Sep 24, 2008

First Interview: "Believe it or not, we do have a soul, and believe it or not, the soul is important."

Frequently, I've worked around artists of all stripes, but I realized that when it comes to funding, I’m ignorant to a lot of the issues they face.

I believed there was a real “entitlement” attitude, and a “free handouts” system for most artists. Why should they get funding when others have to work? But it bothered me when I began to talk to people, and ask questions.

As I got to know more, I realized most people (like me) have no idea about how arts funding works or the impact the arts makes in a number of sectors within the fabric of Canadian society. My stance was founded on ignorance about how the systems works and how a lot of artists –people I’d only interviewed or known professionally –lived. I started this blog to open dialogues with people on all sides, and to engage in an intelligent online conversation about art and the role of the artist in 21st century Canada.

So, in that spirit, here’s my first Play Anon interview.

Malcolm (in the middle) x is a Toronto theatre personage.

We recently met in a midtown Toronto coffee shop to toss around ideas around funding, entitlement, the “economics of culture”, and the importance of political involvement.

Because it was rather lengthy, I’m going to be posting the interview in two chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on party let-downs, the relationship of business and the arts, and why the heck art matters –and more importantly, why Malcolm (in the middle) x thinks culture should be publicly funded.

Enjoy.

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me: So what’s your take on all this?

x: If you ask people what the most important issues are, they’d say wait times in hospitals, they’d say lack of work, or gas prices, a whole bunch of things, but they wouldn’t say what Harper’s done to the arts. And yet, we are citizens. We are part of the process of being citizens. It’s our job to tell our fellow citizens why they should care about this. It’s not our job to talk to just each other and then bitchslap Stephen Harper. We’re just preaching to the converted doing that. What we have to do is get involved in the electoral process more seriously.

me: Did you see the article on Jim Fleck last week?

x: Yes, I did, I thought it was really good. Jim is essentially saying the same thing: you have to become part of the electoral process. What I also liked was that he used that “we” –the rich-individual “we” –and said they and the parties have got to care more about the arts, cause it’s essential. The Governor-General’s husband… (Jean-Daniel Lafond) .. did you see that article? He said the same sort of thing.

I have friends that are feeling simply depressed, who’d like to get involved in the political process; they go knocking door-to-door. It’s something I’ve done with my MP, go and say, “vote for this person”. My MP is Jack Layton. I have, on several occasions, belonged to the NDP party, I’ve been a dues-paying member, and twice now I’ve not renewed because I’ve been so disappointed by them as a party over issues where they don’t listen to their own rank and file when they got elected. …Recently I joined, to help somebody I know get elected. When there was a nomination meeting, I got emails from the NDP reminding me it’s next Tuesday, in the evening. I sent an email going, “I’m a non-traditional worker, I don’t work 9 to 5, and there’s a lot of people that don’t, so what’s the alternative for this community?” “Well, there is none.” “How do I get to vote? I’m happy to vote by proxy.” “Oh, we don’t allow proxy boxes. I emailed someone and said, “Look, people work nightshifts… how do they vote?”…

me: …plus there are people who work in the arts who support the NDP…

x: …yeah, and they just didn’t have an answer, so… that’s disappointing. A lot of people that I know… I’m hearing a real depression, because they don’t know who to campaign for. I know that Dion came out the other day with an announcement for culture, that he’ll jack up the payments for the Canada Council to where they were before -so it’s not really new funding -but anyway, I was very disappointed in Layton's stance about Elizabeth May and the Green Party, so I sent an email. Two days before, I received a phone call from the party saying, "Will you put up a sign on your lawn for Jack?" I said yes, but I added that I need to know what his policy on arts funding is, cause I haven’t heard a thing. They said, “Oh, there will be an announcement in the next couple of days”, which I haven’t yet heard. Then he tried to stop her from being on the debate, so I sent an email saying, “I will not campaign for you, and I will talk to all my fellow artists about how you’re behaving exactly like Stephen Harper." I guess they must’ve received a lot of emails like that, cause they did a backpeddle on the issue, but I have yet to see any major announcement on the arts from the NDP.

me: There’s none, but the arts is so beyond partisanship, it’s something everybody goes to, not just something NDP supporters go to.

x: It‘s something all the parties are silent on. There’s not a peep from them, because they think, and they’re probably right, that people don’t’ care. But people only care if the party says “we care: if you vote for us, then you vote for this, and this, and this… “

me: So you think it’s up to artists to raise people’s consciousnesses?

x: Absolutely, it’s up to artists to do their job, to go and say to their fellow citizens, “this is why you should care.

me: … but not be so partisan about it, because frankly, I don’t think calling Harper a Philistine helps, it neuters us. I’m in an area where there’s a lot of PC signs on lawns, and I know they don’t’ know what Theatre Passse Muralle is, or the Young Centre, but they like Harper, and they understand the language of finance.

x: There’s a bit of a problem with Mr. Fleck’s view, though. He’s stressing the importance of culture financially. And I’m saddened by the fact that artists… arts councils, theatres, etc. -have bought in that argument so fully over the last fifteen years. There was a very gradual shift in focus: “You gotta show people that we’re business-people too”. That’s not why arts exist.

me: … but it’s a language many Tories and their supporters understand…

x: So fight that fight when you get there. When you start defining yourself by market economy values… well, that’s exactly what Stephen Harper is saying.

me: I agree, but I’m saying for voters unaware of culture and its importance…

x: … so go to those voters then and say, “Listen, this is why you should vote for the arts”.

me: How do you persuade them?

x: You have to be passionate. You have to be relentless. How many artists do you know who are going up to their candidates of choice and saying “I want to go door-to-door with you”, and “I want to raise the issue of the arts door-to-door with you”? How many do you think have done that? None! They’re so content to sit, to groan and moan, “Oh, Harper’s gonna get elected anyway, what’s the point?’ I mean... “vote him out of office”… ? How?! Until you get on your feet and go out and knock on doors and be willing to have doors slam in your face –“you bunch of lazy artists”, "you fucking wastrels” –you’re not willing to fight the fight.

I don’t believe in insulting anyone. Getting up and saying ‘I think this policy is wrong’ –is that fighting? Some might call it insulting, but really, this is wrong, this is a stupid policy. Some might call it insulting, but the emphasis is, the arts matters because it does pump money in to the economy, and it does lead to forward-thinking minds. It is important for us, because believe it or not, we do have a soul, and believe it or not, the soul is important. Believe it or not, the arts are important for defining who we are as a people, what makes us different from others. And if you’re going to talk to people, you have to make that your passionate argument. You have to say, “Imagine a world without a song. Imagine a world without a painting. Imagine a world without opinions.”

me: But then the argument comes back: “Nobody subsidized me. Nobody subsidized my work. Nobody subsidized my job.”

x: Ask them, which industry are you in? The auto sector... nobody subsidized you? The aeronautic industry... do you work for Bombardier? Nobody subsidized you? You work in farming... nobody subsidized you? You work for Hydro... nobody subsidized you? Every industry in this country has been subsidized, as it is in the States. And that’s the big lie down there: “We don’t believe in government bailout of industry”. Well… the financial industry is being subsidized. What do you think it is when you’re paying exorbitant, up-and-down yo-yo gas prices? Who do you think you’re subsidizing? But you go “no, that’s the business world…” The money that was cut by the Conservatives in budgets for artists leaving Canada to promote themselves, to work abroad -forty-five million dollars -is a drop in the bucket, relative to the amount of dollars that are thrown at other industries.
Drop. In. The. Bucket.

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The second half of my interview with Malcolm (in the middle) x will be posted this week; we cover funding and ideologies, questions around defining art, and the importance of reaching out to the 905 region.

Please feel free to send your comments and questions. This blog has been created to foster discussion and debate, not simply as a means of preaching to the converted -another issue Malcolm (in the middle) x and I discussed at length.

Your voice -on whatever side you lean towards -really matters.

5 comments:

MK Piatkowski said...

I have a pretty good idea who this is. :)

But I disagree about avoiding the financial argument. He says "fight that fight when you get there". But we are there. People are completely freaking over oil prices, the huge bank bailouts in the US, and the crazy stock market. People are scared shitless we're heading into a depression. They're terrified they're going to lose their jobs. They're not interested in the argument that arts are not a luxury because to a lot of them, right now they are. The only argument they're open to right now is the economic one.

I spent a lot of time today debating with people who not only are happy about these cuts but want to eliminate all arts funding altogether. They refuse to believe that other industries are subsidized. So for me, it makes sense that we point out that our funding is just like theirs. And once we get that buy in, once we've re-established ourselves as ordinary citizens like them, once we are actually going to be listened to, at that point they might be receptive to discussion about the importance of art in our society. But not now. Now it just gives them an excuse to dismiss us as out of touch with mainstream society. And this is too vital a time to be marginalized.

Catherine said...

Thanks MK!

I think what Malcolm was referring to re. the financial aspect -"fight(ing) the fight when you get there" -is the way that the arts are being justified in this country through financial arguments. There's the argument people like Mr. Fleck put forward (rightly), that there are economic benefits to investment in the arts; while this is important, Malcolm thinks this shouldn't be the main argument being posited in terms of arts supports. Yes, he says, that is a real benefit, but it isn't the *only* one, nor does he feel it should be the sole one -even if others happen to think using that sort of financial language is the only way to win the debate with those who think strictly in financial terms.

Thanks again, MK.

Alberta Girl said...

Great interview Catherine.

I agree with MK - when most Canadians are worried about their jobs or having to put gas in the car - an artist whining about not getting a grant is not something that is going to garner sympathy. Unfortunately it is something that is out of touch with the mainstream society.

The statement i take exception to is that Stephen Harper "CUT" funding. He actually increased funding from what it was under the Liberals - he cut a few programs.

I find it very frustrating to have the whole entertainment/arts industry crying as if he had chopped every last penny which is false.

I look forward to part II

Alberta Girl said...

The information about the non-cuts to arts is now out. From the National Post.

"For the current fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2009, Parliament has voted to spend more than $4 billion on cultural programs, including the CBC, the Canada Arts Council, the National Gallery of Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage. That amount is $660 million or 19.7 per cent more than was spent in fiscal 2006, the last year when the Liberals controlled the purse strings.

Overall program spending during that same period is up 18.6 per cent. In other words, Conservatives have boosted spending on arts programs faster than they have boosted overall government spending.


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for example, will receive $1.1 billion from the Tories this year, an increase of $133 million or 13.5 per cent compared to the last year under the Liberals."

I direct you to the 19% more the Tories have put into the Arts.

The problem here is the media and the opposition keeping the lie alive for partisan purposes.

Please let your interviewee's know about this in respect of the truth.

Catherine said...

That's really interesting, alberta girl. Thanks so much for pointing that out.

Just for balance, The Globe & Mail featured a story in Saturday's paper that mathematically dismantled the Conservatives' claims of increased arts spending.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080919.wbudget20/BNStory/Entertainment/home

James Bradshaw writes thus:
But the largest apparent boost to arts funding in recent years – which, thanks to Ottawa bookkeeping practices, was credited to the Conservatives in their first year in power – overstates the Tories' commitment to arts funding, as a soon-to-be-published report from the Canadian Conference of the Arts (CCA) explains.

Federal budget documents show the Conservatives spent $3.2-billion in 2006-07, and suggest that Liberal spending had dipped to slightly more than $2.9-billion the previous year. But the Conservative figure includes money spent by the Liberals in 2005-06. The reason: Such figures are meant to include the government's main estimates, offered when the budget is unveiled, and its supplementary estimates, which add small amounts spent as the year unfolds. In late 2005, Parliament was dissolved before the supplementary dollars spent by the Liberals could be reported – and they were instead tacked onto Conservative estimates for the following fiscal year.


S01, Bradshaw writes, outlines the spending on arts and culture that has "support(ed) Canadians in expressing their cultural experiences to each other and the world". Though his article write that there was indeed an increase in its budget under the Conservatives, "but the actual size of the increase may not be quite what it seems, thanks to the budget anomaly brought about by the election call in late 2005."
Meanwhile, as the Tories have continued to govern in the years since, contributions to SO1 – the bedrock of direct federal arts-and-culture funding – have fallen from $817-million to $759-million.

Seems there are many different figures (and subsequent interpretations of those figures) out there. Talk about a great way to create rifts.

ps -thanks for finding me, alberta girl. Your input is so appreciated.