Conservative arts policy: Not an oxymoron

Artists are left wing, almost without exception. Most are contemptuous of conservatives. They loathe capitalism, trash tradition and back all the progressive, politically correct causes, from rainforests to electric cars to Obamacare.

In July, Hollywood A-Listers lent their star power to the Democratic National Convention; Katy Perry, Meryl Streep, Susan  Sarandon – even Bradley  Cooper, star of American Sniper! A week earlier, the culturati scoffed at the (former) underwear model and reality TV personalities at the Republican National Convention.

Michael Moore, Margaret Atwood, Neil Young, Sarah Polley, Alec Baldwin, K-OS, Sean Penn, Loco Locass, even Raffi – they all campaign against conservatives.

They hate us. So screw them.

That is exactly the wrong attitude.

From an electoral point of view, ignoring arts and culture or, worse, antagonizing the whole sector, is wrong-headed. Because, while there is no scenario where an arts and culture policy gets a conservative party elected, there is also no scenario where a conservative party gets elected by campaigning against arts and culture or pretending it doesn’t exist. Smart arts and culture policy is a necessary condition for political success.

Smart policies and platforms are integral to the success of any party and campaign. For us, smart policies are conservative in principle, achievable in practice and effective in outcome. This is not to say there is a magic bullet of arts policy that will convince Leo Dicaprio and Whoopi Goldberg to switch sides. We do not propose a singular reform that will win elections, or particular program that will endear conservative governments to artists. To be successful, each arts and culture policy should be specific to the level of government (municipal, provincial, federal), the party, the candidate, and the ambient political environment.

But here are five principles to guide the construction of a compelling and successful conservative arts and culture policy: (1) Be Conservative; (2) Be Normal; (3) Be Practical; (4) Be Proud; and (5) Be Electable.

1. Be conservative

Too often, conservatives try to appear softer or more accessible by throwing their principles overboard. The left wedges us on some issue and we oblige them by negotiating against ourselves. In seeking to placate a stakeholder group (i.e. artists) or present a more “enlightened” version of ourselves to voters, we adopt policy that is not conservative. It’s inauthentic, it doesn’t work, and it undermines our general credibility.

A successful arts and culture policy must be recognizably and coherently conservative. Imagine we were developing policy for another industry. What is the conservative foundation for good policy?

 Always put consumers’ interests ahead of producers. Support the market, not the businesses competing within it.

Government’s proper role in financial services or manufacturing or shipbuilding is to create a level playing field, free of undue regulation and excessive taxation. Consumers should be at the top of the pyramid.  Conservatives lament that too often government becomes captive to producers’ interests. Government policies that favour producers restrict choice and cost consumers money, sometimes twice: both as consumers and taxpayers.

Consumers of art attend an event hosted by Artlink Canada, an innovative mobile art business specializing is turning unique spaces into galleries that best suit the type of art being exhibited.
Consumers of art attend an event hosted by Artlink Canada, an innovative mobile art business specializing is turning unique spaces into galleries. (Image: Artlink Canada)

When it comes to arts and culture, the same principle applies:  conservative policies should privilege consumers over producers.

Allowing consumers to decide is always better than letting bureaucrats decide. Should government fund visual arts or dramatic arts? Music or theatre? Small town arts festivals or big-city tourist magnets? When should regulators restrict the “content” Canadians consume? Government shouldn’t make these choices. They invariably choose wrong. Far better to trust Canadians’ tastes and artists’ talents by letting the market decide.

This approach won’t get producers of arts and culture to vote for conservatives en masse. But consumers will like it. And electorally, the math is pretty clear.

Leftists will court producers (i.e. artists) with richer subsidies, regulations and general crony-capitalism. Conservatives should neither pander to nor denigrate producers, and instead just concentrate on winning consumers.

2. Be normal

So artists don’t particularly like us. Let’s just make peace with the fact that there will probably never be an Artists-for-Conservatives rally or that no arts group will likely ever give our platform anything higher than a ‘D’ – no matter what we do.

That’s no reason to get ugly about it. Too often we fall into the trap of believing meanness strengthens our conservative bona fides or we offer the toughness appropriate for foreign or law and order policy in cultural policy.

Moreover, consuming arts and culture is what normal people do, even conservatives. They watch TV; go to the theatre; volunteer at the museum; attend Christmas concerts with their family; enroll children in dance classes; host kids’ birthdays at clay-making studios; and attend parades – from Caribana to Santa Claus to Pride.

You can be in the culture without being of the culture, as Christians say. Stephen Harper wasn’t much of a hockey player but he was a huge fan and historian of the game. He never bought into the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll either, but that didn’t stop him from joyfully playing the music of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. These things were eminently “normal” and helped him connect to voters.

Speaking of Harper, during the 2008 campaign he famously said: “I think 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.”

Every word of this is true. On the face of it, most “ordinary people” should have agreed with him. But it blew up on him for a couple of reasons. First, it forced a lot of ordinary people to choose between Harper and a lot of writers and artists and actors and musicians that they loved. Second, it made him sound like an uncultured curmudgeon, a miserly, fun-hating facsimile of Mr. Burns.

That’s because every voter consumes arts and culture. It is an extraordinary part of our lives. It makes life interesting and fun and compelling. Tax and monetary policy do not add sparkle to normal people’s lives. As the left knows very well, arts and culture is a policy opportunity to connect viscerally with voters.

The new Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton opened in 2010. The Harper Conservative government contributed $10 million to the project.
The new Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton opened in 2010. The Harper Conservative government contributed $10 million to the project. (Image: Ryan Jackson/Edmonton Journal)

Conservative politicians don’t need to throw taxpayers’ money at it. They just need to let people know that their daughter takes guitar lessons, that as part of their everyday lives they read novels, go to plays and concerts, display art in their living rooms. Frankly, if they’re not doing this stuff, then they probably are the nerdy sociopaths the left says they are, and nobody should vote for them.

3. Be practical

Platforms need policy. A conservative arts and culture platform, the specific campaign commitments, should be practical, accessible and conservative. While this essay does not offer a turnkey platform template, here are some sensible themes:

Celebrate artists as entrepreneurs. Anybody who can turn a garage into a studio, a pile of scrap metal into a work of art, or produce a musical on a shoestring budget, should be held up as a conservative hero.

Tilt the balance towards consumers. Give them more control over, for example, the television channels they subscribe to. Insist the CRTC serve consumers’ not producers’ interests. Support copyright policy that respects consumers, not just producers.

Cut taxes for artists, possibly by increasing deductions as the Harper government did for tradespersons’ tools. Cut taxes for consumers too, perhaps by increasing charitable tax credits for donations to arts and culture. Consider a special capital gains exemption for Canadian art investments.

Cut regulation and red tape. Avoid censorship like the plague. Weaken union control over wages and working conditions in arts and culture industries. Lower certification standards. Sound techs aren’t heart surgeons.

Celebrate history. Civics, history and preservation of the past are natural conservative themes. If there is one place where conservatives should spend more money in the name of culture it’s on museums, archives, libraries, and galleries that focus on history.

On arts and culture, we do not recommend scrapping all existing funding programs. We recommend finding practical approaches to tilt the balance towards Canadians writ large. We strongly oppose the temptation many conservative platforms fall prey to of matching the spending promises of left-wing parties. Conservatives cannot win an argument about which party will spend the most on producers, and inauthentic promises won’t appeal to a group of people who generally don’t like us very much. So let’s start by being conservative, normal and practical.

4. Be proud

It’s important for a party to carry itself confidently with respect to every part of its platform.  Conservative candidates need to be proud of their arts and culture platform.

Canadian conservatives have a habit of treating arts policy as a political terra nullis, as if we have never been there before, and have no experience upon which to draw.

Actually, conservatives are involved with local and national arts institutions across Canada. They administer, fundraise and volunteer.   Conservative policy-makers should actively draw on this expertise.  And successive conservative federal and provincial governments have substantially shaped Canadian arts and culture policy.

Robert Borden’s Conservative government passed first National Gallery of Canada Act in 1913. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government moved the gallery to its current beautiful building in 1988.

In 1932, the Conservative Government of R.B. Bennett created the CBC (née The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation).

The Ontario Arts Council was founded in 1963 by the PC government of John Robarts.

Alberta PC Premier Peter Lougheed did so much for the arts that his era was likened to Camelot in a gushing book by a dean of the provincial arts elite.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government brought in the Children’s Arts Tax Credit – which has been repealed by the Liberals.

So, conservatives have a legacy of support for arts and culture of which they should be proud.

5. Be electable

Given the dearth of electoral successes of late, Canadian conservatism needs to evolve. Part of that evolution can – and should – include thoughtful conservative arts and culture policy. Being electable doesn’t mean changing what we believe, it means evolving how we connect with voters.

The City of Vancouver took a fresh approach in 2013 by seeking public input on a potential design for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s tired-looking North Plaza. (Image: City of Vancouver)
The City of Vancouver took a fresh approach in 2013 by seeking public input on a potential design for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s tired-looking North Plaza. (Image: City of Vancouver)

As hard as it is to believe, there is a political universe wherein conservative ideas appeal to women, new Canadians and urban voters. In the near term, at least, the stench of Donald Trump’s vulgarity wafting across the border won’t make it any easier for conservatives here to expand that universe.

But that’s all the more reason to try, and the principles outlined in this essay can serve as the foundation to making these connections. A successful conservative platform will not advocate zero government involvement in arts and culture; rather it will define a limited, but vigorous, role for government. If voters see principled, accessible, proud conservative ideas and politicians trumpeting their vision for the arts, along with all our unassailable ideas on economics, freedom and democracy, they will respond by electing conservative governments.

In the end, what will we watch, read, listen to and hang on our walls if we write off non-conservative artists?  Ian Tyson songs and Clint Eastwood movies – while awesome – would eventually grow stale.  Cultural consumption, like cultural policy, that privileges ideological purity over self-fulfillment wouldn’t be normal, smart or electable. If we want to start winning elections again we should dare to be artsy, in both our personal and political lives.

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