Wednesday, October 01, 2008

margaret atwood weighs in


Spring Medley

I usually avoid politics here, though I
have been known to have an opinion or two! But when several people forwarded me the same article and it relates to the arts and arts funding I can't resist. Last Thursday the Globe and Mail published an article written by Margaret Atwood, the grand dame of letters. I was thinking of just linking to the article, but with impending elections on both sides of the 49th I think I'll publish the whole thing (and link it back appropriately).

Before you vote, here's a thought re. this current conservative-ideology-dominated continent's political climate and the resulting financial 'crisis' in the US: Wall Street bonuses amount to more than the entire world is paying in aid to Africa. Puts it all in a little perspective, doesn't it? (Not to mention a re-examination of the word 'crisis'!)

From Thursday's Globe and Mail
September 24, 2008 at 11:00 PM EDT

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we've been punching above our weight on the world stage - in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it's a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada's cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada's GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an “estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined).”

But we've just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn't care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I'm one of them, and I'm no Warren Buffett. I don't whine about my grants because I don't get any grants. I whine about other grants - grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they'll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an “ordinary person.” Mr. Harper's idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that's attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures - cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. “Ordinary people” pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. “The arts” are not a “niche interest.” They are part of being human.

Moreover, “ordinary people” are participants. They form book clubs and join classes of all kinds - painting, dancing, drawing, pottery, photography - for the sheer joy of it. They sing in choirs, church and other, and play in marching bands. Kids start garage bands and make their own videos and web art, and put their music on the Net, and draw their own graphic novels. “Ordinary people” have other outlets for their creativity, as well: Knitting and quilting have made comebacks; gardening is taken very seriously; the home woodworking shop is active. Add origami, costume design, egg decorating, flower arranging, and on and on ... Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made.

They show their appreciation by contributing. Canadians of all ages volunteer in vast numbers for local and city museums, for their art galleries and for countless cultural festivals - I think immediately of the Chinese New Year and the Caribana festival in Toronto, but there are so many others. Literary festivals have sprung up all over the country - volunteers set them up and provide the food, and “ordinary people” will drag their lawn chairs into a field - as in Nova Scotia's Read by the Sea - in order to listen to writers both local and national read and discuss their work. Mr. Harper has signalled that as far as he is concerned, those millions of hours of volunteer activity are a waste of time. He holds them in contempt.

I suggest that considering the huge amount of energy we spend on creative activity, to be creative is “ordinary.” It is an age-long and normal human characteristic: All children are born creative. It's the lack of any appreciation of these activities that is not ordinary. Mr. Harper has demonstrated that he has no knowledge of, or respect for, the capacities and interests of “ordinary people.” He's the “niche interest.” Not us.

It's been suggested that Mr. Harper's disdain for the arts is not merely a result of ignorance or a tin ear - that it is “ideologically motivated.” Now, I wonder what could be meant by that? Mr. Harper has said quite rightly that people understand we ought to keep within a budget. But his own contribution to that budget has been to heave the Liberal-generated surplus overboard so we have nothing left for a rainy day, and now, in addition, he wants to jeopardize those 600,000 arts jobs and those billions of dollars they generate for Canadians. What's the idea here? That arts jobs should not exist because artists are naughty and might not vote for Mr. Harper? That Canadians ought not to make money from the wicked arts, but only from virtuous oil? That artists don't all live in one constituency, so who cares? Or is it that the majority of those arts jobs are located in Ontario and Quebec, and Mr. Harper is peeved at those provinces, and wants to increase his ongoing gutting of Ontario - $20-billion a year of Ontario taxpayers' money going out, a dribble grudgingly allowed back in - and spank Quebec for being so disobedient as not to appreciate his magnificence? He likes punishing, so maybe the arts-squashing is part of that: Whack the Heartland.

Or is it even worse? Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they're a mouthy lot and they don't line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth - the only kind of art you might need - but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master's Voice. Maybe that's why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn't like the competition for media space.

The Conservative caucus has already learned that lesson. Rumour has it that Mr. Harper's idea of what sort of art you should hang on your wall was signalled by his removal of all pictures of previous Conservative prime ministers from their lobby room - including John A. and Dief the Chief - and their replacement by pictures of none other than Mr. Harper himself. History, it seems, is to begin with him. In communist countries, this used to be called the Cult of Personality. Mr. Harper is a guy who - rumour has it, again - tried to disband the student union in high school and then tried the same thing in college. Destiny is calling him, the way it called Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who burnt all records of the rulers before himself. It's an impulse that's been repeated many times since, the list is very long. Tear it down and level it flat, is the common motto. Then build a big statue of yourself. Now that would be Art!


Adapted from the 2008 Hurtig Lecture, to be delivered in Edmonton on Oct. 1


19 Comments:

Blogger Michelle said...

Wow, what a great article. Thaks for posting it, took my mind off our issues for a while.

1/10/08 10:32 AM  
Blogger JafaBrit's Art said...

oh boy! sheesh! errr! grrrrrrrrr, hum!!!!!!!!!1Great article, thanks for sharing.

1/10/08 10:35 AM  
Blogger Ellen said...

Thank you for posting that! I love it! Way to go Maggie! I'm impressed by the gall of her ending statements, that's a lot of 'evil' to place on a man who is soooo astonishingly dull.

1/10/08 11:42 AM  
Blogger Donn Coppens said...

I am so pumped about the ordinary folks who are working in the ARTSY FARTSY niche being bigger than the sports (pffft) crowd and agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined...not sure that I believe that but NYEH!

My daughters, both Dancers, call me everyday to make sure that I don't vote Tory (EVEN if they abolish the Young Offenders Act!?)because they cut the $45M.
I won't but if I keep taunting them and they keep getting more politically involved, then it's worth it.

Going back to your vid about Creativity being the new currency it is astounding how Canada 'punches above it's weight'.
Go us!

If the NDP, Greens, & Liberals quit splitting up the frickin' Left of Centre vote the Torys would be about as relevant as the Absolutely Absurd Party.

1/10/08 2:02 PM  
Blogger andie said...

"Wall Street bonuses amount to more than the entire world is paying in aid to Africa."

Wow. Sad, sad truth.

1/10/08 2:07 PM  
Blogger citizen of the world said...

We lose the arts, we lose our souls. It's as simple as that.

1/10/08 6:20 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Michelle: Interesting how a little perspective can change one's mood, isn't it?

Jafabrit: My pleasure.

Ellen: Ha! Great observation and oh, so true!

Donn: Isn't that a surprising statistic? I'm wondering why the left has forgotten that the existence of Stephen Harper and the Tories is due to the fact that with the right being split between the PC and Reform they were facing the same problem in the '90s? I think the Liberals/NDP/Greens need to do something similar.

Andie: And 75 million of the world's children don't go to school because there aren't any available for them! Tell that to the Fatcats on Wall Street who register their children for the most prestigious preschool before said children are even conceived (by their trophy wives).

Citizen: Souls? Surely you jest. These are politicians.

1/10/08 8:03 PM  
Blogger Melody said...

I cut this article out when I first read it and it now resides on the side of my fridge as a reminder.

2/10/08 5:08 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Brilliant piece. Thanks for sharing.

2/10/08 6:50 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Melody and Heather: Thanks for reading!

2/10/08 10:42 AM  
Blogger Michael Reid said...

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer.

2/10/08 10:56 AM  
Blogger Ian Lidster said...

The sad thing about all of this is that it's politically expedient for Harper and he knows that the average Joe Schmo probably doesn't (in Margaret's words) "give a toss" about kultcha. Never did. That's why so much TV is execrable, and why a Canuck schmuck like Howie Mandel does so well.
Thanks for the reprint.

2/10/08 11:51 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Michael: And is celebrated for it on a regular basis here in Canada.

Ian: Did you read this factoid: "The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events". I think he's deluded, like so many Canadians, because he sees the crap rising to the top and believes there's nothing underneath.

2/10/08 1:20 PM  
Blogger DONN COPPENS said...

OK, I confess that I watched about 15 seconds of our Political Debate on the Canadian Broadcorping Castration before going into somnambulistic shock and then flipped over and stayed glued to the Tina Fey impersonator.

I was astounded by her folksy-aw shucks colloquial language..

she does sound like she is addressing a grade one classroom...
and Biden, the Human Gaffe Machine, kept his piehole under control...

dammit I was hoping for a blunder or two.

3/10/08 6:21 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Donn: I tuned out after I realized that the flipping back and forth between channels was because I couldn't stand to watch either! Yikes.

3/10/08 8:23 AM  
Blogger Alda said...

Fantastic article. Bravo to Ms. Atwood. She sounds rightfully pissed!

When I left Canada it was on the cusp of moving from a cultural void to a cultural force. Canadians still undermined and undervalued their own artists but a lot of them were on the rise - k.d. lang was just starting to make it, Cowboy Junkies had just put out their first album, etc. and in the succeeding years I watched from afar as Canadian artists made a name for themselves worldwide.

The sense of non-appreciation for the arts was always one of the things that saddened me about Canada ... having come from an artistic family in Europe I desperately missed that element in the collective Canadian consciousness. I longed for Europe - and eventually gave up on Canada and moved back. I had hoped with its newfound confidence in the artistic realm that Canada had moved on and was starting to build an artistic foundation, which is why I am sad to read the above. I hope the above article has some impact.

3/10/08 4:52 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Alda: Thanks for your feedback as I have always wondered why I felt the void and was always looking eldewhere for role models/validation. It seems a crime to me that Harper's narrow vision should attempt to create regression just when we're making progress!

4/10/08 7:57 AM  
Blogger tlc illustration said...

Wow. Quite an article. I'd been following a little of Harper's statements via links from Canadian friends on Twitter (ahem), and found the ignorance amazing. Anyone who actually *knows* an artist or two also knows that lack of compensory income involved.

Ideology aside, with potential economic and political apocolypses hovering on the horizon I fear that things are going to be hard-pressed to get better, and very likely to become markedly worse.

Sorry. Not feeling optimistic today.

6/10/08 10:43 PM  
Blogger DONN COPPENS said...

pssst Andrea,
Cherrypie is back, pass it on!

9/10/08 4:31 PM  

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