“…in a democracy, every ordinary citizen is effectively a king – but a king in a constitutional democracy, a monarch who decides only formally, whose function is merely to sign off on measures proposed by an executive administration.”
I was reading Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce when #elxn41 was called, and these words struck me as all too poignant when watching coverage of the public’s negative reaction to the impending election. It speaks volumes to how impoverished our current model of democracy is when the act of voting (the only formal participation the average person is granted in this supposedly participatory system) is considered an inconvenient, ill-timed, and inefficient use of one’s time.
Žižek goes on to argue that representative democracy necessarily involves a passivization of the public, transferring our will onto a small group of agents who act it out for us. A crisis of democracy, therefore, is not “when people stop believing in their own power, but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines.”
It is in this context that I want to stress how necessary it is to embed the question of arts, arts funding, and government support of cultural development into the defining issues of every Canadian election (and at all moments between political milestones). Politics and arts are intimately linked: the institutions challenge and mirror one another, they feed each other, they make each other healthy – and, in turn, when one becomes neglectful, both suffer.
The challenge any writer faces on the issue of arts funding is to say something more than “the Conservative Party of Canada doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the issue.” Case in point: a survey by the Canadian Conference of the Arts polling the four major political parties on arts funding that yielded a pathetic 75% response rate. That the Conservatives wouldn’t deign to answer these questions is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of Canadians in the industry, and to the millions whose businesses and personal well beings rely on a thriving arts and culture scene.
Is it possible that the Conservatives’ lack of response is justified? Look to the comment threads at the bottom of any CBC article referencing arts funding and you’ll get a diatribe full of colourful language and anti-pinko sentiment from people across the country who think that the arts are not only a massive drain on our economy but could potentially herald the apocalypse. Are they merely representing the “majority” who don’t think the questions should be asked? (This fervent anti-culture sentiment has always been a mystery to me, by the by. In the grand scheme of things, the money going to arts and culture is really a nominal figure when you consider the total number of government dollars being allocated to non-profit projects across the country.)
The Harper Government’s lack of response to the CCA survey should be all too familiar to Toronto voters. On September 29, then-mayoral hopeful Rob Ford gave a similarly dismissive response to the issue of arts funding in an all-candidates debate at the AGO. With a woeful lack of preparedness, a general disinterest toward the issue, no policy statements whatsoever beyond thisisaprivatesectorissueleavemealone, Rob Ford’s disrespectful display of apathy shocked me at the time. (but I can be pretty naive)
What we can see from these examples is that the challenge arts advocates face today is to effect a change of political culture. Both influencers and the electorate need to better understand the significance of a thriving Canadian culture. The issue of “arts funding,” therefore, is a potentially dangerous one, because the issue of dollars spent is secondary to the importance of what is being supported. We should not be forced to advocate for the arts on economic impact alone. To do so misrepresents what it is we’re advocating for. The opposition forces artists to endlessly repeat economic impact assessments that stress that the arts are sustainable, that they contribute to the tourism sector, that there is a measurable return on investment for public sector funders….none of these cold hard numbers come close to representing the power and potential of the arts industry.
I have always believed that the place of arts in a community is analogous to, and more effective than, religious institutions. The artist and the preacher both tell stories that give meaning to our lives, stories that help us understand one another and ourselves. The artist, however, goes further: s/he encourages dissent, begs for criticism, demands to be challenged and to be given an opportunity to respond to that challenge passionately, honestly, and (of course) entertainingly. Adversity is, after all, the most important stimulus for growth.
With this in mind, how can an arts advocate be asked to quantify quality of life? How can we be asked to put a dollar value on personal and societal growth? How do you measure an institution that is mandated to make our living conditions better, to give people an outlet to make themselves better, to be heard and challenged and connected with?
Is this not what our political institutions are also mandated to do? If artists are forced to advocate for their right to exist, shouldn’t we demand the same of our governments?
Any Canadian with a vested interest in the state of the nation must be informed and opinionated on the place of arts and culture in our society, and on the government’s role in supporting the sector and creating conditions wherein arts and culture can flourish. Perhaps I generalize too much, but in my observations of the topics of “Canadian Culture” and “Canadian Identity” I see questions, not statements. Who are we? Who do we want to be? As a nation, Canada is in a perpetual state of self-analysis. Our cultural products are questions. Sometimes they’re anxieties. At all times they are a state of flux, of constantly changing self-awareness. Canada is the epitome of postmodernism, and conditions are ripe for growth, for artistic exploration, for cultural accomplishment.
The arts, in other words, are perpetually active. Unlike Žižek’s political subjects, artists and audiences are always agents and are always participating in a passionate dialogue over who we are and what we can be.
I believe that individuals choose careers in politics because they believe they can change the world for the better. I believe the same of artists. Politics and arts have the same goals and the same driving force: a well-intentioned, curious, passionate social body. These two institutions are meant to work in tandem, to challenge and support one another, and to serve as a locus for incredible social upheavals and successes.
I hope that tomorrow the Canadian public does not identify as an electorate, does not identify as a mass with one opportunity every few years to say something. I hope they recognize that a dynamic avenue exists for them to speak and be heard, and that they deserve a government that will support it at whatever cost.