The role Government plays in shaping the culture of a country is an uncertain one. On the one hand is the critical importance of forming a coherent fabric with which to build common values, and on the other is the danger that something critically important to the happiness and unity of a country is treated with a venal cynicism, as a political tool.
In every economic downturn the arts and culture sector is the first on the chopping block, and suffers a more severe proportional blow than any other. After all, even in surplus years it’s a favoured pastime in Canadian politicking for arts funding to be publicly denounced and the resulting projects ridiculed. But in this latest wave of austerity, the Harper Government showed a planned vision for the future of Canadian arts and culture – one that we as a society will hopefully learn to reject.
The 2012 Federal Budget shows a planned budgetary reduction of 191 million dollars between now and 2015. But it is the distribution of these reductions that are more telling than any amount of money.
The CBC absorbs the lion’s share of the cuts, soaking up 115 million of the blow; Heritage takes up another 46 million and the rest are pruned off of the least-noticed parts of the cultural sector, which do their work quietly and unheralded by any sort of publicity. Organizations that fund the production of arts or those that serve as platforms for the arts: Telefilm, the National Film Board and the Library and Archives suffered substantial cuts. The Archives in particular, once tasked with preserving every piece of writing in Canadian history, has been forced to keep only a “representative” sample of archival material, to the great detriment of any historical studies of Canada.
The funding reductions were similarly passed on to a number of smaller groups under its umbrella, like the Canadian Conference for the Arts. The CCA has been an organizing force in our artistic landscape for 67 years, and in 2012 was offered a paltry six months of funding to become financially autonomous, despite asking for a two year period to reorganize for viability.
While groups and platforms that fund individual artists get cut, the funding to heritage sites remains robust. The maintenance of buildings, the travelling museum exhibitions and infrastructure that’s all highly visible is celebrated and brought to the forefront, while grants to cultural organizations drop off.
In 2011 Heritage Minister James Moore announced the Federal Government’s plan to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. The plan came with a “pan-Canadian educational campaign” including a funded documentary, travelling exhibits and commemorative month of celebration. Refurbishment to 40 national historic sites, and a permanent monument built in Ottawa come hand in hand with local events held all across the country, All this at the bargain price tag of 28 million dollars.
The problem is that while the one hand of the current Government is engaged in celebrating the events that “established the cornerstones of our political institutions”, and celebrating the country’s “rich history”, the other hand continues to underfund and undervalue the actual networks of living artists that propel culture into the future.
The honest question to ask here is: “who cares?”. Canadians certainly want to be involved with the arts. Or at the very least, it’s still important enough to lie about in a phone poll released at the end of 2012 by Heritage Canada. 87% of Canadians believe that culture and the arts are at least “moderately important”, and 39% believe that they are greatly important. 66% believe that the quality of life is improved by attending or participating in the arts.
In the latest New Yorker, critic David Denby said something very resonant about the lumbering production of “Les Miserables”:
That the story has nothing to with our own time makes the emotions in it more—not less—accessible, because feeling is not sullied by real-world associations…But, you say, what’s wrong with a good cry? What harm does it do anyone? No harm. But I would like to point out that tears engineered this crudely are not emotions honestly earned, that the most cynical dictators, as Pauline Kael used to say, have manipulated emotions with the same kind of kitsch appeal to gut feelings. Sentimentality in art is corrosive because it rewards us for imprecise perceptions and meaningless hatreds. Revolution breaks out in “Les Mis.” What revolution? Against whom? In favor of what? It’s just revolution—the noble sacrifice of handsome, ardent boys taking on merciless power. The French military, those canaille, gun down the beautiful boys. It’s all so generic. The vagueness is insulting.
The more we celebrate the basic fact of emotion divorced from context the more coarse we become to the realities of the world, which are always more complicated than what we want. This campaign to celebrate the War of 1812 is basically a large-scale form of theatre, a historical narrative designed to divorce us from the kind of nuance that allows us to grapple complexity. We become inured to dealing with problems and challenges with a flood of monochrome emotion. Where we once celebrated the courage and compassion of peacekeeping, or even treated the British invasion of Canada with humour and sophistication we have reduced that celebration to simple warfare. At some point, Canadians have to decide what kind of culture we’re building, what we want our social genome to look like. We have the option of deciding whether our patriotism will devolve into kitsch, taking all our other relationships down with it. If we keep cutting down the art and culture platforms in this country, and raise in their place clumsy simulacra, we will eventually be left with little more than a bootstrap of Heritage Minutes videos to keep us all together.
Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston is a 2014 MPP candidate at the School for Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor of Humanities, and an Master of Arts in Literature from Carleton University. His writings have been published in the Ottawa XPress, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail and The Awl. His policy interests are arts, culture and municipal affairs