Marja-Leena Rathje
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Arts funding cuts


Last Sunday afternoon, my husband and I went to a concert at the Chan Centre out at UBC. One of the UBC Centenary Gala series this year, it featured BC born, UBC alumnus and acclaimed tenor, Ben Heppner, and the CBC Radio Orchestra. Heppner's repertoire from his recent recordings, such as Ideale: Songs of Paolo Tosti and My Secret Heart as well as Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. Earth Songs, a newly commissioned work for orchestra and choir by UBC music Prof. Stephen Chatman was also performed. It was a wonderful concert with an excellent orchestra, though we were a bit disappointed that Heppner did not sing any operatic songs which we so admire him for. Chatman's work is exciting in concept but was at times to us it sounded too loud, noisy and confused when the University Singers and the orchestra battled for dominance. Here's more about the concert and Heppner, plus a good review.

Interesting thoughts went through my mind, triggered by the host, well-known writer and TV and radio personality Bill Richardson. He mentioned the fact that this was one of the last performances of our beloved CBC Radio Orchestra, for it will be disbanded at the end of November 2008, thanks to one of numerous cutbacks by Prime Minister Harper's government. There's some hope that it may still be rescued in some form, there's even a petition. I could not help wondering how Harper's massive cuts to arts funding will affect these kind of concerts and venues. Some may survive if they increase ticket prices, already high IMHO, way beyond what would be affordable for most people. And what would happen to all the musicians and singers?

Richardson also joked that, this being a 'gala', he wandered around all over to try find some champagne and there was none, just lots of ordinary people. The audience laughed ruefully, recognizing the reference to Prime Minister Harper's recent comments:

You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see ... a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren't high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people.

I thought we all looked like ordinary people!

I recalled our national treasure Margaret Atwood's concerns over a year ago, and especially her most recent statement in the Globe and Mail. It is so good that I'm copying it here in full:

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we've been punching above our weight on the world stage - in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it's a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada's cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada's GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an "estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined)."

But we've just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called "ordinary people" didn't care about something called "the arts." His idea of "the arts" is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I'm one of them, and I'm no Warren Buffett. I don't whine about my grants because I don't get any grants. I whine about other grants - grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity - not because they think they'll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an "ordinary person." Mr. Harper's idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that's attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures - cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. "Ordinary people" pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for "the arts" in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. "The arts" are not a "niche interest." They are part of being human.

Moreover, "ordinary people" are participants. They form book clubs and join classes of all kinds - painting, dancing, drawing, pottery, photography - for the sheer joy of it. They sing in choirs, church and other, and play in marching bands. Kids start garage bands and make their own videos and web art, and put their music on the Net, and draw their own graphic novels. "Ordinary people" have other outlets for their creativity, as well: Knitting and quilting have made comebacks; gardening is taken very seriously; the home woodworking shop is active. Add origami, costume design, egg decorating, flower arranging, and on and on ... Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made.

They show their appreciation by contributing. Canadians of all ages volunteer in vast numbers for local and city museums, for their art galleries and for countless cultural festivals - I think immediately of the Chinese New Year and the Caribana festival in Toronto, but there are so many others. Literary festivals have sprung up all over the country - volunteers set them up and provide the food, and "ordinary people" will drag their lawn chairs into a field - as in Nova Scotia's Read by the Sea - in order to listen to writers both local and national read and discuss their work. Mr. Harper has signalled that as far as he is concerned, those millions of hours of volunteer activity are a waste of time. He holds them in contempt.

I suggest that considering the huge amount of energy we spend on creative activity, to be creative is "ordinary." It is an age-long and normal human characteristic: All children are born creative. It's the lack of any appreciation of these activities that is not ordinary. Mr. Harper has demonstrated that he has no knowledge of, or respect for, the capacities and interests of "ordinary people." He's the "niche interest." Not us.

It's been suggested that Mr. Harper's disdain for the arts is not merely a result of ignorance or a tin ear - that it is "ideologically motivated." Now, I wonder what could be meant by that? Mr. Harper has said quite rightly that people understand we ought to keep within a budget. But his own contribution to that budget has been to heave the Liberal-generated surplus overboard so we have nothing left for a rainy day, and now, in addition, he wants to jeopardize those 600,000 arts jobs and those billions of dollars they generate for Canadians. What's the idea here? That arts jobs should not exist because artists are naughty and might not vote for Mr. Harper? That Canadians ought not to make money from the wicked arts, but only from virtuous oil? That artists don't all live in one constituency, so who cares? Or is it that the majority of those arts jobs are located in Ontario and Quebec, and Mr. Harper is peeved at those provinces, and wants to increase his ongoing gutting of Ontario - $20-billion a year of Ontario taxpayers' money going out, a dribble grudgingly allowed back in - and spank Quebec for being so disobedient as not to appreciate his magnificence? He likes punishing, so maybe the arts-squashing is part of that: Whack the Heartland.

Or is it even worse? Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they're a mouthy lot and they don't line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth - the only kind of art you might need - but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master's Voice. Maybe that's why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn't like the competition for media space.

The Conservative caucus has already learned that lesson. Rumour has it that Mr. Harper's idea of what sort of art you should hang on your wall was signalled by his removal of all pictures of previous Conservative prime ministers from their lobby room - including John A. and Dief the Chief - and their replacement by pictures of none other than Mr. Harper himself. History, it seems, is to begin with him. In communist countries, this used to be called the Cult of Personality. Mr. Harper is a guy who - rumour has it, again - tried to disband the student union in high school and then tried the same thing in college. Destiny is calling him, the way it called Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who burnt all records of the rulers before himself. It's an impulse that's been repeated many times since, the list is very long. Tear it down and level it flat, is the common motto. Then build a big statue of yourself. Now that would be Art!

Numerous art organizations and artists of many disciplines have spoken out in alarm over the past weeks. Today, even our Governor General Michaëlle Jean Lauds Artists of Canada:

In a world in which we are bombarded by images, we can become strangely blind to everything around us. But our artists encourage us to see things differently, to look beneath the surface. Yes, you, our artists, reveal to us something of the intangible, of the essential and of the truth, allowing us a glimpse of the world through your eyes. You show us life as it exists behind outward appearances. As Jacques Ferron once wrote, 'Your vision can be at times serious, at times playful, always unique. It seeks to challenge us, to provoke us, to move us. It compels us to stop and to reflect, as you share your perspectives on issues of global concern. It never leaves us feeling indifferent.

This is why we often say that a work of art speaks to us. The truth is, it invites us, in its own way, to engage in an unspoken dialogue of the eyes and the mind. It is this questioning, this search for meaning and understanding, that allow us to make sense of the world around us and of the fears and desires that each of us holds within.

Without you, without your works, our imaginations would be weakened; our world would be without a soul. Bravo and thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

My apologies for this being so long, though it would take many pages to cover all the concerns. It's taken me a while to write. I am upset and angry and passionately feel that this is far too critical an issue for our country to not speak up right now as we have a federal election on October 14th. If you are a Canadian reading this and you love the arts and culture of our country, including our own CBC, please vote for ANYONE BUT CONSERVATIVE. (There are numerous other reasons why but I will not get into them here.) More information on the culture cuts is available on CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation) and Alliance for Arts.

UPDATE Oct.3rd: An excellent article about how important culture is in Quebec and that all Canadian industries receive support.

UPDATE Oct.7th: Margaret Atwood answers questions on the election at Globe & Mail. Gotta love her!

Marja-Leena | 02/10/2008 | 9 comments
themes: Being an Artist, Canada and BC, Culture, Current Events, Music


9 comments

I do hope you Canadians can beat back the Phillistines. It's kind of important to some of us down here in Jesusland to continue to have such a good counterexample across the border.

Dave, thanks, I hope so too! I've said before that I don't write about politics, but this election is extremely critical to our way of life and the future. So is yours in the US, which we are watching closely as well.

I particularly like Dave's daring synonym for his homeland - a country I now hardly recognise when I compare it with the welcoming, warm-hearted and generous place my family enjoyed for six years all those many moons ago.

As to your problems north of the border it was ever thus. One cannot even take comfort from the fact that "ordinary" people may give Harper the electoral heave-ho since people who listen to Bach, enjoy Picasso and read novels rather than novelisations are in the minority. And this discrimination is evident over here too. Most politicians would be cagy about admitting to any of the above enthusiasms but all are careful to tell the public (ie, the voters) which soccer team they support. String quartets are élitist whereas aligning oneself with brawling drunken "fans" who fall to stabbing each other later on in the evening is thought to be evidence of the common touch.

It's a sign of my ignorance about your country, Marja-Leena, that I thought Canada was better than that. I thought Canada could be summed up with the adjective decent. And of course it probably can. But there's presently a black veil disguising everything and we all have to grit our teeth. An American I worked for in Pittsburgh used to say "This too will pass" and that might our watchword. Courage, mes braves.

I hate to see this happening to you folks up north. When will our leaders begin to understand that creativity and artistry is a requirement for solving the problems of the world. Several days ago Obama talked about bringing art, writing and music back into the schools. I pray he wins our election!!

thank you, Marja-Leena, for taking the time to write this important and thoughtful posting on the dire state of affairs that art and artists find themselves in today. Margaret Atwood's commentary is EXCELLENT! She draws in a lot of key points. I often wonder who votes for Harper, anyway? But then I guess they are voting for their local Conservative rep. Many folks really don't know the issues; many confuse todays neocon Conservatives with yesterday's Progressive Conservatives. Give me Diefenbaker anyday over Svengali Stephen! Too bad Canada under the Conservatives is pedaling fast into neoliberal globalization with little respect for arts, social concerns, the environment, gender, justice for First Nation, and others. I hope this neoliberal train gets stopped, but I'm not holding my breath. Plenty of folks enjoying tax cuts are blind to exactly where this train of destruction is going.

Barrett, it's been this NeoConservative leadership that is trying to change our country to the American model of the past eight years. And they are not doing anything for the environment either. I hope he can be stopped. We really need proportional representation and the Scandinavian model of parliament so all parties can work together. Thanks for sending us courage.

Joan, I hope Obama wins too for your sake, and ours as well for he will make a good neighbour!

Taina, thanks for your supportive comments, I fully agree with all you say. Here's hoping we'll have change for the better.

How sad it is that so many politicians are sucked into the vortex of their own short term, materialistic obsessions! I'm trying to think of one politician dead or alive who has understood the importance of the arts as part of the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps there have been one or two (in France for example), but one reason the world is in such as mess, is surely the ignorance of those who rule us, of the intelligent and imaginative response to, and description of the human condition, which the arts generate. Even the more rarified examples of good writing, the graphic arts, and music, percolate through to the mass of people, who benefit from its freshness and inspiration in due course. Only, it seems, people like your prime minister Harper miss such benefits because they are too busy minding their idiotic, misplaced ambitions. Thanks for the opportunity to join your worthy rant against the ignorant and the phillistine, Marja-Leena.

Thanks, Marja-Leena, for this. I am acquainted with a lot of artists of every stripe here in the Lakehead, and if I were asked to designate them by means of class, I'd unhesitatingly say "working class".

These folks all work hard, pay their bills, scramble to make a living just like the stereotypical "working class" of whom Stephen Harper speaks. In the arts, unless you go for the lowest common denominator, subsidies of some kind are needed just to get the work "out there" and to realize the economic benefits which Margaret Atwood so ably describes.

Harper's remarks pander to prejudice and ignorance--mostly his own. He reminds me of the famous slasher politician here in Ontario, Mike Harris, who made drastic cuts to the arts community (and everything else) in his times in office. One of his targets was the Canadian Opera Company--he simply didn't like opera.

And Dave, you might be interested to know that Stephen Harper was raised in the theologically liberal United Church of Canada. He is now a conservative evangelical Protestant. Coincidence? I think not...

Joe, thanks for adding your voice to this rant!

Peter, thanks for your voice too. Most artists do it not to get rich and have to support themselves in other ways, as you know, and many are at the poverty line.

Thanks also for mentioning Harper's religious background, as it gives me an opportunity to offer this very eye-opening article about Harper's church. Doesn't that sound like the evangelists down south? Another way Harper is quietly trying to change our country to the US model that he so admires!