Friday, December 05, 2008

No Portrait Gallery until you've paid off your credit card!

Further to yesterday's post, with the recent cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery, it seems as though the Harper government has shown its hand with respect to "the arts".

Or not. The irony of this boondoggle is that it is entirely of the Conservative government's making. They cancelled the Ottawa gallery as it was set to open, and tried to move it at the last minute to Calgary for purely partisan reasons.

To be honest, I actually like the idea of housing national cultural institutions across the country instead of concentrating them in the national capital, but doing this at the last minute was an act of political stupidity. Stephen Marche actually argues here that this is the worst thing the feds have done to Alberta since the NEP. (Don't worry Stephen, after this week, I suspect everyone in Alberta has forgotten they've pulled the plug on this as well as the Commons)

They pulled the trigger on Portrait Gallery because they were wasting money, and governmental pride, universal to government of all political stripes, eliminated the possibility of letting the Ottawa gallery open under its original mandate.

The government's PR explanation, that it's the economic downturn is of course a smokescreen. But this smokescreen will be successful because, like the brass at CBC, Conservatives know that Canadians, philistines that they are, will be more than happy to sacrifice art for the economy.

English Canada's capacity for cultural self-loathing has few limits: "Everyone, gather your paintings, your books and your records, and use them to stoke the flames of your furnaces, for we must sacrifice art in this time of need!"

English Canadians embody the paradox of our age when it comes to art. We are, on the one hand, obsessed with a work of art's economic or exchange value. We bristle at the fact that they, as taxpayers, own something we do not like or "enjoy", (or understand) as though the mass media we consume is something we enjoy, acting as though mass entertainment is the product of a monthly census sent to every household, as though people get to choose from a wide range of aesthetic styles and dramatic genres.

On the other hand, we are remarkably quick to toss any works exchange value in the trash and sacrifice it like a fatted calf to the Economy. In times of need, who can we even talk about funding the arts? Let's close down the galleries and orchestras until the economy improves!

Does anyone else see where this takes us? The money has already been spent on the art, on the facilities, but we shouldn't ever see them a) because no one wants to and b) it is an insult to the people who are suffering in this economic downturn.

Except Canadians haven't really been affected by it yet. But if there's one thing that unites the left and the right in Canada, it's a resolute opposition to "circuses".

It seems, at least to me, that we are in a virtually intractable situation with respect to art and culture here in Canada.

We function as though the public/private distinction is hard and fast, that one is noble while the other is degrading. One would think that if the recent financial troubles had taught us anything, it's that governments are as much a part, indeed they are the foundation, of a functioning market, and not in some kind of brute opposition to them. English Canadians do not appear to have understood this, and we continue to live in the culture wars rhetoric of the mid-1990's.

Most striking are all the self-professed "art lovers" come out of the woodwork with their false piety to proclaim that we need to close all the galleries and opera companies until the economy improves, we must all do our part, like in war time, except that we don't appear to sacrifice anything in war time, (What's Afghanistan? A skirmish?).

Of course, also have the free-market types who are always quick to talk about "my tax dollars" (never ours) going to things "I don't see" (makes one wonder why they they don't mind paying for wars they don't see either), a classic reductionist argument which nonetheless has remarkable traction, due to the near universal self-loathing of the English Canadian bourgeois "art lover".

The crux of all this is just how much both types desire cuts to arts funding, to culture, because deep down inside, the culture industry has taught them that to enjoy government supported art is to sin, that public art has the taint of blood money. The conservative free-marketer just sits back on his or her ideology, laughing at the easy success of their cruelty, while the art lover is consumed with liberal guilt for watching precious tax dollars find their way to something that doesn't directly materially benefit them in some way.

In other words, they are all part of the same rhetorical game about the arts in Canada, and it's not a game that sees art as a winner, but as a parasite to efficiency and moreover, a threat to the quality of life of most Canadians.

That even the art lover believes this deep down inside is perhaps the most demoralizing aspect of our discourse right now.

No comments: