Art to Ottawa; Propaganda to Me


 The National Post Comment, April 2004



Did our Heritage Minister really give the CRTC credit for Shania Twain? Too delicious for words. She did, you know, on Monday. Direct quote: "We would not have a Shania Twain or Celine Dion without the CRTC." This is just as good as Paul Martin saying he is going to restore health care, after 10 years spent gutting it. Reality up there in Ottawa is getting very Trekkie.

But Shania. I watched Shania get her first big break close-up. South African born, U.K.-domiciled Mutt Lange, the most successful rock producer in history, saw a Shania video on European television and developed a huge crush on the singer. The video in question was from a song from Shania's first and most undistinguished CD, which was cut in Nashville, where she was, at the time, living. Lange flew from London (England) to Nashville, they struck a deal, made a record, got married, the rest is history. The CRTC had bugger all to do with it, and I would bet big money that Celine too would have broken out of Quebec even if Rupert Murdoch owned all the radio stations.

Which is the panicked scenario that the Heritage Minister, Helene Chalifour Scherrer, is trumpeting, if Stephen Harper wins. "In essence, what Stephen Harper and his party want to do is to give away our cultural sovereignty," she said this week, in a shockingly partisan speech delivered to the annual Banff Festival. "A Conservative government would essentially signal the end of the Canadian broadcasting system. They would destroy the fundamental elements of our system and would abandon control of our airwaves to big American corporations. Do we want Rupert Murdoch to be in control of our cultural policies?"

Putting aside the fallacy that the CRTC created these two songbirds, why pick them? Did Scherrer use Shania and Celine because no one would recognize anyone that her ministry has been funding? Canadian culture, quick, what is it? Drawing a blank? Me too. Margaret Atwood? Does she need a grant?

Of course there are thousands of Canadian artists of various disciplines funded by dozens of federal, provincial and municipal departments. Being an official artist in Canada, once you jump yourself onto the approved list, can be a reasonably good living. And how lucky Canadian artists are compared to Americans! The Canada Council alone provides 10 times more money to Canada's artists per capita than America's National Endowment for the Arts. And there is so much more. Even a day spent reading about the various and many programs from External Affairs, Heritage, Human Resources and so on, shows just how deep a trench of funding is available.

And just how very many commissions and status reports there have been. In fact, it is quite possible to spend your entire life as a cultural bureaucrat, flying around the world, or tucked up in a nice university in a good part of town, talking to other cultural bureaucrats, writing reports and journals, that only other cultural bureaucrats read, and that we, the taxpayer pay for. A list of conferences and Commissions in the last 10 years alone would overwhelm this page. All of which centre around one theme: fighting American product. In a divine paradox that makes one glad to be alive, the only country that does not have any cultural policy at all, America, is the country whose cultural product is thrashing that of every other country in their home markets.

Which means our cultural policy, and that of most other countries, boils down to anti-Americanism. Which I would argue is not a cultural policy, but racism, but never mind. We are not American. And so we fund anything that proves that, generally putting us through the meat grinder of race, class and gender. As a result, few of us read the novels or watch the films we fund. 1997's The Sweet Hereafter was the first Canadian film to make money since 1986. How is it possible that with all this well-trained, well-funded talent, that we cannot make one movie in 11 years, which breaks even?

Well we can't and this is why: our stated official policy of multiculturalism. And as U.S. critic Joseph Epstein said in 1995, "once one starts playing this particular game, essentially the only really relevant fact becomes not the quality of the work, but which category it fits into: black composers, women painters, gay/lesbian poets, and the rest of the multicultural melange." It has little to do with merit, good art or good entertainment.

"Art', Epstein went on to say, "is seen as social justice and political enlightenment carried on by other means." Little wonder that the burdened middle classes of this country do not want to use up their few hours of relaxation, being lectured to about their, or their ancestors' racism, sexism, exploitation, consumerism, philistinism, propensity towards child abuse and general unworthiness. They'd rather watch The OC.

Who can blame them? But what is clear, given the massive ramping up of cultural funding over the past 20 years, that Canadians want the arts to flourish. What we're paying for, I argue, is propaganda that pleases only bureaucrats and the academy.