The Unofficial, Unauthorized Conservative Party of Canada Policy Position on the Arts — Federal Election 2015
Canadian Artists and Stakeholders in the Arts,
Recent surveys and a broadly circulated open letter have asked us, the Conservative Party of Canada, to state our position on the arts and culture in Canada. We’ve so far declined to respond. This isn’t because we have anything against you or the arts; on the contrary, we consider ourselves relatively enlightened and believe that art and culture form a meaningful part of this or any country’s national life.
To state the obvious, you’re not really our base — the swing voters among you almost never swing our way — so we have no direct strategic interest in campaigning for your votes in particular. Moreover, our base, though it has no specific dislike for the arts, has a healthy mistrust of government spending in general, and it’s reassured when we soft-pedal spending on programs that don’t directly and obviously safeguard the security of the country or create the conditions for economic prosperity. Our base isn’t anti-art, and it’s certainly not anti-broadcasting; it just isn’t convinced that those sectors should be nationalized or dominated by market-distorting, privileged government activities.
Our base may be wrong. There are, perhaps, good arguments for why the arts should be managed as a public trust and not led by private enterprise. But in the interest of transparency (we’re turning over a new leaf!), we’d like to articulate our thinking on this subject.
We find democracy pretty imperfect, not least because a majority is demonstrably sometimes mistaken about its own interests — there isn’t always wisdom in crowds. But, inveigh as you will against the so-called 1%, we’re not really so anti-democratic that we feel it’s proper to make the majority submit to the will of a very, very small minority. We simply haven’t heard from a large enough part of the Canadian public that the arts are a high priority. Given this relative silence, we feel your advocacy efforts are slightly misdirected, or at least lopsided, when they beseech us to care more about your cause. If you haven’t mobilized the public, a government increase in arts support would be an unjustified top-down imposition. Where would its legitimacy come from? How would such an imposition be any more legitimate than a putatively top-down program you don’t like, e.g. oil subsidies? Just because your group happens to think that art is good and healthful for the majority? How is this different from any other situation where a minority tries to impose its will on the public at large, without consensus?
Speaking of oil (since how can we not speak of oil?), part of our hesitation about branding ourselves as champions of the arts — besides the significant problem that only your interest group is asking for that right now, not the broader public — is that Canada has for a long time been a resource economy. Where I’m going with this may surprise you. Our cabinet ministers, like all reasonable observers, realize there’s a clear public interest in reducing Canada’s reliance on oil- and gas-related revenues. We don’t like to talk this way in public, obviously: you’d be amazed how readily corporations and their tax revenues re-domicile abroad when we squeeze industry, and how quickly mid-level and senior jobs follow, and how unhappy that makes working Canadians. But we know fossil fuels aren’t a long game. Look at current commodity prices. We get it.
But here’s the thing. Until renewable energy becomes a whole lot cheaper to produce and more profitable to sell, a reduced dependence on oil and gas will mean less money in government coffers. If oil revenue dries up before the Canadian economy has found a substitute for it, either because of changes in world petro-supply/demand or because we slam production through regulation, we’ll be facing an income crisis. Hard decisions. Some form of austerity, even if combined with judicious stimulus measures. In such a straitened situation, with ballooned welfare rolls, deficit spending to fund the arts — borrowing money to pay you folks — would not be a responsible priority. This would be true no matter which political party is in power.
We could be more optimistic about the commodities crunch, of course. If the challenges posed by climate change were tackled more through private sector innovation than through government regulation (both are necessary), the race to new technologies could spur investment and grow the economy: which could generate more discretionary public revenues for art and culture. But that would mean granting a central role to the market and continuing to liberalize trade and investment, perhaps in combination with, say, a carbon tax. And I think you won’t disagree that our party, since Mulroney, has been committed to open global markets and the promotion of trade.
We know you recognize that the arts exist as part of, and are sometimes in competition with, a matrix of other urgent public concerns. But we feel it can’t be said enough that government support for the arts exists at the will and desire of the community, not by natural right. And frankly, the current levels of arts funding in this country reflect the public’s belief, one we think is quite reasonable, that the professional life of an artist is a lottery. You might “make it,” you might not. If you value job security over flexibility and variety and the other benefits an artist’s life confers, there are plenty of jobs available in Canada’s large public service. The banks are always hiring. We’re not convinced it’s government’s role to create a industry-specific safety net in high risk, high reward sectors.
While we’re on the subject of state non-interference, we’d like to clear up a long-standing bugbear of your community: we don’t at all agree that a government’s decision not to fund art, whatever the reason, is “censorship.” Censorship is when you’re put in jail or beaten or tortured or executed for what you write on your blog, and it happens all over, but not yet in Canada. To decline to fund art is a legitimate power of any donor or patron or investor. You may find the selective use of that power to be gross, but we’re afraid politics is rather gross, everywhere and always. One powerful solution, perhaps, is to strengthen alternatives to public funding so the government can’t dictate its ideological priorities through a monopoly. This means more private investment in art, which depends on more private wealth. Which depends in turn on policies that support the creation of that wealth and the individual citizen’s discretion over it.
It would be nice if government, out of benevolence and a desire for self-improvement, would fund its critics. But it’s no accident that the estate most occupied with the critique of government — the press — is independent from it. A free press requires the government not to dictate the press’s contents; it doesn’t require the government directly to prop it up. Rather than indulge a naïve fantasy of truly disinterested government — government free of politics — it would seem wise to cultivate financial independence for the knowledge projects of the arts and sciences. Idealists will howl, but yes, that includes research into climate and the environment. To the extent that they’re privately funded and compete with each other for outstanding scholarship, the universities are much better resourced than the public bureaucracy to be citadels of intellectual freedom.
All that said, if granted another mandate by voters, we’ll continue quietly to support the arts, since we think there’s value there and we believe the public agrees, albeit in a fairly lukewarm, “It’s cool to live in a country where there’s opera, even if I never go,” sort of way. We feel your best shot at growth is to win over that public to a far greater extent than you’ve yet done. It may be honourable for you to identify yourself as a protest movement that resists the primacy of the private sector, which is founded on an idea of capitalism that some of you can’t abide. And, of course, you’re a diverse group: old-school forms like ballet and art music will have a different relationship to the marketplace than popular music, web-series, or even theatre. But, if and when you do so, we think it’s a mistake to sideline what the private sector has to offer: its marketing reach, financing powers, and enormous innovative energy.
Most importantly, we worry that your relative insulation from market pressures distances you from the real concerns and desires of the Canadian public. Say what you will about consumer culture, it does tend to produce a pretty illuminating model of individuals’ priorities at a given moment. We fear that an increase in our support would enable the creation of jobs and products for which there’s grossly insufficient public demand, and so allow you to pay even less attention to the public’s real tastes and views. Yes, you can stimulate demand where it doesn’t yet exist — but only if you’re willing to address people as they are, not (or not just) as you’d like them to be.
Take this essay, for instance. To judge by experience, it’s quite likely to elicit wails of outrage in your ranks. Yet the philosophical sensibility reflected here is shared, in whole or in part, by a significant segment of the population — and not just by those who vote Conservative. We worry that your distance from most Canadians means that you deny a hearing to a wide swath of ideas. You become monopolistic enforcers of your own group’s ideological status quo, to the exclusion of dissenting views within that community or audience interests without. “The antagonism of ideas,” as Tocqueville called it, weakens in our public fora. Established opinions don’t get tested by contradiction, put into conflict with their opposites; our society is the worse for it. Any liberal worth the name recognizes how dangerous this tendency is. And most audiences, we suspect, find it awfully boring.
We urge you to conceive of yourselves, perhaps not as entrepreneurs per se, but as enterprisers; to understand public funding not as an entitlement — since if everyone’s entitled to it, how can it legitimately be limited? — but as the community’s support for the most proven or most promising individuals and organizations, open to competition; and to recognize that any political party, even ours, will be obliged to support artists wholeheartedly if you’ve won the vocal enthusiasm of a broad public.
Of course, how to win the support of the public when you have relatively limited funding is a challenge. But no doubt the exceptional minds in your sector can dream up a few solutions.
If you have any questions about the Conservative Party of Canada’s arts and culture policy, please contact the real Conservative Party of Canada.
Once more for good measure: the views here expressed are in no way approved or endorsed by the Conservative Party of Canada. They’re not even reliably approved or endorsed by the author, who’s known to be a kidder.