Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Have Your Cake... Or Why I Think Funding for the Arts Is a Good Thing

I'm not sure why I take part in political discussions about the lit scene. A combination of perversity and procrastination, perhaps or probably. But part of me actually cares about public policy related to the arts, and more specifically public policy related to writing and publishing.

Margaret Atwood recently wrote an op/ed piece for the Globe in which she said "it seems to be the intention of the Harper neocons to bleed and starve Canada's cultural institutions until they croak." I have no doubt that Harper and his merry band of neocon clowns has no interest in supporting the arts in Canada. However, Atwood's basis for saying this is that, while the Liberals promised a $300 million topup to the Canada Council's funding, the ReformAllianceCons have delivered a mere $50 million. It should be noted that the Liberal promise was made as a campaign gambit from the deck of a sinking ship, and whether or not they would have delivered on said promise if elected is moot. It should also be noted that any increase of funding, however arguably inadequate, is an awfully strange way to bleed a critter dry.

But Atwood wasn't finished hyperbolising. She continues "In the sixties, the Canadian government began to actively encourage individual artists through the Canada Council, and then Ottawa and the provincial governments began investing in institutions and infrastructure, and now we have an artist-stimulated "creative economy" that's worth -- so they say -- $40-billion dollars a year. Why invest money in the arts? Because -- simple answer -- it's a great investment: A few dollars in means a lot of dollars out. Without the arts, the average Canadian citizen would be poorer, and I don't mean just spiritually." This is a strange mix of fact (let's assume the $40 billion figure is more or less accurate, for argument's sake) and skewed interpretation. First, there is art produced in this country that does not benefit from government subsidies and the money generated by this art is part of that $40 billion--probably a big part, since the CC tends to favour less commercially successful artistic endeavours. Secondly, it's bad logic to say that the economy would be in worse shape without the government's investment in the arts, since there is no doubt any number of other things that money could be spent on that would yield a much more significant return on investment. Like gambling machines. So this argument in favour of arts funding, while superficially persuasive, is dangerously double-edged. It is an attempt to meet the Money-Idolators on their own ground and can only tempt them to sacrifice arts funding on their bloody, oil-permeated altar.

A little further on, Atwood trots out the old truism of Canada as "a small country threatened by a supersized popular culture from elsewhere washing over it like a tidal wave ... [that] need[s] to fund its arts defensively." No doubt that American pop culture is ubiquitous and I personally have strongly mixed feelings about this. But is American pop culture really a threat to Canadian ballet? Poetry? Theatre? Maybe it is, but I have a hard time seeing it. At any rate, the use of the term "defensively" makes me uneasy. How about we fund our arts aggressively, because they're strong and intrinsically valuable, rather than because they're vulnerable and under siege? In her regrettably influential treatise Survival, Atwood identified survival as the prime obsession of Canadian literature. One of her key concepts was the "victim position," of which she identified several varieties. In spite of her own enormous domestic and international success, and that of many other Canadian artists, she seems intent on keeping us bent over in the victim position. Good for sales of the new edition, I guess.

Scroll down further in Atwood's article and you'll find a list of possible ways an artist can make a living, two of which are: "4) Those peddling their wares in the marketplace (see "soul," losing of, above); 5) Those with day jobs that can destroy their talent." This is pretty disingenuous, especially coming from her, unless she believes that in the course of "peddling" her own "wares" in the "marketplace" she has lost her soul; perhaps this explains her invention of the "ghost in the machine" Long Pen. And what about her protégé, the recent Giller-Prize winning author Vincent Lam? Has his extremely demanding dayjob as a medical doctor "destroyed his talent"? Where would his prize-winning book about doctors be without it? She's been careful in her phrasing; she has said "dayjobs that can destroy," not "dayjobs that inevitably will destroy," but she has also neglected to mention 'dayjobs that, while time-consuming, are personally enriching and that can help tether an artist to the world outside of an often claustrophobic arts scene.' Probably because this option isn't germane to her thesis.

She also doesn't mention that it's impossible for an artist to replace a dayjob for longer than a few months with grants. For example, the most money a writer with my publication history can obtain in any given year is $10,000. You can live on this for a year if you're single and have no dependents, you live in a low-cost area, you are very frugal and have no debts. But it's less than a third of my present gross annual income, which represents about 3/4 of my household income. Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive a CC grant for this amount. It was nice. It meant I could turn down overtime without decreasing my wages. But I couldn't leave my job because, guess what, when the money ran out, the job wouldn't be waiting for me. And I like my job. It's a good job. It pays reasonably well, has a competitive benefits package and gives me lots of free time. And it gets me out in the world, in contact with all kinds of different people. All of which a writer needs.

There are, I know, those out there who would argue that I shouldn't have applied for and accepted a grant because I didn't strictly need it. But the Canada Council insists that grants are handed out based on the merit of the artist's work and the merit of their proposed project. I wouldn't apply for a grant if I had a much higher-paying job and if I didn't dedicate a substantial amount of my personal time to writing. This is a personal decision and one I wouldn't impose on anyone else--and the question arises of course: how much income is too much? I don't begrudge anyone a grant on the basis of their income. You make $90K/annum and the jury thinks your work's good enough, take the money and run. You make $15K and the jury judged your work wanting, better luck next year. I've encountered the argument from several people that, to paraphrase and synthesise, "arts funding is good/necessary because I'm an artist and I can't make ends meet." This is analagous to Atwood's argument for defensive funding. But again, art should be funded because IT is good, not because its creator is indigent. My employer keeps me working because I'm good at my job (good enough for the company's liking at any rate), not because I need the money; they could care less about that in head office. If need and skill happen to coincide, all the better, but need alone is a basis for social welfare spending in a democracy, not for arts and culture spending.

To return to Atwood's article, she wraps it up with a doozy of a rhetorical question: "rid your society of the artists and you'll end up in Plato's Republic, which -- closely examined -- is a nasty little dictatorship. Who would want that?" Okay, but how did we get from a $50 million increase in funding to the expulsion of all artists? Wowzas. I think it's a very good thing for a democratic government to fund the arts. The arts are very important, not only to me personally as a sometime-creator of hopefully-literature, but as a private citizen. I think we should give money to the arts and probably give more than we already do. (There are a number of problems with the existing models for disbursement, but that's a topic for another day.) But to say that even so draconian a measure as the dissolution of the Canada Council (which I don't think anyone has proposed, at least not in public) would lead to the death of art and a dearth of local culture is completely bogus. Culture is something that happens any time you have two or more people in a given place. Art is something that has been created by hominids probably ever since they first stood on two feet. It has proven itself, over aeons of time and in some of the most brutal conditions imaginable, to be completely unkillable. And that is why we should continue to fund it.

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