The Presumption of Culture:
Structure, Strategy, & Survival

160 pages,
ISBN: 1551920131

Post Your Opinion
So Where & What Next?
by Ian Coutts

If the French can decorate Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone for their contributions to art, then surely something-maybe some soapstone sculpture currently gathering dust at 24 Sussex Drive-can be given to Tom Henighan for the service he renders to the arts in Canada in The Presumption of Culture.
Last fall saw a couple of "Whither Canada?" books-notably Peter Newman's From Deference to Defiance and Richard Gwyn's Nationalism without Walls-and we can expect more this autumn, as a belated reaction to last October's referendum. In The Presumption of Culture, Henighan, a novelist and professor of English at Carleton University, asks a slightly more specific question, Whither Canadian Culture? While the book's style is closer to that of Richard Hughes in his Culture of Complaint than Gwyn's or Newman's, Henighan is not very different in his concerns from those two. Culture is his starting-point, but in the end he's talking about national survival. For him, Canada's existence will depend at least as much on a thriving culture as on politics or economics-perhaps more, in our free-trade, maybe post-nation-state world.
The culture Canadians enjoy today, Henighan reminds us, is a fairly recent development, not much more than forty years old. Before that existed, not a void, but as he makes clear, so little that it now seems hard to imagine: "Were things really that bad? Could there have been only fourteen works of fiction published in English Canada in 1951? Were there really only three or four professional theatre companies? In the whole country? Were musical performances mainly carried out in church basements and school gymnasiums? The answer, amazingly, is, `Yes.'"
It was the Royal Commission under Vincent Massey that led the way to the change. The Canada Council was set up in 1957 in response to its recommendation, in what became known as the Massey Report, that the government step in to encourage Canadian culture. Thanks largely to the Council, and the support the government gave the CBC and the NFB and, later, Telefilm and the National Arts Centre, Canadian culture blossomed. Today, Canada boasts numbers of dance companies, theatres, and publishing houses, numerous symphony orchestras, even a film industry of sorts. In recent years, Canadian artists have been finding audiences outside Canada, too. This cultural flowering, says Henighan, was largely, though not exclusively, thanks to government support.
To be sure, when Henighan talks about culture, it is high culture ("aesthetic culture" is his phrase) he has in mind, the world of classical music, painting, serious theatre, and literature. That the distinction between high and low culture (or "entertainment culture", as he calls it) isn't always clear-cut, Henighan himself admits, especially in our wacky, mix 'n' match postmodern world. But his use of this distinction still works: we may not be able to explain the difference between, for example, Murray Schafer's work and Alanis Morissette's, but we know there is one. His preference for aesthetic culture over entertainment culture is more than personal taste. Only aesthetic culture, he feels, has "the depth of perspective, the critical material, and the emotional anchoring" to resist the onslaught of today's international (read American) popular culture. In his view, entertainment culture is so American-dominated, financially and in content and outlook, that even where Canadians succeed in creating successful examples of it (as in the case of such TV shows as Due South and Traders, for example), they are Canadian in name only.
Today, Henighan says, Canadian culture is in trouble, despite all its successes. After years of funding of cultural agencies with "increases" only at or below the rate of inflation, our tightwad federal government is now actively cutting budgets at the CBC, the NFB, and elsewhere. This year, the Canada Council, anticipating its political masters a little too obsequiously, voluntarily cut its own spending. Blame it on a neo-conservative atmosphere: the Andrew Coynes of this world, keen-eyed for costs but oblivious to values, look at arts funding and see only government handouts to industries that can't make it on their own.
To make matters worse, Canadian culture, according to Henighan, is under attack from the left as well, from assorted advocates of identity politics in a country growing ever more diverse, and from the postmodernists now firmly ensconced in our universities. No-one has captured this latter group and their response to art as succinctly as Henighan does in one of the book's best passages: "These politically frustrated inactivists and their ideological allies have moved away from both the concrete and the aspirational sides of art and have landed us in a dreary wasteland of their own imagining, where nothing exists except human power (exercised always as oppression). In this kingdom every idea is tainted, and the evil father rules, thrice murdered (by Darwin, Marx, and Freud), yet still fettering his powerless children."
The general audience, whose attitudes fall between the two poles of left and right, seem to be sitting out a lot of cultural events, perhaps parked in front of their computers or their TVs, at any rate not in theatres or concert halls. Although there are more educated people than ever before, and more cultural choices available to them, the audience for serious culture has not grown proportionately. Beyond that, Henighan feels, we have reached the end of one stage of our cultural development but haven't worked out where to go next.
To overcome the crisis, he proposes a number of innovations, and these take up much of the second half of The Presumption of Culture. To streamline and consolidate various arts programs, we should create a specific ministry of culture (and a separate ministry of mass communications to look after the CBC, the CRTC, and film). Artists from diverse backgrounds should be encouraged to contribute to the mainstream, rather than winding up in state-perpetuated ethnic ghettos. The Canada Council should concentrate on supporting major arts institutions, and cut out most grants to individual artists. The latter type of program, Henighan says, has never worked well anyway, often rewarding not the best artists, but those with friends or ideological champions on the awards juries. To give culture a place on television, we should create a commercial-free CBC 2. Beyond that, the Canadian art scene should be decentralized as much as possible, bringing the funding bodies closer to the artists and their local communities. Finally, the schools should do a better job of arts education.
Some of these ideas are quite simple and eminently practical-ending Canada Council grants to individual artists, for example. Others, such as slapping together super-ministries or creating new TV networks, seem fairly far-fetched. They are reminiscent of the off-kilter recommendations that coroner's juries sometimes make, demanding that all children's sleepers be made of asbestos or that pedestrians be compelled to wear crash helmets.
But even Henighan's more off-the-wall suggestions shouldn't be dismissed completely. Instead, they might serve as a useful starting-point for a discussion about what we can do to preserve Canadian culture. For make no mistake, Henighan is right that there is a crisis: of money and, equally importantly, of faith. Anyone who watched Donna Scott, head of the Canada Council, tell the audience gathered for last year's Governor General's Awards that those lazy old artists should get their thumbs out and seek partnerships with business would agree that our arts organizations have lost their way. And even a skeptic must admit that the establishment of the CBC or of the Canada Council was as radical as some of his suggestions, but came about with very little bother. Have we lost the knack for this sort of nation-building?
Finally, you have to admire Henighan's passion. For him, a novel, a visit to an art gallery, and a musical or theatrical performance are more than ways to kill a few hours; they are an exploration of ourselves (as individuals and Canadians) and of our common humanity. In his eyes, to be a Canadian is a heroic undertaking. "We are," he says, " a country that is condemned to live creatively amid unresolvable tensions." What a wonderful characterization, especially when Canada is typically pitched to its dispirited citizens either as some sort of federal-provincial Am-Way franchise or as a group health insurance scheme with geography. Artists, encouraged but not guided or censored, can teach us about living in doubt, celebrating "our permanent place at the tension point of irreconcilable opposites." It's cheering to think that our songs and our stories can do this for us, and that if cultivated they could act as a form of national defence. What better reason could we have for supporting them? Thank heavens for Henighan, for having the presumption to think culture matters.

Ian Coutts is an editor at Madison Press.


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