The art of conservatism

One of the best political videos ever made in Canada was “Culture in Danger,” a hilarious send-up of the Harper government’s arts and culture policy. Posted online during the 2008 federal election, it featured Quebec folksinger Michel Rivard applying for government arts funding from a panel of stuffy unilingual conservative anglophones. The laughs arose mostly from the panel’s misunderstanding of the French word “phoque”, which means seal. You can imagine what they thought Rivard was saying. So they rejected him, because they were ignorant, pompous, intolerant reactionaries. Just like Stephen Harper!

Like any good political satire, the joke worked because there was a sliver of truth at its heart. Harper’s government had cut some arts funding that year, prompting well-orchestrated condemnation from opposition parties and arts groups. Harper, certain as always of the rightness of his cause and his tactics, doubled down in this skirmish with the artsy-fartsies a few days later, saying “ordinary working people” had no sympathy for those they see on TV at a “rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough”.

Harper won the election but the brawl with the arts clique probably helped prevent him from getting to a majority. And it fed a narrative portraying him as an un-hip, anti-artist, anti-intellectual Philistine that not even his killer garage band performances of Jumpin’ Jack Flash and With A Little Help From My Friends could overcome. It didn’t help that he religiously adhered to a spartan, dumbed-down messaging strategy that obscured his formidable intelligence and wit, or that he later cozied up to congenital vulgarian Rob Ford, or that he rarely talked publicly about his favourite Canadian books, songs, paintings and movies.

As a result, by the 2015 election Harper was a one-dimensional caricature of a soulless technocrat, a Mackenzie King without the humanizing eccentricities, an enemy of art and science, and quite possibly the evil reptilian kitten-eater the entire Toronto Star editorial board believed him to be. So voters turned to his pretty, amiable antithesis, who demonstrated his prodigious humanity every time he opened his mouth, professed a great love for the arts and especially its celebrity accoutrements, and promised to let really smart people make all the “science-based” decisions.

Even those of us who are already nostalgic for reason and dignity in the prime minister’s office accept that it’s not going to return any time soon unless the next conservative contestant for the job has a more well-rounded persona. And frankly, many of us are embarrassed to be associated with the kind of conservative anti-intellectualism that is now embodied in Donald Trump to such a degree that it makes Stephen Harper and even Rob Ford look almost Aristotelian.

So the fall 2016 edition of the C2C Journal is dedicated to the proposition that conservatism is not for the uncurious of mind, black of heart, and barren of soul, but rather for lovers of truth and beauty and the joy of human artistic expression. Our contributors are going to introduce you to some great contemporary art and artists and make the case that for conservatives to compete successfully in the modern political arena, they must be active, passionate competitors in the realm of arts and culture.

This is not to say that conservative political parties and governments should try to outbid progressives in subsidizing the arts. Nothing stifles genuine creativity more effectively than bureaucratic state-ordained curation. Instead, as filmmaker and novelist Brigitte Pellerin contends in today’s opening essay, there is a huge need – especially in Canada – for private philanthropy to stimulate the production of genuinely good, interesting and influential art.

Other contributors to the fall edition, whose stories and essays will be published every few days on the C2C website during the next few weeks, include graphic artist Olivier Ballou, late of the Manning Centre and now head of graphic design for the American Enterprise Institute. He encourages conservatives to be broad-minded about what constitutes good art and to avoid the temptation to use art for propagandizing.

There isn’t room here to plug all the other upcoming articles in the fall edition but watch for Bob Tarantino’s persuasive argument that Guy Gavriel Kay is a truly great Canadian novelist whose stories and themes are redolent of conservative philosophical ideals; Jason Tucker’s contention that heavy metal is the purest form of conservative expression in contemporary music; Peter Shawn Taylor’s profile of the riotously funny and classics-loving formalist poet A.M. Juster; and Joshua Lieblein’s fictional memo from a Canadian publisher responding to a very upsetting manuscript from an aspiring conservative novelist.

Our hope, as always, is that readers will find something new, interesting and entertaining in the fall edition of C2C Journal. And in keeping with our commit to publish “Ideas That Lead” in the service of freedom and democracy, we hope to provide conservative political activists and policy makers with food for thought about the importance of art in communicating their ideas through powerful mediums that are currently dominated by their philosophical opponents.

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