Sep 27, 2008

Populism, Elitism, 905ism


A few days ago I posted Play Anon's first official interview. Owing to its length, I decided to publish in two pieces. I interviews Malcolm (in the middle) x, a Toronto theatre personage. In the first half, we discussed artist mobilization, politics, and subsidies for various industries.

The first half ended with Malcolm sharing his view that the $45 million being cut from arts programs is a "drop in the bucket", when compared to the subsidies other industries in Canada receive. With that, we pick up the thread for the interview's second half.

Enjoy.


x: What forty-five million dollars, what it does, in terms of promoting Canadian culture, is huge. Mr. Harper lies -he lies when he says it isn’t ideological. It is ideological. They’re cutting it, and they’re on-record all over the place, cause they can’t keep their mouths shut; they’ve said constantly, “We don’t like the kind of art some of these people are doing. We think it’s against family values. I don’t believe the government has any place in that arena.” But if we are a civilized society, we have to allow all the voices: Muslims, Muslim extremists, Christians, Christian extremists, homosexuals, homosexual artists -if, that is, we’re going to live in the kind of society we say we like. Artists should be talking to citizens and going door-to-door. They should say, “I’ll tell you what I do for you. This is what I do for you: I tell you who you are. I hold a mirror up to you. This is who we are. I’m the guy or gal saying, ‘Isn’t it horrible the way we treat each other? And we do it in a way that makes people cry and makes people laugh.’”

me What about people who say, "Well, I don’t go to those things, that’s something I never do"...?

x: Well then you lose that argument with that one person, but go door-to-door until you bump into a certain percentage who say, “Yeah, I do think it’s important.” Then vote. Vote for the party that is going to support art. Name me a great society, a great country, that didn’t have great artists. Name one. And do you think it’s accidental? You think it’s a trickle-down economy?

me: Well, to promote a country for something like its sports alone seems limiting. It’s like saying, “I’m going to go to France for the great skiers, or Australia for the great swimmers.” Even in the States, it’s the culture that is really their biggest export.

x: No, American, market-driven entertainment is their biggest export…

me: … oh, well now we might get into an argument about what art is…

x: … but we should. That’s what Stephen Harper’s questioning.

me: He talked about art as being related to populism.

x: Populism is what appeals to a broad spectrum of the population; there’s this is mind-numbing pap that sells. It’s consumerism –it’s not populist. I think it’s consumerist. I think there’s a big difference between the two actually… but I do think blogging’s being used in a very positive way. So long as it leads to open dialogue, which the jury’s out on, artists actually don’t get hoodwinked but start debating interesting arguments, including a criticism of mainstream art.

me: And yet Harper insists that most people aren’t interested in the arts.

x: Ah, this “people aren’t interested” thing –you say that long enough, they won’t be. Which is why artists need to go door-to-door. I mean, okay, people went down (to the Theatre Centre) and saw Naomi Klein. Big fucking deal! Preaching to the converted. “We’ve read your books, we think you’re fantastic!” –what good is that going to do you? More like, “Excuse me, how many people here are going to go door-to-door with the politician of their choice and tell people why they should vote for arts-friendly policies?” (puts hands up) How many people? Or will you just feel comfortable venting your anger and calling Stephen Harper names?

me: Claire Hopkinson mentioned something interesting. She said to go out, get involved, go to all-candidates events, and she also said, “Go to the 905 areas that are going to determine this election.” And there was this ripple of laughter, and I wondered at that: was it because people knew they should’ve been engaging the 905 all along, marketing to them, telling them what they’re about and why they should care, or was it laughter in that tut-tut way, as in, ‘those ignorant 905ers’… ‘cause there is that attitude.

x: It’s sad that a great number of people feel that way. But why should the 905ers care about you if you don’t care about them? Why should you turn up your nose at them? “They’re ignorant” –what does that mean, “they”? There are people living out in the 905 region that care deeply about the arts, you’re just not talking to them enough.

me: There are the ones who don’t know, they genuinely don’t know, either about the arts in the 416, or about how the funding system works. I’m still learning. I’ve taken friends down to TPM and The Young Centre and such, and they’re all so grateful, they say, “I wouldn’t have known this was on, or that this even existed”. They love it. I think MK Piatkowski’s right when she says artists do a shitty job marketing themselves. I think artists need to start reaching out past the 416.

x: Well how many artists are posting on Conservative blogs or comment boards? Thoughtful people? How many? We’re only going to our own blogs… talk about polarity! They’re all the same people, saying the same things to each other, agreeing… but how many people are going out and reading Conservative blogs? Or out-of-the-way ones? There’s this one, Old Ladies For Dion or something like that. It’s made by a bunch of older women that really believe that Harper is destroying our country, and the only shot we have is the Liberal choice. So they have their own blog. How many artists have gone onto that blog? Or go neo con. Google it: “neo con blogs”. Instead of just provoking people, go passionate. Have people attacking you for your position and start a conversation that way.

me: I was involved in a conversation with an artist on Myspace who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; he thinks artists should fend for themselves, with no funding.

x: So he’s a market economy artist. And that’s a good argument to have, it’s important. We should be engaged with other artists in these discussions. It would be fantastic to read artists who take other artists seriously. Then you can start a dialogue.

me: But there are so many who accuse arts, and artists, of being elite. Even some other artists throw that accusation out.

x: But what do you mean, “elite”? You go to an industrial bowling alley –it’s elite. Only industrial people go there. “Those are our crowd, we’ve got our own thing”.

me: So it’s a community…

x: Oh yeah! What percentage of our population actually goes to the theatre? It’s very small, but by the same token as the bowling alley, is that a reason not to have it? What it gives birth to is important. There are problems when people in theatre don’t reflect the society they’re living in.

me: People hear and see certain things getting funding and they say, “oh that’s idiotic, that’s just garbage”… but then you’re always going to get bad apples in any taxation system.

x: One of the PC candidates in Kingston, I think, said, when First Nations people wanted to come and speak at a meeting, “Are you sober?” She’s making an assumption, saying, implicitly, that all natives are drunks. Then another candidate said regarding grants to the arts, “Well they’re all freeloaders” –this is the perception that we as artists have to change, because in fact, we are leaders in an increasingly growing area, which is self-employment. Mr. Harper himself is getting a leg among us, with self-employed women especially… He’s recognizing that self-employment is increasingly becoming a major share of income earned in this country. Artists are leaders in this, in how to survive and how to prosper. They’re leaders. I’ve been doing this for many years. I own a house, I have mortgages and loans… am I a freeloader? I don’t think I am. I am certainly not getting a pension when I retire.

me: Well not everyone has the freedom to.

x: No, I know. Mine’ll be “Freedom 88”, at Paul’s Funeral Home.

__________________

The second PlayAnon interview should be up within the next fortnight (as in, two weeks). Between then and now, I'm hoping to attend a number of various arts cuts events and engage in more dialogue with members of all political stripes. Stay tuned!

Credits: The cartoon used above came from this rather hilarious article. Irony? Hmm.

Kudos: Malcolm (in the middle) x. Thank you for your time and your insights.

2 comments:

MK Piatkowski said...

I completely agree with Malcolm that we should be dialoguing with other artists. That's actually something positive that's come out of these cuts - for the first time in my memory, musicians are talking to writers who are talking to theatre-makers who are talking to visual artists. I think some discussion has to happen about funding in this country, and whether or not changes need to be made.

I also find the populism point very interesting. More and more it's becoming apparent to me that this is the beginning of a much larger set of discussions that should happen about our role in society and how that role will play out in future. Kind of exciting if you think about it.

Marcia Johnson said...

I'm all caught up with these blog entries now. What a great forum. Thanks for doing this Catherine.

You had an enviable childhood exposure to the arts and your passion for it really shows.

Malcolm's words are really inspiring. I was already in his corner but then he also brought up things I hadn't considered...like how how other industries, besides the arts, are subsidized as well. What a great point.

What saddens me the most is the people claim to not affected by art and culture. Do they wear grey every day and furnish their homes with lawn furniture and air mattresses? Don't they sing to their children and read them inspiring stories? The thing is, they don't even have to think about it. If they want it, they reach for it and it's there. That clown they hire for their kid's party might be a theatre school grad. The consultant helping to brush up his or her business writing may be a produced playwright.

Artists and their influences are everywhere. You'd miss us if we were gone.

The subsidies don't just go to us. Think of the free events at Harbourfront and the music workshops in school. Children who learn to play an instrument learn about discipline and concentration among other things.

I'm all over the place. I have no idea if I'm being coherent. Thank goodness for people like Malcolm who can keep their heads and speak intelligently when forced to justify their work and (dare I say it) existence.