This is a piece written by Margaret Atwood in response to Stephen Harper's cuts to the arts.
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!"
I'd like to also add a point to those who tell the artists to quit whining, that the 4.6 million dollars of cuts only constitutes a drop in the bucket, that overall its not really that much. In looking at the bigger picture, you completely miss the little things, the everyday ways that are effected by this loss. I'm certain that four million dollars are not mere pennies to the 'ordinary' Canadian. Four million dollars would go quite the way for many an artist, musician, curator, director, actor, comedian, educator, gallery, workshop program, radio broadcaster, writer, and well, you get the picture. Most artists are not gala*-going, rich disconnected elitists. In fact, artists that do live comfortably could not have done so for the most part without grant support. It's very hard to work full-time on creation when you are out working in other jobs just to pay your rent.
And anyone notice that the programs cut from the budget are the ones that affect visibility and accessibility to Native populations? So much for that apology for Canada's historic (and current) treatment earlier this year, eh Mr. Harper?
*Galas, by the way, in which his wife attends. Galas which are thrown by big-wigs in order to raise money to supplement the grants. Galas, which do not compromise the majority of the time spent by artists. Galas, which I'm pretty sure none of the people directly affected by the cuts (which by the way involved pulling money out of already existing programs right from under their feet) are going to.