24 September 2008

Fighting Harper's War on the Arts

Marshall McLuhan was not one of Stephen Harpers vaunted, if mythical, "ordinary Canadians." He was an extraordinary Canadian, possibly the most famous Canadian our country has ever produced. Anyone who could have predicted the effects of the Internet era from the vantage point of 1964 is extraordinary in my book. So what the man - McLuhan, not Harper - has to say might merit listening to.

Here's McLuhan on the arts and artists:
  • "Art is anything you can get away with." (MITM)
  • "Art … like media of communication, has the power to impose its own assumptions by setting the human community into new relationships and postures." (UM)
  • "The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present." (UM)
  • "The artist is indispensable in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures created by electric technology." (UM)
  • "The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness." (UM)
  • "The artist makes new perception that changes all the social ground rules. The inventor creates products and processes that transform environments." (TT)
  • "Each new technology — new environment — is a reprogramming of sensory life. … The new one is always unperceived. We see the Emperor’s old clothes. Only children and artists are antisocial enough to see the new ones." (CB)
  • "Most discoveries are unexpected by-products of activities quite unconnected to them. Every artist makes breakthroughs as soon as he meets a difficulty." (TT)
  • "Poets and artists live on frontiers. They have no feedback, only feedforward. They have no identities. They are probes." (CIOB)
  • "The reason that “mission-oriented” research and development drowns in the superabundance of available data is very simply bypassed by the artist. He asks: What precise effect do I want to have on my public? What precise emotion do I wish to evoke and define? The artist starts with the effect, since the means to such an effect are everywhere." (TT)
  • "It is the distinction of the “artist” in any field that he commands this power to convey the effects of things when the ordinary person is merely numbed or robotized by things." (TT)
References: (UM) Understanding Media: The extensions of man; (TT) Take Today: The executive as dropout; (MITM) The Medium is the Massage; (CB) Counterblast; (CIOB) Culture is our Business.

And now, here's what Stephen Harper has to say: "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."

The choice seems simple: a visionary on the arts, or an anti-intellectual, divisive politician on the arts.

[Technorati tags: | | ]


mrG said...

when it comes to these gala events, I'm afraid I have to agree with Harper, there's no artistic merit in many of these schmooze-fests, and meanwhile there are perfectly fine community artists all over this country who are shown the door at the Canada Council simply because they can't afford to be at those galas.

what we need is what you quote from McLuhan, a culture that recognizes and promotes the artist as a visionary and visioneer, we need Council grant decisions which are based less on who you know and more on what you have discovered and what you have to say, and by that I don't mean more meat-dresses (been done anyway) but I do mean more Darcy Argue's who don't need to go stateside to be heard.

Not that that is anything new around here.

We also don't need arts-promotion that consists of suing fans for being fans and doing what fans do (sharing their passion) but that's another issue ... no, wait, who is it that really benefits from those galas? Grassroots like Toronto's old Matador or big execs in big cars from bigger international conglomerates? Hmmm ... could be it's not a whole other issue afterall?

I remember some years back a massive envelope sent out to "Canadian Artists" as a survey, to survey "A day in the life of a typical Canadian Artist" -- I was visiting a friend's studio, a friend who, as fate would have it, was among the originators of the Canada Council and often sat on its board. Here's what he said, pretty much verbatim: "What did I do this day? I am going to say 'I spent the entire day filling out f*cking forms!'"

As he waded deeper he noticed the questions had only one focus: How much MONEY did you make? Did McLuhan speak at all on the responsibility of the Arts to be fiancially profitable?

"They never ask, 'what major contribution did you make today in the understanding of humanity?' or 'how did you redefine the way people hear or see?' They only ask about Ticket Receipts!"

So yes, if you ask me, as one who's served time in the trenches, we do definitely need to rethink many aspects of our National Arts funding in this country if we are to come anywhere close to the visions Marshall McLuhan presented.

Mark Federman said...

Thanks for your comments, mrg - I agree with you. We do need a rethink of many aspects of Arts funding in this country, but I'm afraid the issue of galas for the elites is a cynical, populist red herring, promulgated by a cynical, populist demagogue.

Harper's approach, essentially, is "let the market decide." In other words, even more emphasis on ticket sales, and populist appeal to those whose total engagement with the arts is coming home and turning on the TV. He is clearly not the saviour of enlightened engagement, supporting fans who do what fans do (viz. Bill C-61), and the types of artists that both you and I (and, thankfully, many others) enjoy and support.