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Accounting for Culture

Caroline Andrew
Monica Gattinger
M. Sharon Jeannotte
et al.

Part II. Voices

4. The Chameleon-like Complexion of Cultural Policy

Re-educating an Octogenarian

John Meisel

Texte intégral

  • 1 Laurence J. Peter, cited in the “Thought du Jour,” The Globe and Mail (September 14, 1999).

There are two kinds of fools.
One says, “This is old, therefore it is good.”
The other says, “This is new, therefore it is better.”1

1Research in the cultural sector sometimes invites a cross-over mode of scholarship: it must be methodologically and theoretically rigorous while at the same time it benefits from an understanding of, and perhaps even empathy for, culture. Its “science,” in other words, ought also to reflect the aesthetic world of the arts. Accordingly, this chapter adopts a format not normally associated with the dry mode of scholarly reports. It seeks to preserve some of the flavour of the original oral presentation—an art form—with a reasonably disciplined exploration of certain facts and propositions.

2Situated somewhere mid-point between a cyber-peasant and a wannabe-geek (closer to the c-p than the w-g), I eschewed power points but resorted to the (to me) daring innovation of using overheads. I shall occasionally reproduce these here in a form echoing the original atmosphere of my message. This vestige of what is to many an archaic mode of communication fits perfectly my status as a mature student seeking to come to terms with emerging realities—the leitmotif of my presentation.

3A careful perusal of the literature provided to the participants of the colloquium on Accounting for Culture: Examining the Building Blocks of Cultural Citizenship revealed to me not only that what I understood by “culture” was a far cry from the meaning espoused by the pre-conference intellectual leaders, but also that there was widespread inconsistency and ambiguity with respect to the vocabulary of the discourse.

4The most effective way of grappling with this situation seemed to be to trace my own peregrinations through the cultural landscape and then bring the fruits of what I have learnt from them to bear on the conference agenda. In some ways, therefore, this is a fragment of what the Germans call a bildungsroman.

  • 2 “Political Culture and the Politics of Culture,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 7, no. 4 (D (...)

5A political scientist and political sociologist, I first ventured explicitly into the cultural area in 1974 by urging my professional colleagues to recognize that an important relationship existed between politics and culture—leisure culture, as I defined it at the time.2 The schematic presentation was simple but surprising to my professional colleagues.

6The underlying assumption was that cultural experiences have an impact on one’s general values, including those related to politics. Thus culture affects, through one’s normative predilections, how one evaluates political phenomena and how one makes political choices, including voting decisions. These in turn determine the make up of governments and hence, as the feedback loop indicates, the stance taken by the state towards leisure culture, including the arts. The resulting cultural policies in turn have an impact on one’s values, and so on and on and on.

7A few years later, as chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (crtc), I became deeply immersed in communications policies and particularly in the broadcasting sector of the newly dubbed “cultural industries.” Cultural nationalism—an approach I found congenial—was a burning issue affecting many of the arts and permeating a great many of the Commission’s decisions. These affected popular culture more extensively than “high” culture but had a strong bearing on both. When I returned to the academy after my stint as a cultural regulator I wrote a lot and taught courses exploring government involvement in the arts.

  • 3 John Meisel, “Flora and Fauna on the Rideau: The Making of Cultural Policy,” Katherine A. Graham, (...)

8A typical exercise was a review of cultural policies when Flora MacDonald was the responsible minister in the Mulroney cabinet. This 1988 paper, “Flora and Fauna on the Rideau: the Making of Cultural Policy,”3 sought to map the societal, political, and administrative factors influencing cultural policy in Canada. Even a casual perusal of Figure 2, which encapsulates its scope, shows that by cultural policy I meant the government’s position vis-à-vis the arts and the cultural industries.

  • 4 John Meisel and Jean Van Loon, “Cultivating the Bushgarden: Cultural Policy in Canada,” in eds., M (...)
  • 5 Cummings and Katz, The Patron State.

9At about the same time, an analysis I did of the cultural scene in Canada and its policy context, the tide of which was inspired by one of Northrop Frye’s classic papers,4 appeared in an American book whose tell-tale subtitle was “Government and the Arts in Europe, North America and Japan.”5 In the subsequent ten years, and beyond, I wrote and taught about cultural policy, always meaning by the term what governments do (or not do) to support the arts. The context was usually that of high culture although occasionally I would venture into the popular field. My approach has been “arts-centric,” a perspective I since discovered to be suspect or even unacceptable to some of the current students and practitioners of cultural policy, including important movers and shakers of our colloquium.

10The late 1990s brought about a rude awakening. Three publications, whose covers are portrayed in Figure 4, graphically tell the story.

11Each of the three works, while, to different degrees, allowing that culture has something to do with the arts, attaches a central place in cultural policy to decidedly non-artistic factors. Readers familiar with the literature will immediately recognize the volumes, respectively, of the first United Nations Environmental Scientific and Cultural Organization (unesco) Culture Report in 1998 and in some respects, the kindred exploration of culture and development by the Council of Europe in 1997. Some will also greet another old friend—the proceedings of the Canadian Cultural Research Network’s (ccrn’s) 1998 colloquium, edited by Catherine Murray.

12The subtitles convey which way the wind was blowing. Whereas the volume containing my late 1980s paper included the words “government and the arts” in the subtitle (see Figure 3), the unesco and Council of Europe tomes’ explanatory captions highlight markets and development, whereas Murray’s focuses on social change (see Figure 4). My initial assumption that the de-emphasis on the arts and the shift to something else resulted from the well-known inbred mind-sets of unescocrats and eurocrats received a jolt when I realized that some Canadians had also adopted the new meaning. Not only Catherine Murray’s work, but also Sharon Jeannotte’s showed this, although almost all operating Canadian cultural organizations still saw their central métier as the arts. There seemed a divergence between bureaucrats and critics on the one hand, and creators on the other.

  • 6 M. Sharon Jeannotte, “Fractured Discourse: A Report from the Second International Conference on Cu (...)
  • 7 Jeannotte, “Fractured Discourse,” 4.

13Jeannotte’s Report from the Second Annual International Conference on Cultural Research in New Zealand bears the highly significant tide Fractured Discourse6 and observes that “cultural policy and cultural policy research are currently undergoing a paradigm shift of major proportions.”7

  • 8 Royal Commission on National Development in Arts, Letters & Sciences, 1949-1951, Report (Ottawa: E (...)

14It was clear that my long established and deeply rooted view of what cultural policy was all about was not universally shared and that other perceptions were abroad. Was the position I thought I had acquired more or less with my mother’s milk (or after having digested the Massey Report8), and held unthinkingly ever since, outdated? If I were to remain on speaking terms with my colleagues, did I need to embark on a steep learning curve and did I need to dive into a severe regime of retrofitting?

15To answer these questions I started to peruse a good deal of the relevant literature and, particularly, as the opening of this colloquium approached, the rich material prepared for it. I entered into lively exchanges with their authors, usually through e-mail or the telephone. Greg Baeker was a generous, indeed an inexhaustible and indulgent helper who, through personal exchanges and his Web-seminar did his utmost to set me straight. But I did not stop there. A very large number of people deeply immersed in the cultural sector, in various jurisdictions, and holding diverse ranks, shared with me their understanding of our universe. Lest they become tainted with a tarnished brush, I shall not name them here but note that their backgrounds are in the creative world, the bureaucracy, granting agencies, and the academy. A lot of schmoozing has gone into this chapter!

16The upshot of all this palaver was that while I was not willing to abandon my basic view of the nature of culture and of cultural policy, I did need to broaden my definitions somewhat and to learn to explore are as related to the traditional meaning of culture and the arts. It became apparent that a deep chasm exists between various views of what is meant by culture and about what the purposes of cultural activity should be. At the core of the debate, or more accurately of the often unexamined and un-addressed Babel-like profusion of meanings, is the question: “what is the raison d’être of cultural policy?” One camp sees support for artistic creation—arts policy—as the focal point. Others view cultural policy in a much broader context concerned with community cultural development and assisting individuals to be empowered, fulfilled citizens. The former places the highest value on aesthetic results, the latter on social goals.

17The difference is nicely highlighted in the following episode, one of several similar ones I have encountered. The conference planners sent out invitations to some members of the cultural community suggesting themes for a “virtual” pre-conference discussion. One proposed topic was identified as “Rebuilding the case for culture at a time when old rationales no longer hold.” One recipient categorically asserted that the old rationales are as valid as ever. The rationales hold: it is the policy responses to them that require examination.

18The incident pinpoints a state of affairs that cannot be swept under the rug: a strong, persistent thread in conference literature (and elsewhere) is that support for so-called “arts-centric culture” has lost its legitimacy. But, on the other hand, there are also numerous creators and others who vehemently disagree. To many, a cultural policy which is not “arts-centric” makes absolutely no sense.

Two Cultural Models

19Other issues have of course been identified as requiring scrutiny. Many of them are tackled in these pages. But, to my mind, how we define culture and the relative importance we attach to various forms of cultural expression are of absolutely central relevance and make an inescapable starting point for a discussion of the matters addressed in this volume.

20Given the heat likely to be generated by what follows, a word of caution is in order. You may consider it unnecessary, but those who think it superfluous are usually most in need to be reminded of it. Virtually all of us—and this certainly includes your author—become imprisoned by our mental universe, by our customary system of thought, which is perpetually reinforced by our like-minded associates. This is especially so in circles which seek to promote or defend a particular cause. The cognitive straightjacket reduces our capacity to see and read developments realistically and may also lead to an inappropriate choice of instruments chosen to further a project we wish to promote.

21In the cultural universe, there are naturally numerous positions and divergences of opinion among and across students, policy-makers, practitioners, and even passive folk just enjoying the fruits of the available goodies. I dwell here on only one area needing clarification because of its primordial importance. It turns, as I have noted, on what some see as the incongruence or even antithesis between artistic creation and community or social goals. The difference is complex and finely nuanced. For the sake of exposition I have reduced it to a simple dichotomy of Weberian ideal types, naming each after its champions. They are:

  1. Arts-centred traditionalists, and
  2. Society-focussed innovators.

22In what follows I describe, in perforce simplified form, some virtues (+) and liabilities (-) of each and then seek to ascertain how the two stack up against one another. They are laid out in Figure 5.

The Arts-Centred Traditional Ideal Type: Plusses

23We begin, in the top half of the figure with the traditional (or my) view of culture and cultural policy. The left-hand column lists the positive features of this perspective and the one on the right enumerates what is seen by some as the down side.

24The traditionalists’ quintessential position is its unflinching and overriding focus on the arts and their dominant aesthetic promise. The sine qua non of cultural policy must be support for the arts. Traditionalists, often seen as elitist, also place strong emphasis on high quality performance. “Their” culture has produced the Western canon, not only in literature but also in the plastic arts, music, and architecture. Domestically, it consists of the artistic achievements foreshadowed and facilitated by the Massey Commission and then subsequently supported by the all-important Canada Council. It has become inseparably, but by no means exclusively, associated with the notion that Canadians have the right, and need the opportunity, to express their experiences, sensitivities, stories, pictures, and music in their own way and in a manner that suits their shared national and particularly their regionally and locally relevant experiences. It is deeply rooted in the British and French traditions, but more recently has started to respond vigorously to the riches of our new demographic cornucopia. The artistic community prizes it increasingly as United States and global influences tend to occupy Canadian space and markets and as some of them threaten to crowd out indigenous voices. Much of Canadian culture and cultural policy thus become linked to the question of how Canadians define themselves collectively and how they view their own identity, or identities. This aspect is increasingly relevant in the face of globalizing pressures engulfing the world.

25Both the Western canon, and Canadian cultural works, have acquired awesome legitimacy and are considered in Canada and abroad as the highest forms of our artistic achievement and of our civilization. They are admired and accepted as towering and lasting treasures, branding our civilization. As such, they are internalized and loved deeply by numerous individuals and groups, if not always by huge majorities. They engage mature and older people more than they do youngsters.

26As their respective labels imply, compared with pop and folk culture, the traditionalists’ culture has a top-down, rather than a bottom-up quality, in the sense that it does not always spring up spontaneously from the people. Some of it does, but much also emerges as the result of stimulation and support from important institutions like powerful religious and secular organizations, often including the state. This has meant, over the years, that considerable emphasis was placed on the arts measuring up to the highest standards and maintaining criteria established by a cosmopolitan and international milieu of experts.

The Arts-Centred Traditional Ideal Type: Minusses

27The first item noted in the top right-hand quadrant of Figure 5, listing some problems of the traditionalists’ position, refers to the scope of what is normally embraced by culture. In addition to the puzzling and awkward grey zone between crafts and arts, there is the question of the appropriate niche for various activities and experiences arising from what might be termed the para-literary domain. Libraries, archives, questions of literacy come to mind. The last-named, in particular, invites comparisons between the definitions used by traditionalists and those of the innovators. To what extent should cultural policy concern itself with the collection, storage of, and providing access to written or pictorial records, literary works, plays, etc., and should it cover the teaching of skills needed to utilize them? Where does cultural policy end and some other policy field begin?

28Traditionalists are also found wanting by some with respect to the degree that “their” culture fails to speak to certain sections of the population. For diverse reasons, among them the need to bring an experienced and sophisticated eye or ear to certain art forms, if they are to be appreciated, traditional culture is perceived by some as being elitist. It certainly appeals to some people more than to others, and thus has a circumscribed reach. Among other things, the income, schooling, age, and ethnic origin of potential participants sometimes introduces social distinctions between the cultural community and others, causing it to be seen as elitist. This aspect, among others, can produce political obstacles to government support for culture. “Cultural abstinence” by young age cohorts in particular, and some ethnic and linguistic features, have been particularly important in triggering calls for a re-examination of the appropriate scope of traditional culture in contemporary society. Some of these arise from the realization that there is reticence about spending public funds on activities of interest only to some sections of the population, although this restraint has seldom been applied to non-cultural areas awash in public subventions.

29A related criticism follows from the fact that it is usually the old, well-established and even privileged groups in society who are most involved in traditional culture and that the latter is slow in adapting to new demographic realities. Culture is seen as catering to the old elites and to speak little or not at all to new groups emerging, often at the margins, of society. Recently very considerable steps have been taken in Canada on many fronts to compensate for this past tendency but, in the eyes of some, much more is needed, including the re-definition of what is meant by “culture” and “cultural policy.”

30Traditional cultural policy, as has been suggested, is intended to enhance the presence, quality, and availability of works of art in various forms. Its primary focus is the quality of what emerges from it, not the socio-economic conditions of the practitioners. While most “traditionalists” no doubt recognize that cultural works depend in some way on their socio-economic contexts, issues and policies related to the latter are deemed to be the responsibility of programs and agencies other than the cultural ones, who are better qualified and endowed to deal with them. This aloofness or seeming insensitivity is deemed a major failing, and constitutes one of the most important distinguishing features of the “Traditional” and “Innovative” camps.

31An emerging, more fluid, conception of what constitutes the arts is causing strains within the cultural community. Among the many manifestations, those related to libraries and archives noted above, as well as museums, are particularly evident. Most contemporary cultural institutions are expanding their horizons and are engaging in activities which exceed their former mandate and spill into related areas. This leads to overlap of responsibility among various operating, controlling, and regulatory agencies, as well as to conflict and jurisdictional dispute. The heritage and industry ministries, the crtc, museum corporations, the cbc, and other involved agencies within the central governmental apparatus or as various arms-length bodies, are all in the game, but their roles are not always clearly defined with respect to the cultural sphere. One of the consequences is that pressure is rising for the re-definition of the cultural sector and of the respective responsibilities within it. Calls for an enlarged conception of culture therefore arise because of new realities in the art world and in the institutions traditionally and newly involved with it.

32I noted above that the top-down quality of the traditional arts contributes to their living up to generally recognized standards. But there may also be disadvantages: elitism, particularly when not handled sensitively and responsibly, can lead to lack of concern for certain individuals, groups, interests, and even art forms. Some traditional cultural institutions give an aloof or even snobbish impression which is deeply off-putting and which severely restricts their reach.

33The aforementioned broader perspective of the innovators leads them to define culture less narrowly than the traditionalists. They see it very much in its social, political, and economic contexts and therefore are less arts-centric. Their position can, in fact, be described as being social issues oriented, rather than being arts driven. It is not too farfetched to assert that whereas for the traditionalists, culture is the independent variable, with all other aspects being dependent on it, the innovators make social factors the independent variable; the arts are dependent on, and secondary to it.

The Society-Centred Innovative Ideal Type: Plusses

34The linking of social issues to the cultural area is not only its most characteristic, but also the most commendable feature of the society-centred innovative model. It is also, as we shall see, one making it vulnerable. By linking culture to the social conditions which affect its content and nature as well as how it is received, the innovators operate within a more holistic setting than the traditionalists and they consider more seriously how various cultural artifacts are perceived and “utilized” by members of the public. Furthermore, they shed light on how the artistic and aesthetic phenomena affect one’s general condition of life, how one is socialized, perceived by others, and how one relates to them. The present volume provides numerous examples, and specifically explores cultural citizenship.

35Because it exceeds the traditional framework of “arts culture” and embraces so much more, including creative activities that have little to do with the canons of aesthetics, the innovative model is far from being elitist. It is, therefore more accessible and egalitarian. It does so at a price, but it does it. Its social reformist impulses also make it more sensitive to some of the implications of rapid social change. Its scope, therefore, includes art forms and activities which appeal to Canadian newcomers more than to established groups, and to younger cohorts who are entirely comfortable in cyber-space and the art forms associated with it.

  • 9 John Meisel, “Human Rights and the Transformation of the Multicultural State: The Canadian Case in (...)

36As noted earlier, the traditional arts in Canada are often infused with national consciousness and with Canadian nationalism. This is in some contrast to the new approach of the innovators and its greater inclusiveness and potentially greater appeal to recent arrivals. The latter encourages links between Canadians of varied ethnic origins and similar groups in other countries. This affinity and the intercourse it facilitates make Canada more adaptable to a globalizing planet. Thus cultural policies facilitating the development and empowerment of ethnic minorities are likely to enhance Canada’s compatibility with the new globalizing realities.9

37The challenge the innovators present to the traditional definition of culture confronts the cultural community—and others—with a series of important and exciting issues crying to be tackled by thoughtful and concerned citizens. Critical dilemmas are at stake, of equal importance to the artistic world and to civil society. The differences of opinion before us are a salutary invitation to pose questions about the nature of society, the place of the arts in it, and the place of public policy in their resolution.

38We have noted the egalitarian nature of the society-based perspective and its eponymous emphasis on the societal dimension of the arts. Unlike the more elitist school it is, therefore, a bottom-up phenomenon in which policy often arises as the result of societal needs and not because of governmental priorities intended to bring about some desired public good or because of the demands of cultural elites. This, while also offering hazards to culture, prompts desirable public policy with consequences going a long way beyond the arts.

The Society-Centred Innovative Ideal Type: Minusses

39A major problem of the society-centred definition of culture is that it is exceedingly broad. By so closely linking arts policy to socio-economic conditions it moves way beyond the sphere of the arts and embraces all of society. Cultural policy, therefore, in this perception, is involved in income levels, standards of living, social adjustment, citizenship, the economic, social and psychological status of various groups, etc. The new definition is not only impractical but also poses immense problems of clarity.

40At the present time, federal cultural policy is predominantly under the aegis of the Department of Canadian Heritage. If culture were defined according to the optic of the society-centred innovators, it would have to fall under virtually every ministry; cultural policy would then also become social policy, economic policy, and policy for everything else affecting the population.

41The broader definition, in other words, makes the term “cultural policy” meaningless. Its adoption would create administrative chaos not only in culture but throughout government. It is only a small exaggeration to argue that cultural policy would have to cover everything—all ministries combined would have to form a super cultural portfolio.

42Furthermore, when the arts are lumped together with numerous other fields, their importance is likely to become watered down. Their unique character, contribution, and needs may consequently be undervalued and short changed. Since its champions tend to be less numerous, and involved in areas eliciting less heart-rending cries for assistance than others (health and poverty, or regional economic catastrophes, for instance), they are in danger of being crowded out in the intensely competitive struggle for government attention. A purely arts-centred organization is more likely, therefore, to field effective spokespersons than bodies in which the arts are merely one of several competing interests. There is indeed the question of whether the umbrella-like character of the Department of Canadian Heritage is not in danger of diluting its arts portfolio. Being responsible for sports, heritage, citizenship, and multiculturalism inevitably means that the Arts Policy Branch must compete with other players for funds and the attention of the minister and senior interlocutors. The reorganization which created the Department may, therefore, have unwittingly placed structural obstacles in the path of champions of the arts.

43Loosening and extending the meaning of culture, and including para-aesthetic activities in its orbit, may also lead to the neglect and beggaring of the traditional canon. Voices among the advocates of a less restricted view of culture all too often include those denigrating the legacy of dead white European males, as if the storehouse of classical culture had become irrelevant. This is, of course short-sighted, if not blind, madness. This is, to me, ridiculous, and the dismissal, in some of the pre-conference literature of arts-centric policies as being irrelevant, strikes me as plain silly.

44Efforts to endow culture with a substantially wider appeal are timely and welcome, but they may come at a cost. If they lead to the dumbing down of the whole enterprise, they may end up being more destructive than helpful. The contrast between serious historiography and storytelling is instructive. While both are important, to impoverish the former for the sake of the latter is counterproductive in the long run. While extending the reach of the arts is salutary, to do so at the expense of their depth and integrity is not.

45At the practical level, the innovative model also poses some serious problems. If cultural policy were to concern itself not only with culture as it is generally understood, but also with the improvement of the human condition, it could not be the responsibility of a single department like the Department of Canadian Heritage. As was noted above, virtually all government activities and agencies would have to become involved and a completely new administrative structure would be required. This could, of course, be achieved in due course, but the teething problems would be immense, and the consequences for all policy areas incalculable.

46There is a strong presumption in much of the innovative literature that cultural activities and processes are essentially urban, even metropolitan. The rural and small town dimension receives short shrift. This is not a fatal or irremediable failing but one that, in the short run at least, impoverishes the case for a revised approach.

47Finally, as I observed above, the bottom-up character of the society-centred model, while making it more inclusive and egalitarian, also courts the downgrading of quality. To excise the nasty elitism of tennis, as someone said, is to take down the net.

Reconciling the Opposites?

48Where does this grand tour of the world of culture leave us? What have I learnt from it? My scoreboard (Figure 5) reveals that although there is a fundamental difference between the concepts of culture of each approach, the two nevertheless complement one another in several ways. In a sense, the innovators’ culture compensates for some of the weaknesses of the traditional model, and vice versa. My original impression that the society-centred perspective should be categorically rejected has been replaced by the view that it offers some useful correctives. But it needs to be clarified and contained.

49The society-centric approach makes culture more widely accessible than the arts-centric one, and encourages a closer link between cultural (aesthetic) concerns and the general well-being and effective functioning of society. Traditionalists, on the other hand, strengthen the emphasis on creative artistic activity of a high order, and seek to ensure that the arts-context will be nourished and not overlooked in the pursuit of more mundane goals.

50Now, it is clear that the two are in a sense mutually exclusive and that government can adopt either one or the other of the approaches. But remember that, for the sake of exposition, I here presented ideal types which, by virtue of this, represent extreme positions. In the real world, it is possible to modify each and so arrive at a definition of culture and of cultural policy which to some extent embodies characteristics of both. I can espouse the innovators’ cause if it can be achieved without degrading effective arts support. Similarly, if traditional arts policy can enhance social well-being, I can only applaud.

51I have the impression—and it is at this stage no more than that—that the extent to which the two spheres mesh depends in large part on the scope of the activities involved. It is more difficult to embrace both orientations at the level of grande politique when big and complex projects are at stake than to fuse arts-and society-centric programs at the smaller and more intimate community level. It is an intriguing question why the size and complexity of the activity should affect its character and type. Considerably more research than is now available is required for an understanding of this phenomenon.

The Fusion Model

52Several months after I presented the original draft of this chapter to the colloquium, I stumbled upon a deliciously apposite example of what, for lack of a better term, we might call the fusion model—a meeting ground of the two perspectives. It illustrates and reinforces the tentative impression just noted. I would likely not even have noticed its significance had the colloquium not prompted the educational odyssey reported in this chapter. And “stumbled” is the mot juste under the circumstances. On one of my periodic post-prandial visits to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s (it happily lies between the University Club and my office), I was astonished to find its imposing atrium resemble a Bedouin settlement breaking camp. Only it was not tents that were being dismantled but stalls, exhibits, and installations. This was the parting kiss, so to speak, where the acronym stands for a daring project of the Kingston Arts Council, called Kingston In SightS.

  • 10 My purist self is now in a quandary. As you have noted, to remind the reader of the oral delivery (...)

53Ten artist-facilitators each worked with a community group to produce art in a variety of media, always starting off with photography and always relating the artistic content to the group’s nature, interests, location, or preoccupations (see Figure 6).10 In all cases art was the point of departure reaching out and permeating the following community groups: vendors (and hence also producers) at the famous Kingston market; Barriefield community—a one time picturesque village, now part of Kingston; construction workers; Kingston collectors (of anything); funeral directors; former federal prison inmates; residents in a well defined area; a neighbourhood close to the downtown core, called Swamp Ward; users of a local park; a native community with its dance and drum tradition, as well as others; and a group of street people. The groups worked together for a long period of time until they presented the results of various forms of community art-making at the exhibition and during a discussion forum. Many of the multi-media productions ranged widely across the boundaries of traditional and emerging art forms.

  • 11 Kingston Arts Council, Draff Retrospective Catalogue, kiss Project.

54A retrospective, fascinating, lavishly illustrated, forty-eight-page catalogue was produced on CD, months after the event (see Figure 7).11 It could not, of course, be assembled until after all the pieces of the ten projects came together and were presented at the Agnes Etherington atrium. Ian Hodkinson, retired professor of art conservation and kiss project director, in the preface to the catalogue encapsulates how this planned happening is a prototype of our fusion model, “kiss,” he writes “is aimed at developing community awareness through art and awareness of art throughout the community.”

55The venue of the “performance,” “exhibition,” or “presentation,” is exceedingly interesting and illustrative in the context of the present discussion. The culminating event was held at the Queen’s Gallery, but not as part of its normal program or in its principal galleries. Since it was not curated (if that’s a word) by the gallery it was not, strictly speaking, a gallery event and it was not announced in the gallery literature. Its site in the atrium—a sort of grandiose ante-chamber—physically attested to the somewhat marginal status of something neither quite fish nor fowl, but an exemplar of the emergent fusion model. The venue had become a metaphor for the event. While it was not the sort of initiative for which Canada Council support would have been sought, it was a community-based, arts-centric undertaking.

  • 12 Subsequent to the kiss exhibition, two shows in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre further attested (...)

56Several of the artists involved have high reputations and the event benefited from support from the Ontario Arts Council and, mirabile dictu, from the otherwise notoriously philistine City of Kingston. The kiss project involved a large number of individuals and groups and the exhibition and forum were very well attended. It was deemed a huge success by the Kingston Arts Council and was welcomed by the gallery. It is, likely, the first of many future—and growing—collaborations between a traditional gallery and a community arts project. It is also a vivid illustration of a widely manifested contemporary phenomenon: boundaries of artistic and cultural activities are in a fluid state undergoing continuous change.12 I have made much of it here because it is a wonderful example and illustration of the emerging new image of what constitutes a cultural event. Not, in itself, frightfully important in the great scheme of things, it serves here as a snapshot of just one development in the vast panorama of social and cultural change. For every kiss there are innumerable similar initiatives—perhaps not all of them so successful—attesting to the evolving and beneficial convergence of aesthetic and community-oriented human endeavours.

How to Tread Through a Profusion of Cultures

57As we have found, the cultural community inhabits a vast tent, holding many tribes. I have identified two modal definitions of culture: the arts-centric and the society-focused. A third, mixed-perspective, emerged in the just-described fusion mode. It tends to be evident more at the community than at the national level.

58Does the recognition of these types facilitate the formulation of appropriate and effective government policies and the creation of suitable administrative structures and procedures? I believe that it can contribute quite a bit, if certain practices and even principles are deduced from an examination of each model. It is these deductions which retain us for the remainder of the paper. They have their source in two quite distinct aspects of the case. The first is roughly laid out in Figure 5; the other arises from my subjective attitude to, and evaluation of, the cultural domain. Since both the scoring in Figure 5 and my judgment in this area are intensely personal, I make no claim for presenting some sort of pristine universal law but rather warn the reader that what is offered is one person’s perception and guideline. That person has studied and thought about the issues involved for many years and from a variety of perspectives. In addition, he has from time to time descended into (“risen to” is actually the more appropriate term) the ubiquitous fray of cultural warriors, as a regulator, activist, and citizen. He has written extensively on a host of related issues and has come to adhere to his stance with some passion. But, he is as fallible as the next guy and offers views in a field notoriously guided by a deep diversity of opinions. The term “culture wars” carries many meanings.

59The pivotal point of departure, unchanged by my intensive recent course of study, is that the traditional creative arts are sacrosanct. Our existence as civilized, mentally healthy, and alive beings and societies depends on their flourishing. Whatever enlargement emerges of the definition of culture—and there will certainly be some—it must not lead to the diminution of support for traditional arts activities. On the contrary, more is needed. Furthermore, in my vocabulary, these activities include not only music, dance, theatre, and plastic arts but also publishing and all of book culture, as well as the rest of the hazardously named cultural industries.

60A number of related cultural areas—notably museums, archives, and libraries—are equally worthy players. Ways need to be found to fit them into a coherent and all-embracing policy arena in which overall approaches are developed to the needs of all participants. Both “creative” and “institutional” aspects must be covered.

61Community Based Creative Activities also rightfully claim a place in the sun. They include such fields as architecture, archaeology, streetscapes, folkloric ventures, buskers, or the beautification of a variety of urban and rural spaces. They are as legitimate as the others mentioned here but may require a somewhat different institutional support system. And, since there is often a considerable overlap in focus and in the creative media employed, flexibility is of the essence. Individual cases to some extent command specific policy and institutional responses.

62This massive (dare I say crushing?) panorama of activities and enterprises presents too lush and bustling a jungle to fall within a single policy framework. What we have, but need to refine, is a variety of policies and policy fora. The benefits of these to the cultural community and the public will be optimized if consistency, compatibility, and congruence are achieved among them, rather than if they exist at cross purposes. At the same time, individuality and variety are of the essence. No monolithic policy environment should or could ever be developed. But an appropriately flexible and congruent policy setting will protect and enhance creative Canada. To move towards the creation of propitious needed conditions requires that we see and understand the whole cultural situation in Canada and that we learn how the various parts can best interact. A great many useful programs are now in place and constitute a promising point of departure for a possible new inquiry. Their examination would become part of an inventory of the component parts and of a mapping of how they relate to one another.

63The task involved would be colossal, requiring the mobilization of huge and well endowed human and monetary resources. It would, further, need the collaboration of a wide variety of actors, some of them seemingly marginal to culture. Since, insofar as public policies are concerned, federal, provincial, and local jurisdictions would have to become involved, all levels of government would have to be included. The ever-growing importance of the private sector in culture furthermore dictates that its participation also be scrutinized and guided.

64We need, to put it in another way (and now you had better sit tight!), a new Massey Commission—one built on the scale recently associated with government inquiries into major national problems. I am not even sure that a royal commission or some such body will be best or whether a new creature ought to be invented—a joint public-private inquiry of a kind heretofore unknown and imagined by neither man nor beast. The recently created Council of the Federation might be approached as a possible partner in the cultural probe.

65That is a very tall order indeed; so tall that one needs to approach it most cautiously and carefully. A gargantuan enterprise on this scale will require a careful and slow build-up. The time for its completion should be reckoned in many long years, if not decades. But unless a beginning is made nothing at all will happen. It is well to remember the Chinese saw that even the longest journey must begin with a single step. The ccrn might take the initiative in the early exploratory probes but need not be the prime catalyst. A helpful start would be to convene a workshop or conference of manageable size bringing together some of the principal interests: the cca, the Department of Canadian Heritage, some homologous provincial organizations, the Canada Council, artists’ organizations from diverse fields and regions, some leading arts personalities, and certainly people representing the arts-centred, society-oriented schools and the fusion model should be involved from the start. Experts on business links to the arts will be essential and, it goes without saying, representatives of the scholarly community must play a part. The challenge will at first be to ensure that the launching pad be small enough to get things done, and large enough to contain most of the principal interests.


66The reader with a sense of shape and symmetry will be struck by our having come full circle. I embarked on an educational venture, a sort of refresher course, bringing me up to date on the current perceptions of the arts and of arts policy in Canada. While, as the foregoing shows, I have learnt a few things, I appear to be entering a new stage in my education, to be provided by another inquiry laying bare the facts and identifying future options.

67In concluding my original paper at the opening of the conference, I was upbeat about the political environment in Canada. The federal Liberals had acquired a new leader, the Harris era was over, and the municipalities were beginning to flex their muscles. This, I thought, could become a promising time for the arts, if they made a strong plea for themselves. They had not, however, managed to put together a coherent, overriding case, and as I indicated at the outset, could not even agree on what was embraced by the arts and arts policy. I wistfully suggested, as my final slightly facetious thought, that “if we knew what we wanted, this would be a good time to go for it.”

68A little over half a year later, Canada looks quite differently, seeking to re-learn how to make the most of a minority government. While this situation may inhibit innovation in cultural policy, it can nevertheless provide opportunities. The Martin Liberals, while not attaching high priority to the arts, are considerably more concerned than the new Conservative party. The Bloc, on the other hand, and also the ndp, on whom the minority government will from time to time have to depend, have the best record of the parties with respect to the arts. There may be an interregnum in which the idea of some sort of re-invented Massey II might receive favourable attention. One never knows what initiatives may come in handy during the fluid deal-making associated with minority governments. Irrespective of that, a time will inevitably come when the cultural community will again be able to rely on solid public and private support. It will be well to start preparing for that day now rather than wait for the advent of a dazzlingly promising conjuncture of the stars. So I return to the earlier admonition and, more tentatively than before perhaps, again conclude by urging that we consider starting to go for it.


1 Laurence J. Peter, cited in the “Thought du Jour,” The Globe and Mail (September 14, 1999).

2 “Political Culture and the Politics of Culture,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 7, no. 4 (December 1974): 601-15.

3 John Meisel, “Flora and Fauna on the Rideau: The Making of Cultural Policy,” Katherine A. Graham, ed., How Ottawa Spends, 1988/89: The Conservatives Heading Into the Stretch (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1988), 49-80.

4 John Meisel and Jean Van Loon, “Cultivating the Bushgarden: Cultural Policy in Canada,” in eds., Milton C. Cummings, Jr. and Richard S. Katz, The Patron State: Government and the Artsin Europe, North America and Japan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

5 Cummings and Katz, The Patron State.

6 M. Sharon Jeannotte, “Fractured Discourse: A Report from the Second International Conference on Cultural Policy Research—’Cultural Sites, Cultural Theory, Cultural Policy’” (prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage conference, January 23-26, 2002). See also M. Sharon Jeannotte, “Singing Alone? The Contribution of Cultural Capital to Social Cohesion and Sustainable Communities,” International Journal of Cultural Policy 9, no. 1 (2003): 35-39.

7 Jeannotte, “Fractured Discourse,” 4.

8 Royal Commission on National Development in Arts, Letters & Sciences, 1949-1951, Report (Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1951).

9 John Meisel, “Human Rights and the Transformation of the Multicultural State: The Canadian Case in a Global Context,” in K. Kulscar and D. Szabo, eds., Dual Images (Multiculturalism on Two Sides of the Atlantic (Budapest: Institute for Political Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1996), 19-40.

10 My purist self is now in a quandary. As you have noted, to remind the reader of the oral delivery in which the present ideas were first voiced, I have reproduced the overheads here accompanied by a little icon showing an old fashioned projector. Figures 6 and 7, however, came to my attention only after the colloquium and should, therefore, logically, not be accompanied by the projector. But, for the sake of consistency I have retained the image.

11 Kingston Arts Council, Draff Retrospective Catalogue, kiss Project.

12 Subsequent to the kiss exhibition, two shows in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre further attested to the ongoing broadening of horizons of traditional, arts-centric curators. One, “Art in Bloom,” contrived by the Gallery Association of volunteers, invited florists and horticulturalists to “select works in the galleries and design floral creations based on them.” Several artists were chosen, including some members of the Group of Seven and Rembrandt. The purpose was primarily to raise funds and bring in visitors to the gallery. The latter was more successful than the former. But there was no doubt that the aesthetic dimension met with great success.
The other exhibition, “Ah Wilderness! Resort Architecture in the Thousand Islands,” was put together by a very imaginative scholar, Pierre du Prey—a professor at Queen’s, well known for his important work on architecture in Canada and abroad. The exhibition was inspired by him and executed by him and members of one of his courses. The show recreated the life, history, and architectural legacy of the remarkable Thousand Islands.
Information on both these exhibitions can be found in the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre, Currents 20, no. 2 (Summer 2004).
A very handsome catalogue is available for the Thousand Island exhibition. It is entitled “Ah, Wilderness! Resort Architecture in the Thousand Islands” and is published by, and available from, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. See also

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The Sir Edward Peacock professor of political science emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston. His first paper on cultural policy, “Political Culture and the Politics of Culture,” appeared in the Canadian Journal of Political Science in 1974. He has kept a watching brief on cultural policy ever since. In the early 1980s he was chair of the Canadian Radio Television Commission. In 2002 he was chosen as the first winner of the John Meisel Award for Excellence in Cultural Research. Contrary to appearances, it was not he who established the award

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