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Accounting for Culture

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Caroline Andrew
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Monica Gattinger
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M. Sharon Jeannotte
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Part II. Voices

5. Reframing the Case for Culture

Allan Gregg

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1Allow me to start with a confession. I am neither an expert on public policy or culture. Rather, it has been my lifelong interest in politics and the arts—and particularly music—that has caused me to explore alternatives to existing cultural policy and a different way to frame the case for culture. More specifically still, it was a growing concern that both politics and the arts are imperiled in today’s environment that gave me impetus to venture into territory where common sense, if not expertise, would suggest I had no entitlement to explore. Over the last two decades, we have seen a systematic disengagement of citizens from public life.

2As recently as 1984, over sixty per cent of Canadians reported that they had at least a somewhat, if not very favourable impression of politicians. Today, more Canadians believe Elvis is alive than hold that particular point of view. This disengagement is also reflected in not merely their attitudes but also in public behaviour and patterns of political participation. In 1984, federal voter turnout was 75.3 per cent. Since then we have seen a steady and systematic decline, to an all time low of 61.2 per cent in the 2000 election. Generationally, the pattern is even more alarming and suggests things will get worse, rather than better, over time. In the 2000 national election study conducted for the chief electoral officer, voters under twenty-five were only half as likely as those over forty-eight years of age to report a belief that voting was “essential” (twenty-four per cent versus forty-four per cent).

3The state of affairs in the arts appears to be not one wit healthier. Not only does the average creator in this country earn under $15,000 per year, but if you ask the average Canadian what their priorities are for government spending, they routinely will tell you that funding for the arts and culture is at the bottom of their hit parade (it routinely wrestles for last place with foreign aid).

4Anyone intimately involved in the sector however will know that the response of the “average” citizen masks deep differences within the total population on the deemed importance of public support for the arts and culture. While the wisdom of funding symphonies, book publishers, museums and their ilk may be lost on the braying masses, there is a whole legion of cultural crusaders, mavens, and volunteers who seem to spend a considerable part of their day marshalling the case and lobbying policy-makers on the essentialness of more funds for the arts. Indeed, while it is rarely in the forefront of public debate, there is an argument that no single issue divides elites and the general masses more than this question.

5Yet as someone who has run numerous political campaigns, chaired film festivals and, as my failing hearing will attest, attended more rock shows than you can imagine, I have come to believe that the two endeavours are not unrelated.

6The arts have the power to bring citizens together in a shared experience and sense of community. Politics give citizens the necessary expression to translate values into the kind of community we collectively seek. The question for me therefore became “could the decline in faith in our political process and the lack of support for culture, be related?” And more proactively, “Can culture be used to rekindle faith in politics?”

7As far as we can tell, the decline in faith in political authority has its root in the late 1970s when the great experiments of post-war liberalism began to show some early cracks. The creation of a seamless welfare state failed to eradicate poverty, a collection of publicly-owned agencies and corporations were unable to deliver services or compete effectively with their private sector counterparts, and the limitless opportunities of the 1950s and 1960s began to shrink at the very same time that the public sector accelerated its interventionist activities. In its wake, governments were left with bloated deficits, taxpayers’ discretionary income shrank as government revenues grew, and problems believed to be in the purview of government deepened and became more complex. As they looked to themselves rather than to government and government-sponsored solutions, this increasingly well-educated electorate became more efficacious and defiant. Their attitudes were further fuelled by a vigilant and aggressive press, with a greater emphasis on investigative journalism that routinely exposed the shortcomings, foibles, and missteps of our elected leaders.

  • 1 E.J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics: The Death of the Democratic Process (New York: Simo (...)

8As E. J. Dionne observed some years ago in Why Americans Hate Politics,1 people were willing to tolerate a great deal of unpleasantness in politics when they saw the political process as productive. However, by the 1990s, Canadians had come to conclude that politics’ productive capacity had virtually collapsed. By the end of the millennium, rather than look to government to guide the public interest, all that was demanded was that government become more “efficient.” In the process, peripheral and nonessential government services and programs became not only the victim of spending cuts, but for many, actually associated as a handmaiden to the problems Canadians were experiencing.

9For whatever their failures, however, politicians and governments have never lost their ability to read the shifting public mood and the temper of our times. Rather than defend them and paddle against the current of public opinion, politicians have fed this cynicism. Government has responded by scaling back the scope of its activities to correspond more closely to the public’s reduced expectations.

10Far from reversing the loss of faith in public institutions, giving the public what it asked for has simply reinforced the notion that politicians are venal and that governments are incapable of acting as positive agents of social change. The entire process has resulted in what Thomas Frank refers to as “the train wreck ideal”: persuade the public that government is bad by giving them spectacularly bad government. Today, fifteen years of government responding to the lowered and cynical expectations of the public with lower and more cynical performance has served little purpose other than to excavate an even larger chasm between government and the electorate. Moreover, I would argue that there is a strong case to be made that governments in retreat have a deleterious effect on not just the quality of public policy but also on the quality of citizenship.

  • 2 Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York: Picador USA, 2000).

11I asked Naomi Klein, author of No Logo,2 the best selling screed against growing corporatism, for her opinion as to why a whole new generation of activists, protesting against everything from child labour practices to environmental protection to gay rights, chose to eschew politics, party, and parliament and instead channel their activism into single interest groups, non-government organizations, and other vehicles of so-called “civic culture.” Her answer was devastatingly simple. She said that in her entire adult life she could not recall one government initiative that she admired and was proud of. Voters under thirty-five who share her passion for societal improvement feel that the State not only fails to share that passion, but actively aids and abets those who oppose them. Small wonder then that in the last federal election, seventy-three per cent of first-time voters in the province of Quebec chose not to cast a ballot.

12Even if you accept this analysis, it still begs another set of inevitable questions: “Why should we even care about this?” “Who wants to return to the bad old days of excessive government intervention and decision-making by elite accommodation?” “Are we not better off—more independent and self-reliant, less deluded—by coming to the realization that we had misplaced our faith in governmental authority and instead began turning to a new found reliance on ourselves?”

13The answer is, of course, that when we come to view government and government initiatives as irrelevant, we cease to make demands on government to improve our lives and communities—we create an almost complete disconnect between the public and the output of public policy. Even worse, we lose the capacity to use ethical considerations to judge the output of government and how we are being governed. From there, it is a small step before we stop asking what kind of community we want and value. In the end, we cascade toward a society of meaninglessness.

14Think about it.

15Any poll I might care to conduct would find that Canadians, virtually to a person, report that they want homelessness eradicated, the environment protected, and disparities between the richest and poorest reduced. This being the case, how then do we explain the continued presence of the homeless in our midst; the systematic degradation of our environment and scare resources, the stunning accumulation of individual wealth in the face of heartbreaking third world poverty?

16Given the reputed power of public opinion, why does government not respond to these wishes with concerted effort and bold measures? Even more curiously, if this is what the public wants, why do we not hear a hue and cry when these problems persist and become more intractable? The fact is that while these may be the responses given in polls, they are rarely heard in public debates or translated into direct demands on government for action. Rather, what we find is a public who has come to accept that the homeless are just “there,” the deterioration of environment is accepted as part of the normal course of events, and the world is just “as it is.”

17Canadians—at least at an intellectual level—know what kind of community and society they want but seem to have stopped asking for it. Additionally, they have concluded that government is incapable or unwilling to produce the results they desire. Consequently, we not only fail to express these views, we have ceased to even frame these questions as part of our civic dialogue.

18This is the cascading effect of turning our back on the government as the principal vehicle through which society’s major aspirations are satisfied. It begins with cynicism toward our institutions, grows into indifference toward their outputs, and robs us of the desire to make ethical considerations an essential part of political debate. Rather than feel we have a kinship and responsibility to that homeless man on our street corner, we step around him. Our sense of and capacity for civic virtue has been eroded. Canadians may still view themselves as a “just person,” but they have become “bad citizens.”

19It is against this backdrop that cultural policy is currently framed. The arguments in support of cultural funding however are many, varied, rarely coherent, and most often revolve around questions of which constituency within the arts and cultural community is in most need or who would benefit most from this support. Writers, painters, filmmakers and musicians argue that they need financial aid in order to create their art. Book and magazine publishers, film producers, and record companies make the case for tax-based assistance so that they can build an indigenous cultural industry that will create jobs, expose the Canadian creator community to the public, and keep the American cultural wolf away from our door. Public broadcasters, museums, and other cultural “spaces” espouse a variation on these themes and attempt to make the case that they are the necessary conduit through which the Canadian voice and Canadian stories can be heard and told, without which we would be unaware of our common history, land, and peoples. Rarely stated, but always implicit in these pleas, is the premise that Canadian culture (at least at this point in time) is not economically or commercially viable. Not even whispered, however, is the further admission that Canadians and the average citizen are not sufficiently interested in any of these forms of cultural expression to pay—either through their tax dollar or at the box office—the freight for our creator community, cultural industries, or the public institutions that exhibit and host cultural events.

20Although I can hear my various invitations to exclusive film galas and gallery openings being ripped up as I speak, given the basic manner and form in which the case for culture is most often argued by the arts community, you have to ask yourself, “why would anyone expect otherwise?” The average Canadian is unschooled in the arcana of Rachmaninoff, Patterson Ewen or for that matter, even David Cronenberg. For their part, the cultural community does not seem to be overly concerned about this state of affairs. In fact, today, “great art,” “serious music,” and “true cinema” are not even deemed to be aimed at the mass market or suitable for consumption by the average Joe.

21Yet the same cultural community that believes art is so essential that they ask the many to reach into their pocket to fund their pursuits also sees their art as suitable for only the few. It should be of no surprise to any clear thinking person, therefore, that the conceit of the defenders of culture is met by passive disinterest or active disdain by the very people who are supposed to subsidise the arts.

22The fate of “low” art and the popular entertainment industry fares no better in the court of public opinion. If the aim of our book publishers, film producers, and record distributors is to create cultural products that will garner mass appeal, then the response of the taxpayers is “if the only benefits you generate are economic—either in the form of jobs or profits, I say good luck, but you’re on your own. Why should I subsidize your industry any more than any other?”

23By this point, my cultural friends have not only taken me off their guest lists, but have me pegged as a knuckle-dragging troglodyte. Pigeon-holing notwithstanding, the fact is that there is another and different case for culture that is available, and there is a credible argument that the population would support, and in the end, the creator community would actually benefit much more than it does under the current regime of endless subsidies and fruitless failures.

24This view starts from a perspective that is normally absent from the current debate over support for the arts—namely, focus not on why cultural support is important for the various (cultural and non-cultural) constituency groups who are the recipients of funding, but ask instead, “What purpose does culture serve in terms of society and citizenship?” For example, there is no “rational,” economic argument that a painter warrants state support any more than a plumber, for the intrinsic economic “value” of a painting is no greater than that of a toilet. The reason to support the painter and not the plumber therefore, is not for the painting that is produced, but for the effect that the painting has on the community. The effect, in turn, is to stimulate debate, create a common bond, inspire citizenship, and bring members of a community in closer proximity to one another—something a toilet can rarely do, but great art almost always does. In short, the “value” of cultural should not be measured as the end product of art but as the means by which art is exposed to and invigorates community life.

25Viewed in this way, the worth we place on art, as a society, need not be measured on the basis of either its input costs (i.e., paint, canvas, labour) or its market value as a product (i.e., the price it may command for commercial sale) but in terms of its galvanizing effect on citizenship.

26Similarly, it is all well and good to correlate the relationship of economic prosperity to cultural diversity (as the likes of Richard Florida have done quite convincingly), but the mere presence of a creative class alone offers no guarantee of greater community cohesion or civic virtue. In fact (as I’m sure many of you know) there is increasing evidence that many communities with the highest “bohemian indices” also score surprisingly low on measures of social capital. Indeed, the central focus of the original epistemological debates surrounding culture and citizenship that go back to the time of the Greeks demanded that creator and citizen must come in contact in a common sense of community. Why did the ancients create amphitheatres where politicians would hold court and spectacles would be produced? Why was the public square an essential part of the architecture of the earliest cities? Why did the Medicis build grand monuments to house the works of the artists they patronized?

27The rationale for all these early initiatives to “support culture” was to enrich the democratic ethos—a rationale that seems to have been obscured in modern times. Today, public support for culture has been reduced to a necessary substitute for shrinking private philanthropy or the grist of one of many industrial policy options. The end result is that we are left with the State (and taxpayers) subsidizing private enterprise on one hand or propping up “high” culture, which cannot support a commercial audience in its own right, on the other. By weighing the primary task of cultural development on a scale which measures how well art is disseminated to the public, rather than funding cultural products as an end unto itself, the value of this endeavour can be evaluated and embraced in a different way. “How the hell do we put a price tag on that?” we might well ask. The answer, of course, is that we cannot. Once that conclusion has been reached, however, it is a small step to recognize that culture, by definition, is not commercial, industrial, or economic—any more than we calculate the costs of free speech, justice, or democracy. It is an essential ingredient of civil society and its cost is an essential part of citizenship.

28The modern day rationale for refraining the case for culture in this way is rooted in the growing body of evidence concerning what is happening not just to the arts or to voter turnout but to the “social capital” of modern day western societies. Our propensity to "bowl alone" extends not just to the number of bowling leagues and teams but also to the frequency of family get-togethers, having friends over for dinner, memberships in parent-teacher associations, and almost any other group bridging and bonding activity that may bring citizens together into a sense of community. Television and the Internet, suburban commuting, two-career families, and increased mobility have all been linked to the diffusion of citizen contact and the increasing atomization of modern-day society.

29More than a nostalgic harkening back to a better time, this research suggests that a growing social capital deficit leads to the erosion of mutual support, co-operation, trust, and institutional effectiveness. In a more optimistic way, the evidence also indicates that when citizens actually are brought in contact with one another towards a common cause or purpose there is less violent crime, higher educational performance, lower levels of teen pregnancy, better health, and even higher personal incomes.

30This notion is neither revolutionary, speculative, nor new. De Tocqueville, almost two centuries ago, noted that when “a citizen… isolate(s) himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw(s) into the circle of family and friends, with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”3 Indeed, the entire hollowing out of our democratic institutions, loss of faith in political leaders and even declining voting turnout has been traced back to our less frequent social intercourse with our neighbours.

31While I have very little doubt that these two things are related, I wonder whether the social capital theorists may have confused cause with effect. In other words, there is a very strong argument that it is not our increasing tendency to “bowl alone” that has led to our loss of faith in the political system, but instead, it is our growing cynicism about the utility of our governments and the effectiveness of our elected leaders that leads to our increasing isolation from one another, and to our reluctance to tackle the problems we share as members of a community.

32Gathering together to satisfy human needs is, of course, the central integrating concept modern civilization has used to pursue collective goals and move society forward—it is nothing less than the basis and rationale for creating communities and governments. In fact, while you rarely hear anyone talk about it anymore, organizing ourselves into groups also has an ennobling effect on our individual character and behaviour. Jean-Jacques Rousseau eloquently made this point 340 years ago when he wrote The Social Contract:

[T]he passage…to civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man… find that he is forced to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations 4

33An explicit part of the “contract” Rousseau immortalized was that in exchange for the benefits of community, we must voluntarily surrender some of the unbridled freedom we would otherwise possess if we lived apart. We erect a stop sign that delays our arrival to our desired destination, but we do so willingly… to avoid head-on collisions.

34As I advise clients or comment on current events, I am struck by how often people I otherwise admire, seem to give short shrift to this fundamental aspect of our social organization—that community, duty, and restraint produces not only more efficient results than we could achieve alone, but it also breeds better citizens and better human beings—that there is a moral imperative that forms the basis of our gathering together and not simply a utilitarian and practical one.

35Culture viewed in a different way—from the perspective of the galvanizing effect it can have on our sense of shared experience, rather than as mere “products”—uniquely, has the properties required to be the glue that brings citizens together, and bonds them into a sense of community. And there are real life examples in the culture field already available that illustrate how this can happen—examples that afford an alternative perspective of how the State can support art to the benefit of not only the cultural community but to all Canadians.

36In 1988, a young man named Cameron Haynes launched a film festival in, of all places, Sudbury. Against all odds and in the face of much skepticism from the film community, it became (in his words and in the estimation of virtually everyone I know who has attended) “an overwhelming success.” Encouraged by the response of a community that had never experienced the opening of a Canadian film before, he started the northern film circuit in 1992. By coming to Toronto and getting film distributors to give him pictures, he took these movies (and often their directors—the likes of Atom Egoyan, Bruce MacDonald and Patricia Rozema) on a “tour” of centres such as Kirkland Lake, Timmins, and Sault Ste. Marie. In almost every case, the films sold out and the directors were treated as visiting royalty. He then did the same in southern Ontario in towns like St. Catherines, Woodstock, and Stratford. Today, the film circuit encompasses one hundred Canadian cities and has just been expanded to twenty centres in the United Kingdom. Forty new cities in Canada and eight in the United States are scheduled to join the circuit this year. Every year, since its inception, audience attendance has doubled and now totals a quarter of a million patrons. In Canada, twenty-eight per cent of attendees watch Canadian films. In the U.K. and the United States, the number is one hunred per cent. This compares to less than two per cent of commercial movie attendance in Canada and virtually nothing outside of our borders.

37For years, Mr. Haynes received no government support for his efforts, whatsoever. Today, approximately fifty per cent—or $300,000—of his budget is state supported and the box office he generates earns the film industry $1,500,000 per year. Compare this to Telefilm Canada which spent almost $200 million last year to fund 782 feature, short, and documentary films which virtually no one saw. In fact, the economic effectiveness of the two approaches, while telling in its own right, is almost irrelevant to the point being made. The fact is that Cam Haynes’s film circuit not only creates a real audience for Canadian films, it also uses arts and culture as a means to congregate Canadians together, and in doing so gives them a greater sense of sharing, common experience, and yes, citizenship.

38So, does this heroic tale of success (for that is most definitely what it is) mean that every creator with a paint-brush or manuscript, or every budding cultural entrepreneur with a good idea or innovative business plan should be the beneficiary of state largesse? Not necessarily. The case for cultural democracy, while willfully non-economic, is surprisingly hard-headed when it comes to “who gets what, when, and how.” By viewing art and cultural expression in terms of its effect on citizenship (rather than the constituency groups who are involved in the “products” of culture), the criteria for funding also become crystal clear. While I realize this is outright heresy for many, it is my belief that artists will create whether or not they have state support. In fact, I would submit you could pass a law banning artistic expression, and creators would still paint, sing, dance, and make films. Cultural businesses will survive based on their ability to find audiences for their products. The State has no need to support either the creation of cultural products or the overheads of profit-making enterprises.

39If, in the end, the case for culture rests with its essentialness to community, then the beneficiary of cultural support must—either directly or indirectly—be the citizen.

40This means support must be offered to citizens—like Cam Haynes—who aspire to be not just cultural entrepreneurs but also community builders, to volunteer-based groups who want to bring creators into their midst, and to public institutions who provide space for citizen interaction to take place.

41In practical terms, it also means authors or publishers who want to host a reading series in senior citizen homes should be eligible for funding. The landlord who wants to put a revolving art installation in the lobby of his building should get support. Churches, schools, and recreation centres—public spaces that sit empty most times of the day—should have public moneys set aside to hold gatherings and discussions around art, music, and literature. Festival holders, concert promoters, museums, and libraries would be the principal financial beneficiaries of this new funding criterion.

42And where would this leave our impoverished creators? First (and to address the issue of poverty), with a paying audience (if need be, subsidized by the State) to whom they can expose and sell their art. And even more importantly, in terms of cultural democracy, with a community that was immersed and surrounded by art, and over time, which would come to see our painters, writers, musicians, and performers as an essential part of its community rather than (as is so often the case today) as something tantamount to unworthy welfare recipients. And out of that community, I believe, would come not only better citizens, but real patrons of the arts, and real people who would better appreciate the meaning of art to their lives and who, in the end, would be far more ready to reach into their pocket in recognition of value they placed on the creators (nay, not simply creators, but now, neighbours) in their midst.

43Far from reducing funding for the arts, these changes would involve significant investments in infrastructure, public spaces, and events that disseminate art and bring culture closer to the taxpayer. If I’m right, it would also produce a citizenry that places cultural funding not at the bottom of its priority list, but closer to the top.

44In the end, this is a case not for retrenchment, but for cultural democracy—a public policy regime where instead of mimicking private philanthropy or aping industrial policy, public funding would be invested in communities, institutions, and organizations working to clasp art and citizenship to a single bosom.

Notes

1 E.J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics: The Death of the Democratic Process (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991).

2 Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York: Picador USA, 2000).

Auteur

Allan Gregg is one of Canada’s most respected and influential pollsters and political commentators. Over more than two decades, he has brought his skills to bear on every major social, political, and economic issue. His insight is highly sought after by chief executive officers, political leaders and the media, and he consults widely in the business community on issues ranging from corporate image and reputation to communications and marketing challenges. Allan was a pioneer in the integration of consulting, public-opinion research, public affairs, and communications. He not only has an intimate knowledge of the dynamics of policy-making but also a deep understanding of the communications processes necessary to forge a public consensus around government initiatives. Much sought after for his analysis, he is widely published and quoted. He appears on a weekly CBC National News panel, and is the host of two popular and respected talk shows—Gregg and Company and Allan Gregg In Conversation With. Currently chairman of The Strategic Counsel, a Toronto-based market research and consulting firm, he was a co-founder of Decima Research, one of Canada’s largest polling firms. He is also an entrepreneur with diverse interests in the entertainment industry, for example, in which one of his companies manages the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip

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