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Should governments fund the arts? `No, look at native art in Canada'

IN Canada, where government financing of the arts, on a per capita basis, tops that of most other countries in the Western world, active members of the artistic constituency would seem to be well and truly blessed. The vast majority of them approves of the principle and system; ongoing increases in funds for the arts from the public purse would please them a whole lot more. I am one in a tiny minority of Canadian artists who seriously questions this business of government and corporate funding of the arts. Let me sketch some of the reasons.

The arts in Canada have become an industry, designated as such by the federal and provincial governments and subject to systems, methods, and procedures, common in many respects to all industries. Standards of excellence are measurable and predicated on profit; the beneficiaries of government and corporate largess are, in the main, the most businesslike arts organizations and the best organized, artistically inclined individuals; and to advance the measuring process and gauge the potential of artists and arts administrators, great weight of emphasis is placed on academic backgrounds and university degrees.

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We have, therefore, a preponderance of academic art, notably in the visual and literary arts disciplines, carried out by professors and instructors and promoted by university-trained arts administrators.

It's an art of the mind - of theory and analysis, of philosophy and ideology - as severe and chilling as a February night in Ottawa. This is the art that governments and the corporate sector see, relate to, and support.

Artists don't prepare biographical notes and chronologies anymore; they write curriculum vitae, top-loaded with their academic qualifications, awards, and details respecting government and corporate recognition of their artistic expressions.

I cannot help agreeing with Jacques Barzun, professor emeritus at Columbia University, in his reasoning that scholarship, as it concentrates on analysis, specialism, and scientific method, is diametrically opposed to culture, which centers on ``intuitive understanding, stimulus to finesse, spontaneity.''

The art and literature of celebration and reassurance, of valor and benevolence of spirit, have all but gone.

Indian and Inuit art has also been subjected to government, corporate, and academic imperatives over the years, to the extent that standards of excellence are no longer those of the indigenous people themselves, but of academics purporting to know what is true and what is not in native peoples' culture, and of professional marketing and sales promotion managers.

To the degree that governments fund the arts, they encourage dependency; moreover, when they financially assist individuals in the arts they are supporting, in most cases, people in well-paying jobs, who work at their artistic disciplines part time - teachers, civil servants, advertising executives, publishing house editors, lawyers, doctors, and so forth. In Canada, as in most other countries, the percentage of people with the temperament and abilities to be full-time artists is minuscule.

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Paradoxically the full-time artists, whose self-sacrifice, dedication, and courage are deserving of encouragement, either refuse to seek government handouts, or they are ignored and neglected, because they lack, for whatever reason, influential connections.

Our federal government's arts funding agency, the Canada Council, has never concealed that it operates on the principle that the more art of every conceivable kind we produce, the more world-class Canadian art is likely to surface.

I don't think things work out that way; quantity is not synonymous with quality. What small amount of great art arises in any given generation stems, in my view, from spiritual, inspirational, and devotional self-determination. These values are incompatible with the kind of dependency generated by government and corporate arts-funding policies.

It's argued frequently that, without corporate sponsorships and government subsidies, opera and ballet companies, symphony orchestras, and live theater would deteriorate and in many instances fail.

As matters stand, perhaps they would; but consider this: The assorted disciplines within the arts fraternity are in relentless competition with one another - in their fund-raising campaigns, for attendance at their performances and exhibitions, in their quests for improved facilities and bigger and better buildings, for qualified staff, and in every other way. I keep asking myself why, instead of each sector's viewing itself as being at the center of the universe, they don't pull together in cooperative endeavor.

Facets of each discipline merge naturally in opera, the theater, ballet, music, and in the visual and literary arts. By fostering those crucial interactions - those integral, healthy dependencies - surely the arts fraternity, as a totality, would make great strides toward winning control of its own destiny.

Simplistic? I believe not. Already in basic ways, in small communities, that kind of cooperative endeavor is growing.

Idealistic? But of course. Art without idealism, I suggest, is no art at all.

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