Attacks on the arts hurt us all

'I'm a Google Girl," she said. "Google makes my life better. I want to talk about all the good things coming out of the new technology, how it's helping create new art, new culture, and new ways of performing.

‘I’m a Google Girl,” she said. “Google makes my life better. I want to talk about all the good things coming out of the new technology, how it’s helping create new art, new culture, and new ways of performing.”

This was an interesting start to a ‘debate salon’ sponsored by the Banff Centre. There were at least two dozen people present, a collection of both new and famous writers from around the world.

I made the unfortunate mistake of speculating on the politics of Google. Wasn’t this one of several software companies informing on Chinese dissidents? Wasn’t Google blatantly stealing the copyrighted books of thousands of authors around the world? Wasn’t Google stockpiling everyone’s private information, photographing homes, logging internet searches, and retaining private gmail? All available to the CIA via the Patriot Act.

The debate was on.

There were sonorous comments from old professionals who reminisced about Russian spies in the ‘50s, writers who enjoyed chat rooms and research tips. The whole panoply.

It was a good debate, I thought, finally reaching a consensus that while the internet was a fabulous instrument, it was also extremely dangerous. But the conclusion wasn’t as important as the knowledge arising out of the debate, knowledge that would disseminate around the world.

The Banff Centre is a mishmash of architecture and competing dreams in a spectacular location, funded by various government bodies and major corporations – many with tainted public reputations they’re upgrading by funding this great cultural project. That’s both a generous and an intelligent gesture, especially when there’s rumours the centre is going to receive funding cutbacks.

There are a number of programs at Banff but most operate under the same assumption as these ‘salons.’ Out of this centre, multiple ideas will spawn and spread around the world. It’s a cultural think tank.

When you think about it, what does history praise most about nations? Culture. Not businessmen, except if they’re notorious crooks. Yet we live in a freakish age that subsidizes corporate executives who have now reached such a catastrophic salary level that the top 100 Canadian CEOs earn more than $7 million annually, an amount 174 times greater than the average worker in their corporations.

Do they deserve that? Not judging from the economic mess they’ve plunged the world into. Yet while we suffer recession and job losses, CEO earnings are skyrocketing, doubling in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, our various levels of government are keeping wages low, and raising taxes on the middle classes while cutting taxes for the wealthy. That top 100 CEOs of Canada each average about $700,000 in tax subsidies a year due to the skewed tax system.

Punish the poor and reward the wealthy! Somebody has to pay for all those jets.

Now that these corporations and their pawns in government have squeezed just about all they can out of the middle class and low-wage earners, they’ve set their sights on Canada’s culture, although this is bad business. Bad for the country and bad for the cultural industry, which, along with tourism, is arguably the greatest, most self-sustaining industry in Canada.

In Canada, our struggling book industry still produced 180,000 books last year. This is a flabbergasting number. In the US 1,400,000 unique titles were sold. Whoa. Yup, we’re talking about an enormous industry.

Last year, Canadian cultural industries produced $40 billion in GDP. That’s more than mining and oil and gas, and twice the production of forestry and agriculture combined. This statistic also uses a restrictive definition of cultural industry. Using a more inclusive definition, culture actually produced $80 billion, despite the recession.

Culture? Think about it. Think about your movies, videos, concerts, plays, CDs and mp3s, books, galleries, night clubs, your children’s dance or music classes. And learning a musical instrument makes for better business thinkers than a degree in business!

Culture. It’s all around you. The creative class also instigates neighbourhood renewal, naturally inspiring and demanding better restaurants, better design, more interesting clothing and buildings, more varied communities and stores. Culture workers make your community. They’re what you want. However, our bizarre politicians and pundits don’t think so.

Artists and intellectuals have become terms of contempt. Only a few decades ago we all wanted our children to attend university. Now our prime minister is insulting artists while praising the under-regulated, polluting tarsands developers.

What has happened to us? Why are the few cultural centres like Banff and our local arts centres fighting for their lives? In British Columbia the government cut the entire funding to many arts organizations.

True, grants for artists can sometimes go as awry as subsidies to the tarsands. I’ve always been suspicious of grants, but I’ve also used them. In the economy we have created, the arts need support. What are the facts? Well, if your government gives an artist $1, the activity that artist provides will create $1.4 in taxes alone! Yup, except for a very few famous artists, we mostly work for below the minimum wage and provide for the rich. The average writer earns $12,000 a year in Canada.

But I don’t even want to make the economic argument. That’s the least of the reasons for defending your culture. The most important one is that the likes of me, and your local tuba player, dancer, actor, painter, rap singer, make a community a place worth living in.

I don’t know if we could say that about the demeaning, minimum-wage-paying fast food restaurants that are killing your children with fat and sugar and salt.

Culture is the community. Cultural people create beauty. They help the troubled and build towns. It’s all documented in The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida. And they make beauty while laughing at their low wages.

What do our governments do? They kick our culture so we can provide subsidies to polluters and resource industries creating climate change.

It’s your choice. You elect our governments. So why do you keep making the wrong choice?

Brian Brett, poet, journalist and novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His new book, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, was released by Greystone Books in the fall.

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