A Radical Opening – A Conservative Cultural Policy

Stephen Harper met Mr. (subsidized) Poetic Nemesis one chilly October morning in Saskatoon in 2008.

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

That splat you heard was 20 elephant feet landing directly on his head and after the shrieking was over, even the Huffington Post pointed out that this statement had cost the Prime Minister a majority. He was universally accused by the Canadian press of calling artists “rich,” which as you have just read, he had not. He was accused of wanting to gut culture, which he did not. He cut less than 3% of the arts budget – the financial crisis had just begun, and everything that wasn't straight up life or death was on the block.

At the time, not only were the Tories leading in Quebec, they promised to pick up seats in Montreal — at the expense of the floundering Bloc Québécois. It was Christmas in October for Gilles Duceppe who has little love of facts, but is a master of emotional drivel and elephant-sized tears. He proceeded to thrash Harper and invoke that Franco-Canadian perennial, claiming that a brutal Anglo was threatening treasured Quebecois culture. It didn't matter that only $15 million of a net $45 million cuts involved Quebec specifically. And it hardly mattered that $45 million of cuts was a tiny, tiny fraction of the $3.8 billion that Canadians spend on the arts every year. Or that from 1996 to 2004, Canadian federal spending on culture had risen by 39 percent. All that mattered was Duceppe’s political expedience, and our perpetually craven media threw evidence and context out the door.

The lampooning of Harper from the left was crude, obvious, and did not advance the discussion in any meaningful way. A YouTube video made by Quebec filmmakers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3zBPnIYavI) follows an artist as he visits a government committee in charge of arts funding. Language gaps and cultural misunderstandings abound, as the committee tackles the artist, a singer, with questions about his lyrics. They are outraged when he sings about a “phoque” (the word for seal in French), which they hear as something far more colourful. The committee even asks him if he's a homosexual, after which they dismiss him without approving his funding.

Yet every word of Harper's statement was true. Whether by tax breaks or direct subsidy, the galas are all subsidized, as are the publishers of the nominated books or the producers of nominated film and television. Almost every Canadian gallerist depends upon either the subsidization of their artists, or upon direct granting. Every theatre and dance company, every opera, every symphony, same. Almost every artist, dancer, classical musician or singer, actor and writer in the country receives some kind of subsidy and again, Harper was right. With the exception of primetime CanCon mandated broadcast television, most taxpayers never actually see any of the work of our artists. The price of admission to most of the classical arts, whether opera, dance, symphony or theatre is too high for the average middle class family with limited time for recreation, this underscored in our current economy. Admissions to our major museums and art galleries are overpriced for a family of four. Commercial gallery prices effectively sequester art to the rich.

Nonetheless, in Canada we love our arts, they make us feel civilized so we fund at the European level: $10 per capita to every $1 the U.S. spends. And the shrieking is understandable. Artists have always been the ultimate rent-seekers; their incomes are low, and even those stipends are unpredictable. Worldly success comes rarely and can last but a season or two. Two things are inarguable here. The first is that the arts have always been subsidized whether by princes, government or patrons. And second, that the arts are a vital part of a productive society.

As all grant applicants assert, the presence of excellence in the arts draws highly educated workers to cities and towns. Artists and their contributions unleash ideas that trigger innovation and creativity in other spheres. The arts promote dialogue and are, usually – but not always, and certainly not in Canada – inclusive, drawing the outsider in, helping the newcomer to demonstrate how his or her culture can enrich and deepen the larger.

That said, government funding of the arts in Canada is a monolithic industry and lobby, and as such skew the arts in directions that are malignant, destructive and promote a fashionable dysthymia. From Canada's artists we see a false representation of what human life is: its conflicts and tragedies are distorted and emphasized, its joys discounted as delusion. As philosopher Roger Scruton recently pointed out: the complexity of real life, its nuance, its joys, the difficulties of a virtuous life, the rigours of the good man or woman, even directions out of malaise are lost in a welter of vulgarity, violence and bad politics. Our world is represented as far, far darker than it is, and in a cruel twist it is possible to argue that the arts are creating the society they describe.

It is easy to make a connection between government funding and the arts representing life as far darker – and therefore in need of increased government intrusion – than reality appears to the average Canadian. The bureaucrat is simply acting rationally: government bureaucrats seek to enlarge their power and reach, the arts convince people that life and people (especially corporations and white men) are so cruel, it is necessary. The nature of a bureaucracy is to expand, one doesn't require a central office directive, which is of course forbidden. Nor is it necessary to do more than touch on the link between the almost certain left-of-centre statism of the average public servant. Liberal bureaucrats promote liberal politics in their arts because to them, there are no other acceptable politics.

We know from recent episodes in the U.S., that despite the 'arms-length, hands off' cover of the cultural bureaucrat, that subsidized artists are expected to toe the government line. In 2009, an National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) official was caught soliciting Obama propaganda from his client-artists, promising more money down the road for those who conformed, in a flagrant attempt at bribery and coercion. Recently, Juan Williams, an African-American commentator was fired by the subsidized NPR for expressing a rational fear of robed Muslims on planes. Who has felt fear, having just been searched? Yet, unmitigated hatred of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and movement conservatives in general, expressed by other NPR on-air personalities is considered praiseworthy. In Canada, conservative thought is such anathema, it has almost entirely disappeared from the CBC, or any other subsidized outlet.

The hatred of artists for ideas identified as “right-wing” is unforgiving and furious. Think I'm wrong?

In September this year, I was invited to a film industry breakfast during the Toronto Film Festival. I sat beside a woman who had run, for 11 years, the film division at the New York Arts Council, an enormously powerful foundation. As well, she had programmed sections of the Berlin, Hamptons and Tribeca Film Festivals and now works as a consultant for filmmakers, taking that filmmaker from original idea, through funding, shooting, marketing, then opening the film. Introduced by a mutual friend, we found we had much in common, and talked easily. So I asked her: “Would you ever fund, program or consult with a film-maker whose ideas were right of center?”

“Never!” she exploded. “I couldn't be in the same room,” she said. Then she actually shuddered, and added a few sentences of invective. Despite an immense cultivation, she was as reflexively prejudiced against conservatives as the average Western European in the 30's was against Jews or blacks, a Victorian gentleman urged to consult a woman doctor or lawyer, or a suburban dweller in the 50's, worried about homosexuals moving in next door.

But that, in a nutshell, is how every member of the arts community I know, thinks. To these often enormously competent and successful people, “right-wing” invokes a litany of stereotypes: racist, anti-abortion, repressively Christian, anti-gay, exploitative of the weak and minorities along with a list of other stunted qualities of character. More, to be conservative these days is to be saddled with all the vices of character which our culture identifies as among the worst. There is no fair consideration of conservative ideas, and the average arts worker would reveal a woeful ignorance of even the most elemental conservative policies and their rationales. It is a hate-filled ignorance which they accept in no other area of their lives.

I have worked in the arts for much of my career, and with no exception among a fairly broad – some stunningly successful – acquaintance in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., all – and I mean every last one – skew left, most are frank international socialists, who believe with their whole hearts in redistribution, a command and control economy and collectivism. This monolithic conformity of ideas has a predictable result. Any idea, image, story progression, novel or so on which triggers suspicion of the unsound thinking of the right is not supported, published or produced by the gatekeepers of our culture. As such, our cultural product is profoundly skewed towards one side of the political spectrum.
At worst, it is full-scale prosecution of the ideas which flow from a contrary school of thought. Little wonder that most North Americans don't feel their lives are reflected honestly in their arts, and are sick of being told that they are wrong, immoral, prejudiced, sexist, racist and must change.

For the past fifty years, we in the Western democracies have experienced a creeping monoculture of cultural product which promotes its own ideas and world-view, prejudices and sacred cows. This world view is protected by a knee-jerk furious denunciation of anyone who questions that world view, as racist, sexist and homophobic. This dominance is so monolithic we have no earthly idea of what a conservative aesthetic might look like or what a conservative cultural policy might be. No one knows. There is no discussion. There is no investigation. Therefore no such animal has ever raised its head. Furthermore, despite the enormous power culture workers have in our society, and most particularly their alarming ability to stir up the press, no think tank, policy person or philosopher of the right has advanced even the slimmest of an agenda to counter what has become, without doubt, a negative cultural force. Turn on premium cable TV any night, and by the end of it, you will feel as if you have spent a few hours observing the natives of Dante's 9 circles of hell who gleefully take us from lust all the way through gluttony, greed, violence, and fraud to treachery. Little wonder a third of us take prescription medication for mood mitigation and insomnia. While I think the left is running out of steam, their ideas becoming increasingly desperate and thin, the shock value, as it does, fading with each fresh offence. But we have been left with a ruined internal landscape, and by some horrid mirroring, grace of the plague of 4th rate modern architecture, our built environments are just as fouled.

There is no light in the darkness.

“Let's see, conservative cultural policy?” a famous book-seller asked me yesterday. “Cut. Cut. Cut. The End.”

He had a point, for that's what Thatcher did. Famously, the only cultural event she attended was Glyndebourne, the privately subsidized outdoor opera festival. Reagan Republicans tried to gut the NEA, but eventually gave up. Bush tried to cut, but quickly learned he couldn't afford the blowback and needing help to pass his war budgets, he backed off. David Cameron touts his new cultural policy for the “Big Society”. By that he means that everything needs to be cut, including the arts. Local communities will be brought front and center in the Big Society. But, while amateur and semi-professional local art is very important, the development of excellence is crucial, and only is given space to be honed in the biggest cities, and as such, is always substantially subsidized. Cameron's team offers no new thinking in this area.

In the absence of much in the way of systematic scholarship (pace Lynne Cheney, Tyler Cowan and Scruton who have contributed important analysis) or even speculation, what would a conservative cultural policy look like?

The answer must lie in an opening up, not a shutting down.

We can neither insist that artists consider redemption, virtue and beauty in their product, nor stop funding or showing the despairing products of modernism. What we must do is shift the locus of funding, and simultaneously, insist that ideas identified as conservative no longer be marginalized but discussed fairly. This last needs no directive from any source of funding or power, but would naturally occur in a radical opening of funding sources.

About ten years ago, I spent a few weeks in Seattle researching a story on the philanthropy of youthful digital titans for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. There I met Peter Donnelly, who ran the Corporate Council on the Arts. Donnelly had been an artistic director of the Dallas Rep, and subsequently the Seattle Repertory Company. Along the way he grew so sick of begging for money he started the Corporate Council on the Arts. He may have initiated something far larger: one of the principal models for a productive future. Peter died a couple of years ago, but he left a legacy that is substantial. Of the more than 50 arts organizations in Seattle, all of them not only have a dedicated building, paid for by a consortium of wealthy individuals, foundations and corporations, (and some government money), but most have endowments which fund their operating costs. Arts organizations still go to state and federal government agencies for money, but generally only for extraordinary projects. Peter said he had more than 70 corporations involved with the Council, many of which competed rigorously to join the board of directors and spend three weeks a year digging into arts organizations funding and problem-solving. Their participation was so valuable that when the Seattle Symphony needed a new concert hall, Boeing engineers oversaw its construction on a steep incline, in an earthquake zone, and brought the hall in under budget and early.

Seattle's arts community is close, rich and vividly alive. Auctions can raise ten million dollars in a wildly enthusiastic single evening, and the typical cultural divide between donor and artist is far less stark. All contribute, all take credit. Contrast this to the polarized cultural world of Vancouver, where East and West sides treat each other as enemies. One of my college friends is a very well known Canadian stage actress. I asked her if she had ever been involved in a full-scale fund-raising effort for the arts in Vancouver. She looked at me as if I were proposing she disrobe on Granville Street. Yet in Seattle, someone with such striking comedic talent would be celebrated as a magnificent example of the kind of artist Seattle could produce, and brought forward often to encourage individuals, foundations and corporations to kick in and help. In Seattle, she would have helped raise $100,000,000 for the arts in the last 20 years, in Vancouver she makes the occasional doleful speech about how government funding is inadequate.

All the sectors of Seattle's society are harmonized through the building of their arts community, and as a result Seattle's culture is richly diverse, wealthy, exciting, and fully alive. Because bridges have been built over deep cultural divides, and so many participate, there is little chance that any hard-edged political agenda (from either left or right) could be prosecuted for very long; there are simply too many interest groups involved for any of them to take precedence. Peter Donnelly laughed at the notion that corporations could ever use artists as pawns to promote a single world-view; they had become independent actors, capable of making virtuous decisions, finally financially independent.

Diversifying funding sources for the arts is the one way that art, community and nation can mature. But in Canada, where the government monopolizes the industry, there are few incentives for the private sector to get involved in shaping our cultural mosaic – this is a cruel shutting out of a critical sector, an exclusion which inhibits our growth in a thousand hidden ways. Scholarship and policy research come first, but both U.S. and Canadian think tanks have dismissed this area as irrelevant. They are dead wrong. No matter how brilliant their ideas, conservatives will never find acceptance in a world where films, theatre, television, literature and music portray them as sons and daughters of the KKK. It is time that conservatives step up, embrace the arts and help bring our culture into full maturity.

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