Don’t de-politicize art

Critics of return on investment should focus on workers’ rights

If the work of an artist is to create eye-opening societal critiques, government funding should focus on providing a living wage for creative labours, Tim Runtz says.

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As pledged in their throne speech last November, the provincial PCs are launching a “cultural strategy review” this year, the first of its kind since 1990. The review is an initial step in a broader initiative to test the return on investment of provincial cultural spending.

While advocates of small government will be glad to see the cuts likely brought on by a number-crunching cultural policy, proponents of the arts are quick to point to an intangible, higher purpose that art might serve.

“For me it’s the highest expression of humanity,” Alexander Mickelthwate, music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, says in an interview with the CBC.

“The arts are the roses that make our lives worth living,” Gail Asper told CBC. “People always say, ‘but what about the potholes?’ And I always say well, yes, we need to fix the potholes so we can drive to the theatres – we need both.”

The argument that follows, often repeated by cultural-funding advocates, is that though money should be spent wisely, you can’t necessarily put a price on art. Its value lies in something beyond the machinations of debit and credit, and so cultural funding is in part an investment in that greater ideal.

The sentiment can be alluring to those on the left who are critical of a society driven by the whims of the market.

To be sure, the provincial government’s initiative to quantify culture and presumably slash funding should be met with resistance, but the argument that you can’t place a price tag on art, as if it exists on some plane beyond the economy, is misguided.

To suggest that art is some vaguely transcendent and life-affirming good is to depoliticize it, to abstract it from a world of celebrity dictators, mass inequality and ecological devastation.

Arts funding is important because artists are the ones who offer up a different way of looking at the world, who criticize the way things are and help us imagine a better future.

But when we think of cultural products as “the roses that make life worth living,” we end up with a $350 million human rights museum that bemoans the violence of the past while ignoring ongoing atrocities and spiraling upwards in a celebration of human progress.

We also end up with a community of artists who work multiple jobs to pay the bills while doing what they love for little or no pay.

It’s time, at long last, for increased cultural funding in Manitoba. It should absolutely not be predicated on financial return, but nor should the conversation be framed in terms of reaching for the “highest expression of humanity.”

Instead, governments must be urged to provide a living wage to artists who offer prescient critiques of the status quo and visions for a better future.

Tim Runtz is the comments editor at The Uniter.

Published in Volume 71, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 12, 2017)

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