The Culture Wars Come To Canada

Pascal Blanchet poster, via Drawn and Quarterly.

I have an article on how the culture wars came to Canada, which can be read on the National Post’s website.

Harper’s Kulturkampf

Unexpectedly, culture has become a major issue in the Canadian election. Until this year, Canada had been largely exempt from the sort of wrangling over arts funding that blighted American politics in the 1980s and 1990s when moral paragons like Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani made hay out of taxpayer money going to fund supposedly smutty photos and allegedly blasphemous paintings. Canadian conservatives, whatever their other failings, have never gone in for the sort of scolding philistinism that has often characterized the American right. Indeed, the last Conservative leader who held a majority government at a national level, Brian Mulroney, was notably generous and thoughtful in his support of arts funding.

Stephen Harper has changed all that. Casting himself as the voice of the common man, he has decried the arts community as elitist. At a recent campaign stop in Saskatchewan, Harper said, “I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people, you know, at 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.”

There is much that can be said about this sort of pseudo-populism. First of all, unlike the Bay Street boys who finance the Tory party, most artists are not particularly wealthy: The writers and artists I know tend to enjoy a decidedly lower-middle class life (at best). Anyone who knows how culture is produced in contemporary Canada will tell you that the biggest patron of the arts is not the government or the rich, but artists themselves (and the families of artists). Most of the good books that get written in Canada, as well as the good painting and the good sculpting or the good anything, are created through unpaid labour: Art is made by people who take part time jobs or jobs that are low-intensity enough to let them do their real work at home. Equally often, art is made by people who have very indulgent spouses. The government also gives money to the arts, but that’s really just the extra bit of juice needed to get books published or allow gallery shows to travel.

I’m open to the libertarian argument that the government shouldn’t be funding the arts at all. (Although I have less sympathy with the many free-market hypocrites who are happy to slash arts funding while also asking the U. S. government to bail out Wall Street investment firms). What I object to is the framing of this issue as a battle between ordinary citizens and elitist artists. Artists themselves are ordinary citizens, often from backgrounds far humbler than those of Harper and his Cabinet.

A few examples will suffice: Canada’s best young writer is K. D. Miller, whose short stories are painfully, heartbreakingly exquisite. For many years, Miller has earned a living recording audio books. One of the world’s greatest literary editors is Ottawa’s John Metcalf, who for decades has discovered and edited scores of young writers, including Russell Smith and K. D. Miller. Metcalf hasn’t received a cent for the 100-plus books he’s shepherded into print. The cartoonist Seth is much beloved and internationally famous, having appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Yet for most of the last two decades, the majority of his time has been taken up with commercial illustration, stultifying work that helps pay the bills.

These are the type of people who enrich Canada. Contrary to Mr. Harper’s fantasies, none of them are spending much time sipping champagne at galas.

Considering the economic and career sacrifices that are habitually made by artists in order to do work they love, it seems incredibly churlish to heap scorn on these men and women as being contemptible high-brows, snooty and pretentious snobs living high off the public hog.

Fortunately, Harper’s Kulturkampf seems to be backfiring. In Quebec, where the survival of culture is a serious matter, Harper’s pretend populism has damaged his party’s chance for success. Fittingly, Harper’s tone-deafness to Quebec’s cultural distinctness might cost him the majority government he craves.

Perhaps the lesson here is that you shouldn’t talk about culture unless you have some knowledge of it. Harper is not a dumb man: He would never make tax policy without talking to economists or energy policy without consulting scientific experts. Yet he’s happy to talk about culture without having any real contact with artists. Harper’s boorish unfamiliarity with culture has led him to blunder into politically dangerous terrain.

4 thoughts on “The Culture Wars Come To Canada

  1. Isn’t this a case of reaping what you sow when you put too many of your eggs in one political basket? Mulroney might have been a generous patron of the arts, but fat lot of good it did him. I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard that pointed out, and this time it’s being used as a stick with which to beat Harper.

  2. Mark,
    I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the arts community put all their eggs in one basket. Sure most of them might have supported other parties than the Tories (as do most Canadians: the Tories haven’t won a majority government in nearly 20 years). Still, prior to Harper picking a fight, the funding of culture wasn’t a political issue in Canada. He choose to make it one, because he thought he could score some populist points. Then the arts community responded. So I don’t see anyone to blame but Harper himself.

    In general, I think people were a bit too scornfull of Mulroney when he was in power. In retrospect some (but only some) of his policies seem wise, especially with regard to the enviroment and cultural funding.

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