so why fund the arts, then?

Margaret Atwood has a brilliant piece on arts funding in today’s Globe. A real jaw-dropper, in fact. Now if only the facts she mentions could be mentioned by the news media and in campaign ads.

I forwarded this piece around, and got a couple of responses that questioned the validity of her position. So I added some thoughts of my own:

I think she makes a number of important points. Such as how much money the culture industry pumps into the economy. And if we look at how many Canadians go to plays and musical concerts, and read Canadian magazines, we find quite a large number. And a lot of that is supported by government, and pays back economically as well as in quality of life. It’s a great mistake to head straight for the things “everyone” likes and deprecate the things “few people” like, partly because we can be wrong about who “everyone” is and who “few people” are, and partly because it’s a red herring. The government is perfectly ready and willing to give money and tax breaks to businesses that benefit only a very small set of Canadians (golf courses come to mind) as well as to businesses that could stand on their own without the money, albeit with slightly less obscene profits and executive salaries.

As to the canards about government grants going for dreadful elitist works with unprintable names, you might as well call nonprofit status for churches “tax breaks for pedophiles.” It’s simply not representative. If you want to see what kinds of “elitist art” – really much of it arts and crafts – is getting Canada Council grants, it’s available for viewing, for example here (or go to and search from there). Here’s a useful figure: total Canada Council grants for everything in 2006-2007: $152,609,479. Here’s another: total tax breaks to oil companies in Canada last year: $1.4 billion. $228 million went to Petro Canada, $427 million to Suncor, etc. In other news, Sport Canada gave out $111,328,096 in 2007-2008, and if you look at you can ask yourself how many of those sports you even watch – more than a quarter of a million goes to ringette; do you begrudge that? Do you reckon ordinary people care more about ringette than about all the arts in the Northwest Territories, which got $57,001 less from the Canada Council, in total, than Ringette Canada got from Sport Canada?

If we feel (as is a common line among conservatives) that it’s good to have some people earn outlandish amounts of money and live in pure luxury – with our money, don’t fool yourself; you buy the products
their companies make – because it gives people something to shoot for and allows higher standards for those who want them, how is it not good also to support cultural events (not just opera and ballet and symphonies but also a great many organizations focused on ethnic culture and heritage) that allow those who want a bit more elevation of our culture to have it? We pay out taxes for roads and sewers and airports and laws and self-serving political ads put out by the party in control, and if along with that we get greater access to plays and galleries and so forth (many of which also help the tourism industry, by the way), how is that worse than paying money for shoes and drugs and groceries and along with that having a fair amount of that money go to luxuries to which we will never, ever have access?

Universities build their reputations on their elites – the undergrads don’t make the rep; the grad students and the professors do. Countries do this as well. We want to stand proud with our scientific and industrial developments, but we also build our profile – and help ourselves to have a culture we can call our own (even if it’s just people like Shania Twayne, Avril Lavigne, Second City, Rick Mercer, etc.), rather than just American retreads. And having good “higher art” helps that too. Now, the arts funding doesn’t just go to “high art” – not at all. But there is a case even for “high art.” It leads the way. A lot of the clothes you wear, magazine design you read, music you listen to, etc., ows very much to the “elite art” of not so long ago.

As to Harper, he’s not dumb, of course not. He’s a demagogue. He’s playing people like a fiddle. He mischaracterizes the arts just so that he can give people something else to be against. This is how he – like far too many other politicians – gets a lot of his votes: people vote resentment, anger, disgust, et cetera. And real facts can get shouted down. People who want to resent and spit will generally not listen to the truth at all if they don’t want to hear it. Take his focus on “getting tough on crime.” His “solutions” will not make any appreciable difference. Tougher sentences and naming young offenders do not have a significant deterrent effect. This is known. “Get tough on crime” approaches have been tried enough, and in enough places, that the data is in and solid. They simply don’t work. They line the pockets of people who run jails (which is a big business in the US), and they seem sensible, so they get popular support, but they are generally worse than useless. They don’t reduce recidivism, and they distract attention and funds from preventing crime (as in actually preventing it, not pseudo-prevention) and from changing the penal system towards something that does a better job of helping inmates to be better, rather than worse, people and have more, rather than fewer, options other than crime on their release.

So all he needs is a few mischaracterizations of what arts funding covers and, hey presto, people are lining up against it, repeating the same mischaracterizations and ready to vote for him and his friends.

But he’s also a bit of an ideologue. He’s not a rock-solid pragmatist; he does hold certain fiscal myths to be revealed truths (even as they’re playing out so badly south of the border). And he’s looking out for himself first. He’s got a lot more money coming to him from oil than from the arts. If he can take some money from the arts and give it to oil, that will only help him. Think he wants to help all Canadians and every corner of the Canadian economy as a whole? Neither he nor most other politicians are so wholesome and altruistic. Mike Harris won and kept power in Ontario by screwing Toronto – the province’s economic engine – badly. And giving away money that was needed for public works. We – Toronto and the whole province – are still suffering and still paying. Harris and his friends are not suffering at all, last I noticed.

2 responses to “so why fund the arts, then?

  1. I’ve been reading along for a while now. I just wanted to drop you a comment to say keep up the good work.

  2. Hi there,

    I looked over your blog and it looks really good. Do you ever do link exchanges on your blog roll? If you do, I’d like to exchange links with you.

    Let me know if you’re interested.


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