Artists and Politicians by M John Kennedy

After fulfilling my civic duty at my advanced polling station I ventured into Nuit Blanche. I took in exhibits, installations and artists all night for free. I may not have found all of the pieces worthwhile, but the energy of streets still filled at 5am with hundreds (earlier in the evening it was thousands) of people searching out and finding art to watch and do was an unusual delight. I know that there is already much critiquing of Nuit Blanche happening both inside and outside the arts community and yes the event does have some problems. However, I have lived in Toronto for ten years and I cannot recall a time when so many people have flooded the streets for a singular event let alone an artistic one. I have never seen so many (mostly sober) people of this city engaged in what is inherently a social and artistic endeavor. In addition to the scheduled pieces, galleries and shops stayed open and there were numerous impromptu performances. If I was in a Nuit Blanche zone, it was full of people, energy and art. It made me wonder how certain politicians cannot see the value of programs that bring people together, which is what artists do best.

It is easy to sell artists on the value of art, but what about politicians? How can all the hollering become more than preaching to the choir? What do politicians and artists have in common?

In order for me to understand, I need to start by looking at politics. If the purpose of our democracy is to unify a community voice behind a representative who will then defend the community’s interests in our parliament of representatives then this political system is meant to ensure that everyone has a voice. Perhaps it needs an overhaul to further ensure this, but I will accept that this is the idea. Therefore politicians are meant to be the voice of the people they represent (no news there). Obviously, no community speaks with a single voice but politicians must strive to accurately reflect the wants of the majority of those they have taken an oath to represent. There will always be voices unheard.

Enter the artist.

Many artists represent the desires and ideas of the minority. The artist can be popular, powerful and a voice of the majority, but most artists exist in relative obscurity. The artist delves into new areas and challenges established thought and perspective. Artists are people who have something to say that they will not trust to a representative. The curious urge to create, communicate and affect others in new, provocative ways is a driving force behind the artist. The desire to create is inside of every person (just as are opinions about how to better run the community). However, not everyone is driven to taking on the mantle, lifestyle and responsibility of calling her/himself an “artist”. Once that title is worn, you leave the safe confines of creation as habit and suddenly you must endure criticism of said creation because you are selling it. Similarly, some people go from having an opinion to selling their opinions by becoming a politician. In both cases the public is asked to support a perspective and pay someone else to express it. Artists and politicians both are then subjected to intense criticism and examination in regards to what they create and preach.

Generally, we need to delegate in our society to get things done. No person has time to do every thing. This is what leads to specialization and careers. We no longer do our own hunting, gathering, building of shelters and the like; we have others hunt, gather and build shelters and we trade for it. We also pay others to express for us. What do artists and politicians have in common? We have the same job. We are paid to express a perspective.

Just as we need professional politicians, we need professional artists. There has been great art created by those working in their spare time but if we wish to represent ourselves as exceptional artists, we must delegate. Enter funding. Without funding potentially great artists would be forced to either put their art aside in order to survive or they would be forced to live in squalor. It is true that, once established, if the artist is truly great she/he may earn the opportunity to be able to support her/himself but to get to that point, the artist needs support. Every artist is a small business developing a product of art that the public may or may not find worthwhile. However, there are no small business loans for artists. Imagine sitting down with bank manager to explain the potential returns.
Just as intangible is the practicality of trying to be a politician. Imagine going to the bank to ask for a loan because you are running your first campaign. Anyone starting a career needs help.

The only difference between artists and politicians is employment status and rate of pay. Maybe we should look at artists more like politicians.
(Potential artists would have to vie for a position as an artist of the people. We pay you to create, we get to come for free and if we like what you are doing, we hire you back for four more years. You get a staff and an expense account for travel, meals and materials.)

If we pay one third of what an MP gets paid, we could have three full-time national artists for every district for the same price of one politician! Perhaps we should hold politicians to the same standard as artists? It would get rid of the backbenchers. Imagine an artist was hired for a four-year contract of creation and expression and then did nothing but still took the money?

Arts funding is not the life or death of art. Art will always be created, some will find an audience and select artists may even be able to make a living creating without government support. The reason funding is necessary is not to encourage artists (you cannot stop them) but to foster their development so that they do have to live in complete squalor while devoting their lives to creating. Also, culturally, some may view art as a luxury but it is the difference between a society that is surviving and one that is alive. If the government has an interest in the quality of life its citizens, it needs culture. I applaud any corporation that sponsors the arts but must we as a society depend on the kindness of strangers to have art.

The current conservative party and particularly Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the first politician I can recall taking an active and aggressive role putting down the arts and arts funding. It may not be surprising that certain right-wing politicians - who claim to be ever practical and interested only in the measurable results - are disinterested in the arts. I am not surprised that the belief is there, but the actual distain the Prime Minister seems to have for the arts is startling. I am also confounded that the party that argues itself to be the most logical and anti-“touchy-feely” so embraces religion. The concepts of God, faith and religion may be the least measurable thing in this world that so many are fully committed to. The “impracticality” of art must be at least matched but the impractical nature of religion. Perhaps there is a battle at the root of the distain for the arts. Is it possible the right-wing perception is that artists are competing for the dedication, cultural significance, sense of community and faithfulness of religion? If that is the case, then the artist is not only godless heathen but false prophet or anti-Christ. Is that it? Does The Prime Minister think I am the anti-Christ?

There may not be a culture war but there is a definite schism of ideologies occurring in this election. The Liberals, NDP and The Green Party all have extensive sections in their platforms on Arts and Culture. The Conservatives have decided they do not need a platform and since neither Arts nor Culture is listed in their “Key Issues” section I think it is safe to assume that funding in those areas would not play a role in their policy-making decisions. Assuming art and culture is important to you, I hope you always read the policies of the parties and vote for the perspective that most closely matches your own.

I did.

M John Kennedy is an actor, writer, and teacher based in Toronto.

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