By Dr Patrick Finn
Recently, I had a front row seat for a profoundly instructive story about Art and arts policy. I have worked as an artist, arts educator and sometimes policy-maker for more than thirty years. Something that just happened in Canada, shook my world to the core. To frame the story, I will start with my understanding of three key terms, then tell you what happened and finish with some tentative conclusions.
I believe art replicates the creative force of the universe. Those who commit to art dedicate their lives to practice in service of creation. There is no promise of wealth, security, or success. Artists constantly strive for the unattainable and rarely – if ever - experience satisfaction. Their endeavours inspire us, celebrate the best of life, and are among the few elements of society that outlive us.
We live at the time of the greatest technological change in human history. Remembering that helps us make sense of our world. Expect chaos, the transformation or obliteration of systems, and focus on adaptation and everything gets easier. Historically, when such transformations occur, turning to art has proven to be helpful when adapting to rapid change.
We are called to service. The name for that service is politics. Over the past few decades, art criticism gradually disappeared from magazines and papers but grew as a conversation about arts or culture policy. Government-based arts groups focus on content more than form because politicians study society, not aesthetics. Form and content are the essential components of art, but because content is easier and more exciting to talk about, form fares poorly in the public square.
Canada just did an exceptional job revising our arts policy. The Ministry in charge filled gaps in the old model and addressed challenges caused by digital technology.
The Honourable Minister Mélanie Joly held wide-ranging consultations. She doubled funding, added a new stream for Indigenous Art, a new digital arts category, and a separate set of funds to help artists and arts groups adapt to life in the 21st Century. Canadians are better off and better prepared for the future, arts funding is way up, and the problems we identified were addressed.
How did we thank Minister Joly and her team for this monumental effort? She was relentlessly attacked and eventually shuffled to a new cabinet position. The press described the move as a demotion for a Minister who failed arts and culture.
The criticism in public meetings and the press did not talk about art, but focused on the defence of culture. The narrative portrayed the Honourable Minister as a naïve person who was out-manoeuvred. Harsher critics described a cultural sellout.
The problem with this description is that it does not fit what happened. Opposing the plan is a defensible position, but the scale and scope of work demonstrates competence and commitment that runs counter to the ad hominem attacks.
We are left with a nagging question. Minister Joly could have doubled funding and left our broken policy alone. That approach would take less effort and almost guarantee improved political standing. Why work so hard to address thorny policy problems?
I was left with an uncomfortable question: is giving money to artists political suicide?
In times of change, all choices are painful. Adapting is what is required, but conservation is what we desire. When reworking art and arts policy in these times, we face a conundrum. If we do the right thing, we will suffer. Maintain the status quo, and you will diminish the art that can comfort and inspire us during these challenging moments.
My students are fond of labelling difficult moments “adulting.” When doing the right thing all but guarantees pain, you know you are “adulting.” If you are like me, in such moments you are tempted to change the subject to escape or postpone pain. Perhaps we could call this “Hamlet-ing.” We know what we should do but put it off with poetry and one more play.
One way to escape pain is to stop talking about art and focus on arts, creativity, and culture. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone participated in the arts, felt creative, and engaged in culture?” This content is easy to sell and carries little risk. That is why arts policy is so important, and so hard. Art reliably leads to the good things described in conversations about arts, creativity and culture, but supporting art is not popular. Which takes us back to politics, where popularity is everything.
If a politician works to address our concerns and directs more public funds to artists, what should we do? Why not say, “thank you?” When a politician commits resources to art and we do not help them with votes, it sends the message that helping artists is political suicide. I also worry about the political costs of what happened in Canada. The Minister tried to do the right thing. She did what she said she would and did so in broad constant consultation. I am an artist, not a politician, but that sounds like the kind of politics we want and need.
Canadians are fortunate. Our new model is not perfect, but it is so good it gives me confidence in our future. Minister Joly and her work will be vindicated by time. The reason I am sharing a few challenges from an otherwise positive experience is to suggest that if we get lucky enough to work with a politician willing to try and do the right thing, we might want to consider supporting them publicly. That sounds easy, but it is not. Most of us never imagined that we would ever say, “that politician did a good job,” or “arts funding got better” in our lifetimes. Artists reject popularity, while politicians embrace it, but if they are willing to meet us in the middle we might want to consider creative approaches.
Dr. Patrick Finn is Director, Computational Media Design, and Associate Professor in the School of Creative and Performing Arts, University of Calgary. Finn is the founding Artistic Director of the Theatre Lab Performance Institute, inaugural Chair of Research and Innovation, Edmonton Digital Arts College, and holds board appointments in arts, education, and performance. His last book, Critical Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking with Creativity (WLU Press, 2015), was recorded as part of a free toolkit for scholarly audiobooks. His next two projects are: Inviting Texts: The History of Information Technology and Meaning; and, Perform: Dramatic Change for the World.