A widely held view in some parts of the political culture is that government funding for the Arts, including theatre, film, music, literature, painting and sculpture is a non-essential public service and is a facile, if not willing, sacrifice demanded by the gods of budget cutting programs and austerity measures. Perched on this outcropping of conservative logic, one can see the tops of all those artsy-fartsy heads buried in their mamas’ aprons bemoaning the cat’s cradle game which morphed once benevolent purse strings into malevolent nooses. It is almost impossible to feel any empathy for supporters of the Arts in such a clime.
Far from being a non-essential service, however, the Arts are an integral part of shaping and reflecting a country’s cultural identity and value system. They bind a nation together. They influence the way we view reality and ourselves, and provide great support to the public at large in focusing on the issues of values and beliefs facing our liberal democracies. They provide an important bastion for our cultural and multicultural heritage, the foundations of which must be sufficiently robust to support our approach to the changing world awaiting us. The Arts are a universal language which can transcend ethnic, historic, geographic and gender-based borders ultimately turning differences into understanding and opposition into cooperation.
We are endlessly schooled in austerity economics, through the authoritarian, patronizing voice of the government. We learn, as if by rote, that priorities respecting public funding should be tilted towards programs that promote economic growth and security such as the military and penal institutions. The almost cataclysmic effects of the Wall Street meltdown offered a propitious leg up to this school of thought. Just as the Japanese earthquake knocked the earth off its axis so too the economic crash skewed the importance of the above-mentioned sectors at the expense of the Arts.
Canadian nationhood is unique in the world. Not characterized by economic, historic, cultural or military accomplishment, our identity as a people was nurtured by the Arts in a subtle but profound diet. The Arts enabled diverse peoples to find a footing in a young nation and to move that nation forward. Insufficient funding in this area may lead to aggravation of national identity and, concomitantly, national unity. This is all the more poignant in a country where progressive, appreciative and humble multiculturalism is king. Our crowning achievements are tuques, turbans and yarmulkes not crowns.
Further buttressing the conservative distaste for funding of the Arts, is the myth that the Arts do not generate much wealth in the aggregate Gross Domestic Product. The fact is the Arts provide the muscle to drive people together in addressing issues of public concern, and they also provide much of the grist the private sector uses in basic mechanisms of marketing their wares, including the aesthetic values of product design. The lines linking the Arts to the GDP engine may be dotted and less direct than those of many other government supported sectors but this does not relegate them to a wasteland of small L liberal economic initiatives anymore than the fragile tendrils of the “butterfly effect” renders the chaos theory worthy of dismissal.
Should the Arts be forced to expose its bare neck to the sharp blade of the budget cutting guillotine, it could be more than just the head of the Arts landing in the basket. It could be the heart and soul of our national unity, disembodied from its people in a post-modern political culture.