||Up Front Barbara Carey The M-Force
USED TO THINK I WAS A WRITER. But that was before thelogic of the market economy became a kind of unified-field theoryapplying not only to the workings of leveraged buy-outs and your localmall, but even to non-commercial aspects of human society. (Perhaps inthe future some enterprising theoretician will prove that the m-force isalso behind the movement of the planets, but for now its influence is thoughtnot to extend to outer space.) Nowadays I`m actually a "culturalproducer," and as such a member of a significant economic sector.
It`s gratifying to think that writing a poem or twocontributes to the country`s gross domestic product, and I`m certainly glad tohave culture legitimized in the statistical graphs of Ottawa`s financial-policyanalysts. What good are the arts, after all, if their worth can`t be measuredto the second decimal place in categories such as "impact of the culturalsector on jobs" and "cash flow as a result of sectoralactivities"? (Forget fuzzy intangibles like "cultural identity"and "quality of life," which can`t be represented on a flow chart.Margaret Laurence once wrote that "... the artist affirms the value oflife itself arts advocates of the 1990s have sensibly updated this vague notionof why culture matters by attaching a dollar figure to it.)
To question the inevitability of the m-force isakin to admitting you belong to the Flat Earth Society, so I`m trying to getwith the program: reading studies from the C. D. Howe Institute, injecting anote of shrillness into my voice when I parrot the Bay Street gurus` take onthe deficit, and at times of existential doubt repeating my mantra - avariation on the friendly bankslogan - "I see what they see
Given how the m-force`s gravitational field hasexpanded, the strategy of artsfunding advocates is understandable. No morewafty, feel-good statements of how essential culture is to our nationalidentity - leave that to the campaign promises of politicians. Theemphasis is on the fact that public spending on the arts is an investment, nota hand-out, and terms like "cultural producer" are part of it.In other words, "that`s no frill, it`s a key area of economicgrowth!" There are the numbers to prove it, too. Establishing jobs in thecultural sector is 10 times cheaper than in fight industry, according toStatistics Canada. And of course there`s the usual happy consequence that whenpeople have money they spend it and pay taxes, too. (A recent Toronto Star article stated that "the annual payback ongovernment subsidies to the arts is estimated at $24 billion."
Butthe real value of the arts has nothing to do with how many jobs the sector creates/sustains,and I think it`s a mistake to focus so obsessively on the bottom line. There`sa Faustian bargain being struck here: give us our grant money and we`ll performaccording to the rules of your game. But legitimation works both ways: while culturedistinguishes itself as a profitable investment, the rationale of the marketeconomy in determining the national agenda is subtly reinforced. And this shiftin the perception of the arts is just part of a trend to consider everythingfrom the point of view of the balance sheet. As John Ralston Saul points out inThe Doubter`s Dictionary, "Economic truth has replaced such earlier truthsas an all-powerful God, and a natural Social Contract. Economics are thenew religious core of public policy. But what evidence has been produced to provethis natural right to primacy over other values, methods and activities?"
The Canada Council was founded, in 1957, becauseculture was regarded as an expression of national identity and thus an area inwhich the government had a responsibility. Arts funding was just part of ageneral commitment to civic life, to providing amenities - health care,libraries, parks, etc. - that benefit us collectively. The government issteadily pulling back, materially and philosophically, from this commitment. (Iknow, you`re thinking that that was a kinder, gentler, and monetarilyirresponsible time, and now we have - drum roll, please - thedeficit. I can`t discuss it in detail here, but please read Linda McQuaig`s Shooting the Hippo on deficithysteria; it`s an eye-opener.)
What it comes down to is what we expect of government.Ever since Plato, thinkers have debated how society should be organized andwhat role the state should play in the life of its citizens. Until recently,commerce has been considered only one aspect of community life; socialorganization had aims based on what was morally desirable as much aseconomically "efficient."
What we need is not a vociferous movement to demandarts funding because it`s good business; what we need is the political will topursue economic and social policies that benefit the majority of Canadians, notjust financial high-rollers. This can only happen if the monetaristagenda is dumped. For a start, it requires getting the mainstream media out ofthe grip of the m-force. I see what they see, all right. But I see itdifferently.
Barbara Carey`s most recent book is The Ground of Events (Mercury).