Monday, October 13, 2008


There's a bench in front of the CBC's Toronto headquarters that has a permanent resident day and night, rain or shine. Dressed in a slouch cap and overcoat, he looks toward the West as if expecting someone or something.

To most who pass, he could be just another of the city's nameless homeless or un-or-underemployed. I'd wager if you asked the passersby, nine out of ten couldn't identify the bench resident as classical pianist Glenn Gould.

You might think one of Canada's Cultural treasures would have been depicted in the rapt concentration of full performance that was his trademark or hunched over the 14" high chair and throw rug he insisted always be under him during a recording session.

Instead, the artist who created this statue chose to replicate Gould as he might have looked on the day he was mistaken for a vagrant in a Sarasota, Florida park dressed in overcoat and mitts despite the local heat. She also chose to position him so music fans or tourists can pose in conversation while their friends snap pictures; this despite the fact that Gould was extremely reclusive in life, avoiding strangers and communicating even with close friends only by telephone or mail.

So, for me, this statue has always symbolized one thing in particular -- the distance between Canadian Artists and reality.

In recent weeks, cuts in Arts funding by Stephen Harper's Conservative government, the ongoing threat of film censorship through Bill C-10 and a prevailing sentiment in the creative community that re-electing the current government would be disastrous for Canadian Culture led to a campaign intent on reminding our populace and the candidates running for office just how much Culture mattered.

Passionate and eloquent voices were raised, predicting that our storytellers would be silenced, films would not be made, books would go unpublished, theaters would close and the CBC, long considered a thorn in the side of the Conservatives and funded by Billions in taxes, would cease to exist.

To emphasize the importance of Culture to the economy studies were trotted out claiming that $4 were created for every dollar invested in the Arts and overall Canada's 1.1 Million Artists created $85 Billion in actual wealth for the country.

The media covered all of this in great detail. Sometimes it seemed to be the only topic on CBC Radio, understandable to be sure if their futures truly were at stake. And predictably the other political parties paused their campaigns to offer a vast list of promises to us creative types.

The Liberals promised to reverse the $45 Million in recent cuts and then kick in $530 Million more in funding while creating 150,000 more jobs in the film and TV sector. According to Liberal leader Stefan Dion, "Canada needs more fun".

Both the Liberals and the NDP promised to allow artists to average their earnings over several years. NDP Leader Jack Layton then sweetened that deal by indicating any government he formed would allow us to keep the first $20,000 we earned each year from royalties and residuals.

The Green Party? With them we'd get access to Unemployment Insurance.

Okay -- first thing, everybody pop a roofie and chill...

Now hands up all you Canadian creatives who've ever earned $20,000 in Royalties over your entire careers let alone during a single Calendar year....

Avril -- Alanis -- Shania -- Anybody from the film business?


Income averaging used to be available to all Canadians until one of the Trudeau governments got rid of it in the 1970's. Apparently it wasn't considered economically feasible when there was a national debt to deal with. Same with unemployment insurance for artists.

Luckily, we don't have any similar economic storm clouds on the horizon that might tag the idea as a non-starter...

Oh -- right -- except for THAT....

I also can't wait to see how Auto workers in Windsor who already have to wait 13 weeks before collecting pogey react when they see actors skipping to the front of the line.

I hope I'm not popping anybody's bubble by pointing out that Politicians sometimes have a talent for fiction.

As predictable as somebody getting nekkid in a titty bar, us Artists hollered and all the opposition parties immediately became our best friends, using our suddenly sacred crafts to cudgel the PM and his right-wing-fundamentalist-oil-rich-sweater-wearing horde as Philistines, Barbarians and lowbrow louts.

Then last Tuesday, Prime Minister Harper announced he was killing Bill C-10 and produced a platform proclaiming the $45 Million he'd cut had simply been re-directed into a new set of programs offering support "at or above" the previous levels.

In the parlance of the trade, "He blinked". And we got exactly what we had said we wanted.

Only our hollering didn't stop.

The next day a rally was held near CBC headquarters, just around the corner from Glenn Gould's bench. And it was our turn to stretch the truth.

Speaker after speaker reminded the assembled of our immense contribution to the economy, sidestepping the obvious fact that while it took 1.1 million of us to create $85 Billion in wealth, down the road in Waterloo, less than 10,000 Canadians making something called a "Blackberry" were hauling in about 3 times that before dollar one had even started to magically multiply through the economy.

All of the speakers also neglected to mention that these "multiplier effect" studies are considered a joke by most economists; like the form letters that flood government offices during any cause celebre, they are looked on as the empirically unprovable last resort of any special interest group trying to look more important than they are.

Oh! This one was a government report?

Funny how the politicians claiming to be on our side accepted that one as fact but not those other ones released the same week relating to job creation, transfer payments or the war in Afghanistan.

Any chance we were allowing ourselves to be used?

And Stephen Harper's recent conversion to our importance aside, (perhaps only done as a cynical grab for votes) several Creatives at the rally insisted he remained the biggest threat to our existence. He still had a "hidden agenda" focused on destroying the venerable CBC. And he didn't really care about the Arts. We were advised, "Don't get mad. Get Stephen!"

Sometimes I wonder if us Canadian Creatives are our own worst enemies. As my cowboy grandfather used to say: "The quickest way to get your head up your own ass is simply by jerkin' your knee."

I mean, there we were, in the shadow of the CBC, championing its hallowed importance to the Culture when the Corporation itself is programming fewer hours of Canadian content than ever before in its history and continuing to stick with shows that draw diminishing audiences while canceling or downsizing those which actually do meet its much vaunted one million minimum viewers mark.

This is the same CBC that just fired its classical orchestras, virtually eliminated classical music from its radio programming and dumped all of its theater, concert and dance programming in favor of design and chat shows.

Am I the only guy who sees the irony in that?

Am I the only one who wonders how much work (and economic benefit) would be created if the CBC actually believed in actively promoting Canadian Culture?

Am I also the only one who remembers that the CRTC gutted Canadian drama under a majority Liberal government in 1999 and no matter how many envoys and appeals we dispatched to Ottawa for the next seven years that government did nothing to help us?

How come we're attacking a Prime Minister who actually listened to us and cheering on the same guys who repeatedly told us to fuck off?

Am I alone in wondering why none of the parties that now so anxiously court us and sing our praises have ever argued to open the books at Telefilm and the CTF so we can compare the official financial reports we and our Guilds and Unions receive from the producers they fund against the ones filed with their own government agencies?

There are a lot of people who believe that an honest accounting in Ottawa might mean we could finally receive money we've rightfully earned and are rightfully owed instead of having to depend on state welfare to survive.

During the recent debate, I heard one of our finest actors, Colm Feore, (who once brilliantly played Glenn Gould) assert that he went to LA to do series like "24" because it allowed him to "invest" in work that might otherwise never get produced here. I couldn't help wondering how many Canadian films Colm would be investing in if he was receiving all of the royalties he's actually earned.

But nope, we insist on fighting for the status quo even when it hasn't been working for us. Is that what real artists do?

Picasso, Brando, Orwell, The Beatles -- yeah, those guys wanted things to stay exactly the way they were. They didn't try to push any boundaries, take any chances, challenge any accepted views...

Oh wait, that's us!

Back around the turn of the last century, French painter Eduard Manet and the poet Baudelaire started a revolution in their nation's arts by turning their backs on government "approved" (and therefore funded) work and striking out on their own. Their rebellion caused an explosion of French art and culture that continues to ripple through the world today.

But we Canadian creatives seem eternally adverse to any path that might test our talents in any real marketplace. We resist venturing into unknown territory, content to allow our abilities to be defined and directed by faceless bureaucrats.

And somehow that's not seen as a threat to either our individuality or what we create.

Our inherent trust in the Canadian way leads us to believe no art gallery in Canada would ever shy away from an artist because his work might upset the powers that be. But that's exactly what happened to Robert Mapplethorpe.

Communist governments might ban the work of Vaclav Havel but that doesn't happen here. Yet Pierre Trudeau turned his back on Michael Hollingsworth when his play "Clear Light" was shuttered by the Toronto Police in 1973 -- even though his own government had created the very program that funded the play.

Anybody want to ask Ivan Reitman how close he came to not only losing all chance of qualifying for future subsidies but of going to jail for "Cannibal Girls"? Anybody remember how the ladies in Vancouver who ran the "Little Sisters" bookstore had their mail seized for bringing in books the governments of the day didn't approve? And all that happened back when Stephan Harper was little more than a gleam in Satan's eye.

Guys -- they're not really on our side! At least not when we're being real artists and not somebody who simply parrots their political agenda.

The simple fact is that when Government controls your purse, they control your work (or like to think they do). And when a nation's artists are dependent on what amounts to welfare and prior approval it can't help but cultivate mediocrity.

The powers that be won't risk you pushing the envelope -- and if you want to pay for that new flat panel plasma screen or maybe just cover the rent in a bachelor apartment -- neither will you!

But that's inevitably what we do. Instead of demanding a playing field that allows us to succeed or fail on our merits, we trade our passion for grants that keep most of us near the poverty level. We set aside inspiration to retain institutions that serve neither us nor our audience. We're content to be patted on the head and told we really are necessary and special.

We've been turned into a bunch of pampered purse dogs. No wonder the ones that have to herd sheep, escort the blind or guard junkyards for a living hate us. If I were them, I'd hate us too!

Glenn Gould was once told he was necessary and special. His radio concerts for CBC gained the corporation untold audiences and immense industry respect. Now the same CBC Radio plays little if any of his music let alone anything from the cultural genre of which he was a part. The studio in their building that's named after him is most often home for the same kind of sketch comedy to be found in unfunded comedy clubs. And yet we want taxpayers to keep paying for it.

Perhaps most tellingly, instead of a statue that replicates Gould's talent, his unique passion or unusual character, the powers that be commissioned a work where he has been relegated to a park bench, faceless and alone.

That's what they really think of him -- and us! That's how state art, "pimp art" as some call it, really treats those it supposedly respects.

The only difference between Glenn Gould and the rest of us is that unless we find a way to stop dancing to the tune of politicians instead of building our own support networks, we'll be out in the cold on our own park benches. Only we'll still be breathing instead of immortalized in stone.


DMc said...

Jim, you know much as I enjoy your burn down the mission mishigosh, in this case you're eliding a number of crucial points:

As it relates to television -- the elimination of subsidy for the creative elements of the industry is ridiculous so long as simsub continues and totally distorts any level playing field or incentive the business could support.

Second, the current group of paleo-reforma-tories has, in fact, been far more hostile and less welcoming on any sort of policy level than other goverments that came before it -- including the Tory government of Mulroney. These guys are not shy about their ideology. It is not fiction to say that they will never, ever, ever care about the culture file. They've said as much to every person in those meetings.

The removal of the public funding lever in Canada would hurt doubly because the level of personal and corporate support of the arts is much lower in this country than anywhere else.

Finally, every industrialized nation in the world, including the United States, supports culture and cultural initiatives to varying degrees. In places like Great Britain and Ireland, it makes not just for pride, but important training for the future generations of speakers and thinkers. In France, it upholds the Gallic spirit of not wanly disappearing in a sea of English.

I know you know all this -- which is why you arguing for the throw the baby out with the bathwater approach is ridiculous.

Everything you want reformed can still be reformed -- but not by a government who simply does not care, and will never care, and not in the face of a cultural firmament that does not take a clear-eyed look at the special challenges of being overrun by American product with no barriers at all.

This is a case where your usual refreshing contrarian-ness simply goes too far.

jimhenshaw said...

Don't disagree with your initial points, DMC. I've never been opposed to subsidies and know that the system has other major issues that need to evolve.

And I'm never contrary just for the sake of it. But my antennae begin to quiver when I see artists being politicized to their own detriment and that's what I'm sensing here.

Maybe Harper is the Anti-Christ or worse a tool of the Christian Right. Except -- he did what we asked -- alienating his supposed fundamentalist base in the process.

And why is he the bad guy and the Liberals who ignored our pleas for seven years are suddenly okay?

Tonight on MuchMusic, Jack Layton shook his head and solemnly declared "Steven Harper has no soul."

Well, I guess we finally know Jack's no Tommy Douglas...

Artists gain nothing by joining in the marginalizing, diminishing or demonizing of anyone.

Make your point. Fight for what you believe in. Vote for whoever you want. But let's stop co-signing the Bullshit of people who have never been there for us when we needed them.

Brandon Laraby said...

Great post Jim, as someone who's not yet a part of the system (someone who's open to striking down a different path) I'd be interested in learning ways to get things done in Canada without funds or subsidies. If you have any advice or ideas to offer, I'd appreciate your insights.

In terms of our PM, well, I started off with the Culture rant but it soon lead me on a path to seeing a bigger picture. We weren't the only ones being screwed - and not by a long shot. Scientists, immigrants, advocacy groups, the environment and more - I started to see what this guy's been up to - that C-10 wasn't the first thing that they tried to sneak through, just the one they got caught flat-footed on.

Now, to be clear, if the Liberals - or anyone - gets in and starts pulling shit like this (and I hear about it/know about it) I promise you, I'll be raising a stink.

I truly believe that it's up to all of us to keep ourselves apprised of what our government is doing - police them if they're refusing to police themselves. Don't know if I'll be any good at it, but hopefully I won't be alone.

I know that I don't want to be only jumping up and down when there's something that directly effects me.