Harper goes low-brow on Canadian arts

Harper lit a match under Canadian arts, and then the media turned it into a firestorm.

Consider this quote by Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.” (1)

All Harper is saying here is that people who use tax subsidies to host posh events shouldn’t be complaining that those subsidies are too low. It’s a variation of the “people in glass houses…” chestnut.

What Harper is suggesting is that the people who constitute the majority of Canada – the ordinary people – don’t appreciate the excess that he points out. Clearly, Harper hopes that “ordinary people” will side with him (read: vote for him). Harper can then legitimately cut back on spending for the arts.

The arts community naturally and justifiably got angry. But in doing so, they gave the media what they needed: two opposing sides on an issue. The media ran with this, blowing it out of all proportion by asking the “ordinary people” to comment on the value of the arts in Canadian culture. And you end up with ridiculous discussions like the ones at the Globe and Mail and Canoe.

It strikes me that Harper may have intended this all along. Make a relatively innocuous remark, knowing full well that it will spark a firestorm in the hands of the media. Harper gets what he wants (the marginalization of an absolutely essential but relatively small group of Canadians – artists) without getting his hands dirty.

Let’s go back to the source material, Harper’s words, and not worry so much about the ranting that followed.

First of all, the galas of which Harper speaks constitute only a negligible cost compared to all the other subsidized artistic activities in Canada. The amount of money saved by, say, cancelling these galas would not change the arts funding situation at all. So Harper is either misinformed (if he sincerely thinks the galas are a substantive source of “waste”), a poor debater (using one instance of a thing – posh galas – to condemn an entire category – artistic activities), devious (hoping people will misinterpret his words in a way that is advantageous to him), or stupid (he honestly thinks the arts aren’t needed in Canadian culture).

Unfortunately, none of these characteristics are those I would expect of a good Prime Minister.

Secondly, there’s an implication that artists are rich (based on their appearance at the posh galas). This has been picked up by Harper’s rivals too.

Jack Layton has rightly identified Harper’s remarks as “bizarre” – after all, we all know the cliché of the starving artist. It’s a cliché because it’s true. Stéphane Dion has stated the average artist only earns $23,000 a year. Not that Dion is the brightest crayon in the box, mind you, but he’s probably in the ballpark. In fact, only a tiny fraction of artists are rich – rather like the tiny fraction of people in the automotive sector that are rich (i.e. the CEOs). But we don’t see Harper lambasting Arturo S. Elias (President of GM Canada) – even though perhaps he should, considering GM’s recent corporate performance.

Thirdly, Harper sets up a false dichotomy: that if you’re “ordinary people,” then you’re against the arts. Not that he actually said this himself, but he has allowed the media to do his dirty work and create the dichotomy for him. After all, he hasn’t spoken up to correct the media, has he?

Harper then aligns himself with those “ordinary people.” Either he honestly believes he’s an ordinary person, or he just wants the ordinary people to be on his side (so that he’ll win the election).

The real problem here is that the “ordinary people” are wrong if they agree with Harper’s sentiment. They are wrong because even the most rudimentary study of history tells us that the arts are fundamental to the advancement of a culture. And if he honestly believes himself an ordinary person, then he’s admitting his own ignorance.

The arts matter because they are the spirit of a society. Science and philosophy are its brain; engineering and technology are its musculature; economics is its heart. And the arts are its spirit.

The arts are a mirror held up to us, so that we might better, more clearly see ourselves. The arts give voice to those of us who cannot find the words. The arts speak for us, and against us, and make us have to decide if we really like the way we are. The arts remind us of who we once were, and warn us of who we might someday become. The arts help us laugh and cry and enjoy the simple thrill of being emotionally engaged in our own existence.

And here’s a novel idea: why don’t we look at countries with comparable economic situations, and see how they fund the arts? We might learn a thing or two, don’t you think? Indeed, that’s exactly what Craig Offman suggested in his recent article in the National Post. He looked at a few countries in Europe (unquestionably the heart of Western culture and art) and discovered that the Netherlands is generally similar to Canada in economic terms, yet took a wonderfully different, positive, pro-active, and empowering approach to raising the quality of the arts. Could it be, Offman speculates, that a new approach to arts funding based on the Dutch model can address the economic issues and the artistic ones? We’ll never find out unless people like Harper actually undertake the study. And the way Harper acts, such an undertaking is just not on the books.

Without the arts, Canada would have no spirit. Without the arts, our society would be just a machine. And believe me, I know machines. It would appear that this is the kind of society that Stephen Harper wants, because he has done nothing to stop the firestorm on utterly misguided public debate on the matter.

The real question is: is this the kind of Prime Minister that you want?

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