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Portrait of the artist as a welfare bum

by Archives September 23, 2008

Recently, the Canada Arts Council voted to provide $95,000 to artist Cesare Saez, so that he could launch a 300-metre inflatable banana into geosynchronous orbit over the state of Texas.
Now, as reported in the Globe and Mail, despite the fact that Saez never actually constructed his inflatable fruit and now says the project will not go ahead, he is under no obligation to return the money.
The state of the arts in Canada is such that an artist can sew 50 rotting steaks into a dress and display it in the national gallery; such that a hanging clothesline of dead animals now gets federal funding; such that jars of feces are considered grant-worthy.
It is in this noble workhouse of culture and erudition that the evil Conservative art cuts have fallen.
In reality, the so-called arts cuts are primarily targeted at bureaucrats and middlemen organizations; groups that broadcast the importance of art, but which would never be caught actually making any. These art cuts are only cuts in the sense that a brake moves a car backwards, and are only cuts to “arts” in the sense that reductions to zoo advertising are cuts to pandas.
In short, they are not real cuts, they are a PR tool designed to perpetuate the myth that the Conservatives have some vast Opus Dei-esque hidden agenda.
Just this week, Westmount’s NDP candidate, Anne Lagacé-Dowson, issued a press release warning of Conservative plans to bulldoze her beloved CBC. Citing the recent spate of arts cuts, and a Conservative fundraising flyer asking its base whether they thought the CBC used its funding well, she argued a Conservative majority would mark the public broadcaster’s effective death.
But the thing is, Dowson knows, or should know, that this simply isn’t true. After all, she worked for the CBC all throughout the various Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien – she suffered through a near-decade of stagnant budgets, cost-cutting and shortages; she knows what it is like to have a government actually starving the CBC.
Moreover, she also knows that since the Conservatives have taken power, the CBC’s budget has actually risen by $133 million – more than 10 per cent in less than three years. She knows all this, and still she pushes that line.
In the same vein, those who criticize the $46 million in arts cuts know, or should, that since the Conservatives have come to power, arts funding has actually increased by more than $675 million (to well over $4 billion) – that in real terms, the Conservatives have increased arts funding by more than 15 times the amount they are accused of cutting.
But then, bringing questions of dollars and cents into the equation only serve to muddle the issue – because the arts lobby is not upset about the level of their funding as such – rather, they are incensed at the suggestion that any part of their funding should be cut. Ever. For any reason.
Listen to any of the Conservatives’ loudest (and shrillest) critics on this issue, and you will find that their objections are not to this or that cut – indeed, you will find that many of them are unable to name those organizations under the knife.
What they object to so strongly is the very idea that anyone so bourgeois and provincial as a politician might seek to judge what art is worthy of support.
The irony, of course, is that art got along quite well before the government got into the business of funding it – that back when the Group of Seven painted, art was driven to excel precisely by those bourgeois enough to pay for art they thought worthwhile. Indeed, when Stephen Harper states that his government is committed to funding art, but prefers art that people want, he is hearkening back to a time when the question that drove art was, “is this good enough that someone will spend money to own it.”
These days, in contrast, we have government funding for all kinds of art; we have grant councils ready to dole out money for little more than a proposal and a press release; we have everything, indeed, apart from really quality art. And it should be no surprise that in an age when art is subsidized irrespective of quality, discussions of good art inevitably return to that of generations past.
All of the above said, none of this should be taken to discount art’s importance; art can be the means by which a culture comes to understand itself and its potential; it can serve to educate on a level far beyond words; it can be a means of remembering our shared past.
So yes, art is important; art is valuable, and art is worth supporting.
But not all art.
Some art is the sort of creditable work best kept to one’s spare time. Some art is of inestimable personal value but of none to the community at large. And, some art is simply tawdry, pretentious or shoddy. Some art is simply bad.
To believe that the government has no right to discern between good art and bad, or to favour culture groups according to the same standard, is to believe that anyone who dresses themselves up in the title of artist has a natural claim on the public purse.
To believe this is, in effect, to paint the artist as a welfare bum, as one who demands their livelihood irrespective of the product of their labour. To believe this is to drag into the mire an honourable and distinguished profession.
To believe this is to believe is to believe that a non-existent 300-metre banana is worth $95,000.

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