Troy Media – by Nelson Peters
Government debt is killing Western industrialized nations. As the continuing European sovereign debt crisis proves, recurring deficits are causing untold damage to national economies that compounds on an annual basis. As governments scrutinize their spending, they must reevaluate previously sacrosanct expenses.
In Canada, that means it’s time to get creative with solving our seemingly perpetual overspending problem. A step in the right direction is to start by abolishing funding for the Canada Council for the Arts.
Most funding from government
Some background: The Canada Council of the Arts was founded in 1957 with a mandate to foster the arts in Canada. Since then it has evolved into a complex system of sponsorship with a scope that ranges from providing translation grants to funding expressive dance studios.
The Council haughtily proclaims its independence as often as it can; it frequently employs the term “arm’s length” to refer to its relationship with government. At the same time, it receives most of its operating budget at the expense of taxpayers.
One fundamental value held by the Council is to protect art from the whims of the marketplace. This government intervention is made in the name of national identity and the public good, due to the ability of art to bear new ideas and stimulate culture. However, this unique nature is precisely why the government should not have a role in the production of art.
Arguments over art and its aesthetics has been debated since at least the Ancient Greeks. For Plato, art was contemplation of the form of beauty; more recently, Kant viewed art as the rational contemplation of the divine, whereas Hegel treated it as an unconscious expression of its historical context.
That art might be impossible to objectively describe does not mean that its financing and production are similarly beyond quantification. For example, in the 2010 budget year, the Canada Council paid out over $18.3 million to ensure that Canadian dance remained strong.
I’m not asserting that ballet is without intrinsic value or that it does not improve the lives of certain persons. I am questioning whether it is worth $18 million. Art may be whatever an artist says it is, but that doesn’t mean that it deserves to be financed by taxpayers.
When money is doled out to finance the production of art, someone needs to decide who gets funding and who does not. This is the self-declared leadership role of the Canada Council for the Arts, using a system they call “peer assessment”. According to this arrangement, practicing artists and professionals evaluate each application. In effect, they determine whether or not someone is an artist.
This is the crux of my argument: although government intervention in the arts purports to free the artist from reliance on the marketplace, all it does is replace one form of reliance with another, rooted in bureaucratic mechanisms of control.
Culture and national identity emerge organically from the collective pooling of artistic voices. When the free choices of individuals in a marketplace determine artistic success (or failure), it is a genuine reflection of society. When artists instead depend on a government-funded near-monopoly such as the Canada Council for the Arts that parcels out grants on a rationalized, piece-meal basis, the result is mediocre, insincere art. The “culture” it produces is stagnant and forced and leads to a national identity no one really believes in. What is more, it drowns out authentic, vibrant voices that could contribute real insight to the national discourse.
The greatest art is dynamic, revolutionary, and subversive. It provokes and often shocks, and it certainly never compromises. Throughout history the greatest artists have been attacked for being radical or profane, such as Dante, James Joyce, or Tupac Shakur. If the role of the artist is to change society and renew culture, their art will necessarily threaten the status quo.
By contrast, the artists who depend on the Canada Council for the Arts operate more like unionized factory workers putting in their time while waiting for a pension rather than cultural visionaries. This self-reinforcing system of patronage results in a repugnant kind of conformity. Waiting around to build seniority and going through the motions is not good enough when the artist’s role is to challenge, to engage, and to inspire.
In fact, this dawdling, half-hearted approach to art has the unintended consequence of making it harder for artists to begin their careers. Despite its mandate to foster art, the Canada Council’s peer-assessment system means that artists who have already achieved success are rewarded with grants and subsidies, not emerging artists. Instead, younger and newer artists are abandoned, at least until they are able to establish themselves on their own, or curry favour with a powerbroker already on the inside.
The inexcusable consequence of this system is that the greatest beneficiaries are not the artists, but rather the people who make money off of them. Publication houses and record companies are the ones who usually make the applications for artists, and it isn’t difficult to understand why – instead of taking chances on new artists who may or may not become profitable, they can rely on government subsidies. The fact that the main criteria for a Canada Council grant is that the artist is already established means that they are basically getting easy government money, risk-free.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, government-sponsored art will be mediocre for the same reason that in large kitchens the food is usually bad. In an age of growing scrutiny over government spending, we should reconsider the value of this particular national institution. The Canada Council for the Arts does not foster the arts; rather it supports an extensive welfare system in which artists barter their integrity for financial security, all at the expense of the taxpayer. This results in a skewed, self-conscious vision of art and culture that suppresses genuine Canadian artistic voices from emerging.
For art’s sake, we should we should free Canadian artists from the harmful intervention of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Nelson Peters is a law student at Universite Laval in Quebec City.