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Margaret Atwood: nice essay, shame you screwed up the ending

Lots of people (just today, for some reason) are pointing me to Margaret Atwood’s essay in the Globe & Mail last week attacking Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comment on arts funding. Naturally the people pointing it out see as a masterful bit of skewering of the Prime Minister. I think she hurt her cause among non-arts-community-types by slipping into silly hyperbole at the end.

First, the Prime Minister’s quote:

“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, 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.”

Harper pointed out that he has increased the overall budget at the Department of Canadian Heritage by 8 per cent, but he said he had to trim some arts funding. “Ordinary people understand we have to live within a budget,” he said.

Now, the part of Atwood’s commentary I thought was terrific:

Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums (sic) we have been putting our creativity into our cultures – cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. “Ordinary people” pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. “The arts” are not a “niche interest.” They are part of being human.

Moreover, “ordinary people” are participants. They form book clubs and join classes of all kinds – painting, dancing, drawing, pottery, photography – for the sheer joy of it. They sing in choirs, church and other, and play in marching bands. Kids start garage bands and make their own videos and web art, and put their music on the Net, and draw their own graphic novels. “Ordinary people” have other outlets for their creativity, as well: Knitting and quilting have made comebacks; gardening is taken very seriously; the home woodworking shop is active. Add origami, costume design, egg decorating, flower arranging, and on and on … Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made.

They show their appreciation by contributing. Canadians of all ages volunteer in vast numbers for local and city museums, for their art galleries and for countless cultural festivals – I think immediately of the Chinese New Year and the Caribana festival in Toronto, but there are so many others. Literary festivals have sprung up all over the country – volunteers set them up and provide the food, and “ordinary people” will drag their lawn chairs into a field – as in Nova Scotia’s Read by the Sea – in order to listen to writers both local and national read and discuss their work….

I suggest that considering the huge amount of energy we spend on creative activity, to be creative is “ordinary.” It is an age-long and normal human characteristic: All children are born creative. It’s the lack of any appreciation of these activities that is not ordinary.

So far, so good. I agree with all of this.

But you know what this says to me? It says that art and culture arise naturally from people’s activities, and that they will arise no matter the level or specific details of arts funding from the government. A high level of arts funding is nice, but it is not–it had better not be–central to the creation of arts of all sorts by the people of a country. Because if art will whither and die without being propped up by government grants, then the country’s very soul is sick and it’s probably not long for this world.

And then we get to the part of Atwood’s lecture where I think she actually hurts her cause, if her cause is to convince people to pressure the government for more support for the arts. Except, of course, that’s not really her cause, as far as I can tell: she’d love more arts funding, but her real hope is to expel from the nation’s government what she and many other members of Canada’s arts community see as an unnatural abomination, a Conservative prime minister. So she slips into the default political “argument” of the left:

Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they’re a mouthy lot and they don’t line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth – the only kind of art you might need – but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master’s Voice. Maybe that’s why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn’t like the competition for media space.

Ah, yes. Why, giving the Canada Council an extra $50 million in the 2006 budget, boosting the Heritage Department’s budget by eight percent…it’s obviously all part of Harper’s effort to muzzle the artists of this country. He’s planning to institute a dictatorship! He must be stopped! He’s the greatest threat this nation has ever faced! He’s…

Oh, spare me. Artists aren’t muzzled in this country. There’s a big difference between not getting a grant and not being allowed to speak your mind.

And if I may play Devil’s Advocate: the easiest way to control artists is to make them dependent on government funding for their very existence. You can’t censor someone who receives no funding in the first place. If you’re really concerned about free speech for artists–or an artist who is really serious about speaking your mind about the goverment–perhaps, therefore, you should avoid government grants like the plague.

I don’t know who I’ll vote for in this election; I’ve only voted once since I became a citizen, and that was in the Saskatchewan provincial election. (And for the record, I voted NDP in that one.) I support solid funding for the arts, I thought Harper’s comments were pretty stupid (though he may actually have a point about the way plenty of people in this country view the debate over arts funding), and Atwood’s comments on the fact that ordinary people are, in fact, interested in the arts are a solid rebuttal.

But spare me the “budding dictatorship” lines. It’s possible for people to disagree about the particular level of government funding various activities should receive without descending into childlessly insulting hyperbole.

It’s a truism that conservatives think liberals are wrong; liberals think conservatives are evil. This is a prime example. I, on the other hand, just think conservatives are wrong sometimes, and sometimes liberals are wrong, and sometimes conservatives are right, and sometimes liberals are right.

Which, again, is why I’m stuck in the middle, and elections, increasingly, just make me cross.

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    • Anonymous on October 4, 2008 at 2:32 pm
    • Reply

    Did you use the word “obomination”
    on purpose? I was wondering if your fruedian slip was showing.
    I disagree with you about personal agrandizment. I think it is simple for someone in power to fall into the trap and control those things they find offensive. I don’t mind my tax dollars going to funding the encouragement of creative. I will put up with the small percentage of abuse of that funding which I may consider pornography for the sake of exploring and expressing the human condition. I believe that is what the arts are all about. Better putting up with that than soviet style poli-art.

    Sorry to disagree Ian but the CBC model is superior in that it is an arms length relationship that is even more distant than the foundations approach of PBS.


    • Ian H. on September 29, 2008 at 9:26 pm
    • Reply

    Excellent post! Despite Harper’s unfortunate phrasing, I do believe that the vast majority of the Canadian public wonder why public funds are spent supporting (some) artists. Remember the hue and cry over “Voices of Fire”? As you point out, if art can’t survive without government patronage, it’s weak indeed. I prefer the PBS model to the CBC model.

    • Anonymous on September 29, 2008 at 7:32 pm
    • Reply

    That was awesome. I completely agree with everything you wrote, and I’m not fan of Harper.

    James Fell

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