before — free time." He calls this a "cognitive surplus" that people dealt with variously: largely by watching television but, more recently, by creating their own cultural products (art) or sharing images and ideas with others (the Internet). This multiform explosion of art and culture is to no one's credit or fault — it just happened. But it isn't going away, no more than the changes in women's roles "forced" in the 1970s by new contraceptive methods and alterations in the workplace.

Shirky is enthusiastic about the transition. I'm neutral myself. I don't know if cultural proliferation is a good or a bad thing, although it was the dream of arts advocates like the Massey commission. They thought art would elevate the brutish masses and enable a humane society. Now that art and culture are more or less pervasive, as they hoped, it's hard to assess the results. A redolent mixture, at best. Think of the Toronto Film Festival.

But the point for Harper is that a shift has occurred. Culture and art won't revert to frill status. And when people's lives and livings are involved, they expect their public institutions and leaders to help out, just as they help out agriculture and the auto industry. The PM can say that he knows all this, or that he's pumped lots of money into culture and is just trying to save some where it's wasteful. But if he doesn't really mean it and is dragging his heels, the citizens will smell it.

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