Politics - Federal

This Ordinary Working Person Supports the Arts

By Jason Leach
Published September 24, 2008

Much of the current, unnecessary election campaign has been fairly boring, and for good reason. It's hard to drum up excitement when everyone already knows what the outcome will be in an election called as more of a personal war between political parties (whom I would love to see abolished someday, but that's for another discussion).

However, a quote today from Stephen Harper caught my attention:

"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," Harper said in Saskatoon, where he was campaigning for the Oct. 14 election.

Now, by ordinary does he mean people like you and me, or people living the high-life on the public fund in Ottawa? Hmmm, I wonder.

I consider myself ordinary, in a good way. I work full-time, have an incredible family and am blessed with great friends and a great church.

I am a drummer (yes, that counts as a musician) and have a great affinity for history and architecture. All three of these pastimes can be considered artistic, I guess, but I'm no Picasso.

There's plenty not to like about this quick rant from our PM. I admit to getting a kick out of the sentence referring to ordinary folks coming home to watch 'publicly subsidized' artists on TV.

It's not as easy to spout off about 'public subsidies' these days when the US is attempting to toss a pretty $700 billion subsidy at the richest people on planet earth.

Furthermore, I wonder how Mr. Harper assumes that all of these "ordinary people" got home from work? On a subsidized highway, perhaps? Or a subsidized transit system (albeit, not subsidized to nearly the same extent as the aforementioned highway)?

I didn't realize we still had politicians so willing to fudge words and phrases like this in order to paint an image in the public's mind. I mean, this is the same party that upped the annual oil industry subsidy from $1.5 billion to 2.4 billion when they first took office.

I guess some of the public are still easily swayed by such rhetoric, but I digress.

The real issue here is the arts. A wise man once said, "nobody goes to Paris and Rome to enjoy all the nicely paved highways and roads."

We spend thousands of dollars to travel to these world-class cities to enjoy their rich history, architecture, arts, entertainment and culture. If we were really going to these places to check out the fabulous highway infrastructure, we could save some money and take an exotic vacation in Amherst, NY or Mississuaga.

A recent study into Canada's arts community crunched some numbers and showed that for every dollar of government money pumped into the arts, it generated $3 in return. That sounds like an investment, not a subsidy.

I'm not sure if there is a more sinister motive behind the scenes. I get the impression that it's simply another case of a politician being completely removed from real society.

This is true of all of them (although Elizabeth May is earning some brownie points by taking VIA Rail across Canada).

Canada is woefully behind most other comparable nations when it comes to arts funding. In Hamilton, one only needs to wander up James North to see how vital the arts can be in our everyday life and society.

Real estate values are up, stores are renovated and occupied, crime is down and new businesses are moving into the area thanks to the recent influx of art ventures and artists.

It would seem to me that some well-planned government investment into an area like this would be much more preferable than spending that same government money on extra police and property standards officers in an empty, decaying urban neighbourhood.

What does it say about our society when we prefer a newspaper headline reading, "Government to invest $50 million into crime and policing improvements" instead of "Government investing $50 million into burgeoning, vibrant arts district downtown"?

It says a lot about our politicians, but it probably says even more about you and me.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 24, 2008 at 11:41:33

You're right - It's an 'election about nothing'

As for the arts, you are right on all points but, sadly, this will never become a wedge issue. Keep quoting crime stats, keep us scared and then promise to protect us, that's the way to win an election :) (Next step capital punishment...)

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 13:32:20

"I didn't realize we still had politicians so willing to fudge words and phrases like this in order to paint an image in the public's mind."

You've totally nailed it. This little rant was dog whistle stuff for the base. If he came right out and said "elitists" or "Hollywood North liberals", everyone would know that he was taking a page right out of the Rove/Republican playbook so he uses weasel words instead. You have to remember this is the party that consulted with Republican strategists before the last election. Seems Harper learned his lessons well.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 14:07:30

Wow, great article! Although I'm artistically challenged in every way myself, I can still appreciate Canadian culture and undertsand the need to help presrve our cultural heritage & help our current artists flourish.
You make great points, and I sincerely hope someone uses this article as a Town Hall type question during the Debates. Stop Harper in his tracks, or have him refer to people who enjoy the Arts as 'un-ordinary'.
If there is anyone who is out of touch with Canadians, or 'ordinary folks', it's not Stephane Dion or Jack Layton or Elizabeth May... it's Stephen Harper and his group of tight-lipped, off-the-wall extremists he has labeled as candidates.

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By Sharpie (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 14:10:21

That's it, David, what you said! He's trying to play the "elitism" card, but Harper actually insulted Canadians by talking to the "ordinary working person" as if they're not sophisticated enough to enjoy or appreciate the arts. I hope it backfires on him.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 14:30:39

Most artists are losers who can't get real jobs and need to steal money from the honest taxpayer to keep from going hungry. You want to support the arts? Do it with money out of your own pocket. Don't take money out of mine.

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By Another Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 15:17:32

I'm a capitalist (small business owner), and I support funding for the arts. It's a good investment, that pays for itself in new economic activity. Tell me capitalist, do you also think parents who send there kids to public school are losers who can't pay for real schools and need to steal money from the honest taxpayer to keep from being uneducated?

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted September 24, 2008 at 15:34:05

I'm against government funding not because I'm against the arts, but because I'm for small government. Let me keep my money in my pocket so that I can support the arts myself. I don't need a bureaucrat to decide what kind of art has value. I'll do that myself, thank you very much.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 24, 2008 at 16:05:31

gullchasedship, would you also be ok if the government decided that certain freeways weren't worth their moey...say, the 401 or QEW?? Would it be fine for only users of those roads to pay for them and nobody else?? Careful what you wish for.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 10:14:14

Jason, haven't you been advocating that people who use roads should pay for them through tolls? Like the Red Hill. So people who use roads should be paying for them, but we all have to pay for artists who can't sell their work in the private marketplace. Please let us what your priorities are and how you rank them because you appear to be all over the map.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 10:22:51

no, I haven't been advocating anything. I'm merely reminding people of how society works. Too often we get stupid comments like the one above suggesting that artists are subsidized losers. Yet, the very people making those comments enjoy things everyday in their lives that are also subsidized. I realize human nature is absolutely selfish and greedy, but you can't have it both ways - no government investment for anything other than what you want. That's not how society works.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 25, 2008 at 11:06:46

jason wrote:

I realize human nature is absolutely selfish and greedy

I disagree. Based on the evidence, people are generally able to regard the needs and interests of others in addition to their own needs and interests.

I recently read about an experiment in which a group of people were each given money and the choice to deposit it in either a private account or a group account (or a combination). Whatever they placed in the private account they would receive back, but whatever they placed in the public account would be multiplied by more than one and divided equally among everyone.

Neoliberal economic theory states that everyone should have put the money into their own private accounts, since people are supposed to follow rational self interest and anyone putting money into a public account might get burned if others freeloaded.

Of course, that's not what actually happened. On average, people put around half their money into a private account and half into the public - and that arrangement was the most common as well as the mean.

In fact, only one test group exhibited behaviour similar to neoliberal theory: a group of economics graduate students. Even they deviated from the model and placed around a quarter of their money into the public account.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 11:50:17

Jason, so by your comments above can I assume that you DO NOT support tolls on the Red Hill and never have?

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 15:02:33

Considering what a High Saskatoon & Saskatchewan are on lately in T.V. & film production, I'm surprised that he would say that there.

(Actually No I'm Not Surprised! The ignorance & self-satisfied rudeness that spews for from these people on an almost daily basis should leave no ignorant comment as a surprise.)

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 15:46:28

Another thing..What kind of t.v. does Stephen Harper have? Magic Cable perhaps??

(I've never seen any 'rich galas' with 'rich gala' people on my t.v. These are private fundraisers & are not shown on t.v.)

If people want a Canadian Film & T.V. Industry in Canada, it's NOT a particularly good idea to remove or cut Arts funding from Universities, Colleges & Applied Trade Schools that will give young people the tools to work in these fields. Maybe he'd rather just import the 'refined product', just as we import our own oil & gas from U.S. refineries?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 16:05:54

Maybe journalists should ask him what 'rich galas' he's referring to that all these 'ordinary working people' are supposedly tuning into the moment they get home. If he's going to smear Canada's hard-working artists, he should be compelled to provide examples to justify his smears.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 17:03:07

capitalist, I've been remarkably consistent in my stance re: tolls or no tolls. I can only assume that you're asking me this question to keep from discussing the real issues at hand. Regardless, for the last time - as long as transit users pay a fare to board, drivers should pay a toll to drive. No highway tolls are fine too....as long as we axe transit fares.
I'm not sure where the money would come from for all of that (maybe the government can bail everyone out) so it would seem logical to have tolls and transit fares. Cheers.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2008 at 23:54:44

I think 'Capitalist' is confusing 'The Arts' with visual artists.

(The term starving artist came from somewhere & not from Gov. subsidies!) Visual artists & musicains work hard & are freequently underemployed to do their craft. If we were all as pragmatic & greedy as the Harper Set, there would be no original visual art, or music coming out of Canada. What exactly has Capitalist got against Art & Music?
The Arts as Harper refers to it is film, t.v. & all the hundreds of skilled & not so skilled people that are employed in both the actual production, post production, distribution, & marketing of the production. It also refers to the writers who create the stories, or adapt them to suit the production format.
You have everyone from costume designers & seamstresses, to carpenters, joiners, scene painters, computer effects tech's, musicians, truck drivers, caterers,& many more.
Now tell me if we enclude the companies to sell the raw materials, goods & services to make t.v. or film -
How can you tell these people that they are artsy-fartsy parasites?
Every single thing that is used by Stephen Harper & Capitalist from the secong they wake up in the morning to the time they go to sleep involves at least one Artist or industrial design artist. Sheets, towels, razor, comb, clothing, shoes, socks, car, bike, & everything in their work environment.
If these people have such contempt for 'The Arts', then they should stop wearing expensive suits, designer shoes, & stop driving elegant cars. They should immediately remove all the portrature from 21 Sussex Dr., & remove 21 Sussex Dr., too cuz somebody 'Designed' it.. An Architect!

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted September 26, 2008 at 07:53:50

The key elements are found in the first sentence:

"I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV ..."

From that little tid-bit we know something of the audience Harper's addressing. He is not in the company of "ordinary working people," and it is most likely that the audience is composed of many of those who orchestrate the 5ymPhony of 5Lime which 00zes out of a TV when it's turned on and mucks up our homes.

Ryan made an interesting comment though:

"I recently read about an experiment in which a group of people were each given money ..."

Ordinary working people are not "given money," they usually toil for it and wouldn't be spending it in the same way as a gift. The contestants in that experiment weren't all revealed to us in Ryan's post but enough information was given to assume a university pole was used to advertise the event. It is also safe to say that economic graduate students are pretty much just plain ordinary, the working part hasn't fully set in yet.

Harper is letting us know that the arts funding is being wasted at the top, and that the ordinary working people are not getting back what they're putting in. Their kids are tagging properties instead of painting Picasso's because of what they saw on TV and didn't learn in school. That's pretty general I know, but you'll get the picture, lest thou art amok and all soul in the muck.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 26, 2008 at 10:06:34

Margaret Atwood eviscerates Harper:


To be creative is, in fact, Canadian Mr. Harper is wrong: There's more to the arts than a bunch of rich people at galas whining about their grants MARGARET ATWOOD From Thursday's Globe and Mail September 24, 2008 at 11:00 PM EDT

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we've been punching above our weight on the world stage - in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it's a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada's cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada's GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an “estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined).”

But we've just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn't care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I'm one of them, and I'm no Warren Buffett.

I don't whine about my grants because I don't get any grants. I whine about other grants - grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper.

In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they'll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an “ordinary person.” Mr. Harper's idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that's attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures - cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines.

“Ordinary people” pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. “The arts” are not a “niche interest.” They are part of being human.

Moreover, “ordinary people” are participants. They form book clubs and join classes of all kinds - painting, dancing, drawing, pottery, photography - for the sheer joy of it. They sing in choirs, church and other, and play in marching bands. Kids start garage bands and make their own videos and web art, and put their music on the Net, and draw their own graphic novels.

“Ordinary people” have other outlets for their creativity, as well: Knitting and quilting have made comebacks; gardening is taken very seriously; the home woodworking shop is active. Add origami, costume design, egg decorating, flower arranging, and on and on ... Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made.

They show their appreciation by contributing. Canadians of all ages volunteer in vast numbers for local and city museums, for their art galleries and for countless cultural festivals - I think immediately of the Chinese New Year and the Caribana festival in Toronto, but there are so many others. Literary festivals have sprung up all over the country - volunteers set them up and provide the food, and “ordinary people” will drag their lawn chairs into a field - as in Nova Scotia's Read by the Sea - in order to listen to writers both local and national read and discuss their work. Mr. Harper has signalled that as far as he is concerned, those millions of hours of volunteer activity are a waste of time. He holds them in contempt.

I suggest that considering the huge amount of energy we spend on creative activity, to be creative is “ordinary.” It is an age-long and normal human characteristic: All children are born creative. It's the lack of any appreciation of these activities that is not ordinary. Mr. Harper has demonstrated that he has no knowledge of, or respect for, the capacities and interests of “ordinary people.” He's the “niche interest.” Not us.

It's been suggested that Mr. Harper's disdain for the arts is not merely a result of ignorance or a tin ear - that it is “ideologically motivated.” Now, I wonder what could be meant by that? Mr. Harper has said quite rightly that people understand we ought to keep within a budget. But his own contribution to that budget has been to heave the Liberal-generated surplus overboard so we have nothing left for a rainy day, and now, in addition, he wants to jeopardize those 600,000 arts jobs and those billions of dollars they generate for Canadians.

What's the idea here? That arts jobs should not exist because artists are naughty and might not vote for Mr. Harper? That Canadians ought not to make money from the wicked arts, but only from virtuous oil? That artists don't all live in one constituency, so who cares? Or is it that the majority of those arts jobs are located in Ontario and Quebec, and Mr. Harper is peeved at those provinces, and wants to increase his ongoing gutting of Ontario - $20-billion a year of Ontario taxpayers' money going out, a dribble grudgingly allowed back in - and spank Quebec for being so disobedient as not to appreciate his magnificence? He likes punishing, so maybe the arts-squashing is part of that: Whack the Heartland.

Or is it even worse? Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they're a mouthy lot and they don't line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth - the only kind of art you might need - but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master's Voice. Maybe that's why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn't like the competition for media space.

The Conservative caucus has already learned that lesson. Rumour has it that Mr. Harper's idea of what sort of art you should hang on your wall was signalled by his removal of all pictures of previous Conservative prime ministers from their lobby room - including John A. and Dief the Chief - and their replacement by pictures of none other than Mr. Harper himself. History, it seems, is to begin with him. In communist countries, this used to be called the Cult of Personality.

Mr. Harper is a guy who - rumour has it, again - tried to disband the student union in high school and then tried the same thing in college. Destiny is calling him, the way it called Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who burnt all records of the rulers before himself. It's an impulse that's been repeated many times since, the list is very long. Tear it down and level it flat, is the common motto. Then build a big statue of yourself.

Now that would be Art!

(Adapted from the 2008 Hurtig Lecture, to be delivered in Edmonton on Oct. 1)

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