Alberta Oilsands Worker Illustrated in the Conservative Progressivism Style

The attitude of so-called conservative politicians toward the value of the arts is well known.

So is the harmful impact this attitude can have in some of the more cultured parts of our great land to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s dream of forging a vast majority government that can set about dismantling the place for good (which is to say, for bad).

When it comes to winning votes in a place like Quebec, for example, appearing to be a knuckle-dragging throwback to the Neanderthal era has been a pronounced disadvantage for Harper’s Reformed Reform Party, or whatever it plans to call itself this year. (That said, for all we know this may be quite unfair to the Neanderthals, none of whom have lived here in Alberta, at least until recently.)

Alert readers will recall how not so many months ago, Harper’s government made short work of one Canadian cultural grant program because it had supported “a general radical” (although, presumably, this did not mean a radical who was a general), “a left-wing and anti-globalization think-tank,” and a group of rock ‘n’ rollers who used naughty words in their band’s name.

No doubt this causes the folks in Harper’s innermost circle a certain amount of pain, not only for the political dilemma, but because it is unpleasant to be portrayed as people whose hairy knuckles leave deep furrows in the Prairie dust just because they have to appeal to their Base out here, which, at the risk hurt feelings, can be pretty base indeed.

But then, if you look at the kind of people we mostly send to Ottawa from the Conservative heartland, well, you can see why this is sure to end badly. These are, after all, folks who can’t really puzzle out why a government would want to fund a public library, when, after all, there are bookstores for the very few people weird enough to like that sort of thing.

Our Conservatives (and yes, I confess, I knew all along what they call themselves, although that seems a peculiar name for a group of dangerous radicals dedicated to reducing to wreckage everything of value we’ve built up over the years) would really rather spend our money on military toys like unimaginably expensive stealthy fighters and mighty warships suitable for hoisting admirals’ pennants, plus, of course, the multifarious organs of state security.

As it turns out, this is not merely a Canadian phenomenon. In Britain, for example, now that it is safely ruled once again by a Thatcherite neo-liberal mob of Conservatives and apparently suicidal Liberal-Democrats, support for the arts is also being slashed. However, the British, to their credit, are managing to do this without sounding like complete yokels, a balancing act that so far has eluded our Harperistas.

Speaking of Britain, thence comes the hopeful news there may be a way for Harper to square this particular circle — that is, to support the arts while appealing to the basest instincts of his fundamentalist Base. (In Arabic, “Al-Qaeda.” Really!)

To wit, a few weeks ago the (left-wing and anti-globalization) Independent newspaper published a report on how during the dark days of the Cold War, a period of history our Canadian Conservatives recall with special fondness, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency secretly funded abstract modern art as a weapon!

Why did the CIA support abstract expressionists for 20 years, the Independent asks? “Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the U.S. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.”

Alas, we need to pause here for a moment with a note of caution. The story, which appeared in a recent on-line edition of the Independent, is nevertheless dated October 22, 1995. The simple explanation is some sluggo on the night desk simply got the date wrong, because surely a sharpish dude such as myself me would have picked up on this if it first came around a decade and a half ago.

However, if by chance this does come from the Independent’s Tickle Trunk of golden journalistic oldies that escaped your blogger’s notice when they were fresh, no matter. It’s still a good idea that offers our Canadian Retrogressive Preservatives a way to spruce up their flagging cultural image that’s going to work better than having the prime minister croon forgotten Beatles hits in a wavering Tiny Tim falsetto. (Advice to Conservative strategists: Stop this, RIGHT NOW!)

The really great thing is, with the correct leaks to lefty British newspapers, our Conservatives could use this technique to funnel money to CSIS and sundry other police and military agencies all the while fostering the arts in Canada, up to and including poems with swears in them!

Of course, they would need to be careful, since even such a generous and culturally enlightened policy is not without risks. As the Independent explains (or explained, as the case may be): “In 1947 the State Department organized and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled ‘Advancing American Art,’ with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting … one bitter congressman to declare: ‘I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.’ The tour had to be cancelled.”

One imagines the reaction could be even more severe here in Alberta, possibly requiring the Riot Act to be read in Manyberries and Vegreville!

On the other hand, there may be a way around this. “Socialist Realism,” an artistic style the CIA sought in the 1940s and ’50s to prove was “rigid and confined,” unlike the flashy efforts of the likes of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, is nowadays kind of camp and avant-garde. (Which, by the way, dear Conservatives, you’re going to need to learn how to pronounce if you’re going to pull this off.)

With a little re-branding — something we’re thought to be quite good at here in Alberta — we could use Socialist Realism (re-branded Conservative Progressivism?) to support the arts, fund the secret services and make the Tory Base feel good about itself!

Talk about a win-win-win! Where’s the Soviet Union when you really need it?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...