Unsolicited Advice to My Fellow Creators by Anthony Furey

If Stephen Harper can be accused of performing the Empire Lite gavotte with the Bush administration, left-leaning Canadian artists are equally as guilty of an Idea Lite when it comes to their excoriation of Harper’s choices.

Recently, the Conservative government knocked a good few million out of the arts coffers. They claimed the reason was to re-evaluate the worthiness of these programs. They also wanted to re-direct funds to support the forthcoming Vancouver Olympics. Both of these, at first glance, are worthy reasons. It’s important to reconsider the founding principles of various programs and departmental divisions; perhaps they were ill-conceived.
Artists remember these excuses from the Mike Harris days and are wise to doubt their sincerity. As such, with megaphone in hand, they denounce the cuts by citing the importance of the arts.

Now right-leaning politicians tend to have fundamentally different conceptions of where funds should go than their left-leaning counterparts. These are in some respects the bedrock of their views, and to merely look down at your navel and proclaim arts funding as a messianic command is to debate on your own terms and not those of your opponents. To be so myopic is to confirm your opponents’ suspicions of your attitudes.

Nobody, save for a few backwater yokels, has ever stated that the arts are not important. The main issue is to what degree a person may think government should be involved in the funding of these arts. Many educated readers and culture vultures take a libertarian stance towards arts and government.

When earlier this year I wrote an essay concerning arts funding for the National Post, I was inundated with letters from readers calling Canadian artists freeloading has-beens. I was surprised and disheartened by their sentiments. However I soon understood that these were educated voices, if a tad abrasive: cultured conservatives who were familiar with the country’s artistic landscape and were not happy with the direction it was headed in. What they require is not a condescending suggestion that they fail to see the importance of the arts; they require worthy combatants who take time to consider their positions and offer a considered rebuttal.

Recently Canada’s vice-regal consort, Jean-Daniel Lafond, gave a rather banal argument against the cuts in an interview with The Globe & Mail citing ‘the importance of the arts’. So an artist thinks the arts are important because arts are important. That does little to aide the Red Deer Albertan into appreciating why his income tax is being used to create plays about pederasty.

In an age when anybody can claim they are an artist, and can therefore feel they have a right to receive government subsidies to stay at home and create, it’s important we make clear exactly what it is about the arts that makes them important, what constitutes an artist and on what terms we believe said artists should be funded.

Interesting arguments are buzzing around in the air just like Mozart claimed his melodies were before he deftly plucked them down. What’s barring their explication is that no Canadian virtuoso seems willing to stretch and make a grab.

Where are the impassioned essays concerning how artists are always leading the frontier of ideas, and thus reactionary sentiment to their funding is to be expected? Where are the economic explanations of how theatre – which is at risk of becoming the old curiosity shop the opera houses devolved into some hundred years ago – is unable to sustain itself through its own revenues? Where are the earnest explorations of the differences between American and Canadian artists, such that the former have a more viable economic model?

At present, I am not going to write these arguments because while I do not support those who call for cuts to arts-funding, I also do not support the reasoning behind those why decry them. But if the protesting artists give the strong bang-for-your-buck they pledge, then they should easily be able to compose a nifty panegyric or two.

If you do not create more nuanced arguments, conservatives will take you for mere freeloaders scared that the ride is coming to an end.

Anthony Furey is a theatre artist and writer whose work frequently appears in national magazines and newspapers.


Anonymous said...

It's a good article Furey, but I think it's idealistic. Right-wingers have received the THOUSANDS of pages of research provided by cultural institutions to justify/commodify the existence of art in the economic arena. Here's the point you're missing: They don't give a shit. Tories are protectionist power mongers who enjoy dictating the morality, economy and political life of the country. It's not about doing the 'right thing', it's about doing it 'their way'. I'm sorry if that's gauche, but it's true.

Anonymous said...

What sort of argument are you looking for? Conservative-friendly arguments for the amount of money the arts put back into the economy have already been brought forth. Our 20 dollar bill holds our strongest argument--“Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”--and that's also been brought forth from every angle. The arguments are there and have always been there, but, as there are people who choose not to get information on certain cities in Alberta, and how they have one of the stronger arts colleges in Canada and thus use them as examples of the ill-informed, those same people will also choose to just not see those arguments, so that they can write articles asking people to do what is already being done.

Anonymous said...

I admire this.

True about "right-wingers" not giving a shit, maybe -but two points:

a) the so-called swing votes of Canada's electorate sit on the educated, middle class centre-right and centre-left of our political spectrum, not at the extremes, where sit the ideologues who, it's true, wouldn't be interested in Anthony's argument;

and, way more importantly, b) I read Anthony's argument as being more about the integrity of the left, specifically of the creative class, than about any external audience for that integrity. Just because Tories might not be interested in artists admitting complexity in our self-analysis - in our identity - doesn't mean that that complexity isn't worth advocating for. I don't think Anthony's "advice" pertains just to election politics. It seems to me he's talking about bigger stuff, about how our country's artistic elites have largely moved away from a kind of Socratic openness to questioning and doubt and instead turned to propagating brutal absolutes about how our society should function.