Screw the Arts

27 Oct

The other day I mentioned on Facebook how much time it took to apply for a Canada Council grant. I received a number of sympathetic murmurs before the inevitable: It would save you time if we abolished the Canada Council and let consumers buy the books they want.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that remark during my 25 year involvement in the arts, I wouldn’t need to apply for a grant.

But I get it – certain taxpayers don’t want to pay for things they don’t approve of or like. For example, I’ve never been robbed or mugged (plus crime rates are falling); why do I have to pay more every year for policing and prisons? Here’s a solution: when you call 911, the second bit of info they take, after your address, is your VISA card number. Make the consumer of police services pay for the level of policing they want.

You can make an even better case for the military. Say the government proposes sending troops to a foreign country – Iraq, for example. Taxpayers should have an opt-out clause. If you don’t support the invasion, you don’t have to pay. Those who really support it have to pay extra. Let the market determine our foreign policy! I could go on: never had kids; why pay for education? Old Age Security – why are we paying to keep those non-productive parasites alive!

This may sound extreme – even a bit crazy – yet it’s not all that far from what some very right-wing libertarians propose. (BTW, according to the Political Compass, I’m a left-wing libertarian myself: a regular Dali Lama without the spiritual side). It’s one of those slippery slope things, as they like to say. Let’s get rid of the arts; then we can get rid of public education and eventually John Galt will appear and we can all bow down and kiss his ass.

Like I’m going to line up to do that.

So why should public funds be used to support art? There are lots of reasons. My favorite: in the 1950s, the CIA funneled money to abstract impressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollack, in order to demonstrate to the world that in democratic America even wildly unpopular art (and it was) could flourish. More recently, studies have shown that cities with a vibrant cultural life also have a more dynamic economic life. It’s not the money that brings the art; it’s the art that brings the money. More prosaically, art is good for people on an emotional and psychological level – it makes them better people which leads to a better society. And by better, I mean, healthier, less violent, more productive, wealthier: all the things the unfettered market is supposed to deliver but somehow never quite achieves.

Still, you might ask, why should we specifically support publishers (or film makers or orchestras)? Even people who might acknowledge the value of supporting – to a point – individual artists, question why large scale artistic endeavours should be funded with tax dollars. The simple answer is: if they weren’t, they would go away. There are those who wouldn’t mind that – but they like the color gray as well.

The more complicated answer has to do with how we nurture creativity. I spent time working for an artist-in-school program and was constantly told that everyone is creative; everyone is an artist. Children, teachers, parents – they were all just as creative and artistic as the professional artists, just not quite as skilled. Sure, and we’re all surgeons, too, just not as skilled. Let me tell you, based on my experience reading the slush pile, most people are not very creative at all. They are clichéd, derivative copy-cats. Sorry – hard truth. Even creative people are not creative all the time.

Creativity is hard and it takes time to develop. Someone may be inspired and prodigies appear but the reality is: one-hit wonders do not a creative career make. It requires focus, time, effort and constant pushing of the limits. Becoming an artist is not like becoming an engineer or an accountant. Nobody really wants a ‘creative’ engineer or, unless they’re in the Mob, a ‘creative’ accountant. I’d like that bridge to stay standing and my tax audit to go smoothly. To produce artists, we need a combination of individual support for artists to master their skills and develop their creative genius and we need to support institutions like orchestras, art galleries, theatres and publishing houses where they can practice their trade and eventually reach their audience.

The exact same argument can be made for the nurturing of scientific creativity – which we do through grants and through support for research at public institutions like universities. Interestingly enough, there is a strong body of research that shows a direct link between artistic and scientific creativity – but that’s a topic for someone else’s blog.

Of course, the market plays a role. Even small publishers have dreams of selling enough books to be able to go it on their own. But dreams are seldom closely attuned to reality. It costs money to publish books and it costs money to sell them. The margins are thin. Most books lose money – even in big publishing houses. The few that are profitable subsidize the rest. This is also true in film-making, where one film in ten make a bundle while five are money losers. Financial independence is an important goal. One of the factors in determining whether public funds are channeled to the arts should be (and is) what efforts are being made to improve sales and audience reach. Arts Councils vary in the emphasis they place on those factors but they all include them. But they also recognize the sad truth: arts may drive economic growth without ever being economically viable. It’s a bit like paved roads and water systems; consumers pay for part of the use but it makes economic sense for the general public to pay the rest. Municipal infrastructure drives economic growth and even those, like me, who don’t use the roads much benefit from having them in place.

But we could let the market decide. Then, when you wonder where your favorite quirky writer went, they went into the black-hole of money-losing, career-ending books. If you rely on the market to deliver the cultural goods, you better get used to reading a lot of the same thing. Twilight, anyone? And all you’ll get out of Hollywood are re-makes and sequels. Oh, wait.

Even crowd-sourcing through Indiegogo or Kickstarter – a kind of modified market approach – tends not to deliver for new artists or outré projects. Veronica Mars raised millions because they promised to make a SEQUEL – not because they promised something original.

Every democracy supports the arts. Some more than others. Canada is in the lower half of that pack by the way. We spend more public money on art (per capita) than the United States but less than Berlin. But even the USA is no slouch; the National Endowment for the Arts has an annual budget of over $150M and though it doesn’t directly support publishing (except at universities), plenty of state and municipal governments do. The latter do it for the same reason Canada and many smaller countries do – to ensure local and regional, even national voices, aren’t drowned out in the roar of the bestseller list and to create vibrant local communities and economies.

Of course, we could get rid of the arts councils and go back to the old system: the patronage of rich people. So, anyone want to cut me a cheque?

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2 Responses to “Screw the Arts”

  1. John Seed October 27, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    Awesome arguement ! never heard it put quite that way! Right on Man!

  2. Alison Sinclair October 29, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    The decades of support that Canadian granting agencies gave writers, small press magazines, and small press book publishers (among many others), fertilized the creative ecosystem that produced this year’s Nobel Prize winner.

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