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The Industry of Culture

While it was quite refreshing to see culture come up in the leaders debate there’s still an unsettling trend of framing the various issues in the context of “is cultural product important”? These are usually identifiable by such thrilling arguments such as:

  • I don’t think taxpayer money should have been spent on (Artistic Thing Goes Here)
  • (Famous Canadian Artist) is vitally important internationally because…
  • Canadian’s aren’t known internationally for their trade agreements, they’re known for (Music, Film, Literature…)
  • The government shouldn’t be stifling freedom of speech!
  • The government shouldn’t be funding inexorable filth!
  • etc, etc, etc…

Defending the importance of the arts is important, and many people will do a better job than I at doing so (and lots of others will rebutt them). But in framing the entirety of the conversation in such a way we are ignoring positions that can be discussed without relying on personal preference and moral dogma.

When the entire creative sector responded negatively to bill C-10 (a the conservatives proposed amendment to how tax credits would be administered) – it wasn’t just because of censorship issues. The truth is there have always been significant content restrictions on things like tax credits (raising the question why exactly the government was trying to close loopholes that don’t, and have never, existed). An equally troubling issue was the lack of knowledge about how the bill would fundamentally impact the business of making film and television. Under the proposals, it would be impossible to interim finance tax credits, so they effectively would no longer be available to be part of a film or television series financing and would therefore legitimately threaten to sink a very large percentage of the domestic production industry. Now it’s equally worth noting that film and television tax credits are a revenue positive subsidy (the tax income generated by this activity is much greater than the amount reimbursed as a credit) – so the net result to these changes would be to cost the government tax revenue, lose jobs, and decrease the amount of Canadian cultural production. This is just a bad job no matter how you look at it (which may be part of the reason the Conservative election platform has offered to just forget about it entirely).

By the same token, while a national debate on the importance of ballet, symphony, opera, writers, and artists of all stripes is always welcome – it obfuscates what can be very simply quantified as a huge cut to export, capacity, and training funds. The $45 Million dollars in question wasn’t funding artists, or art product, it was to subsidize the industry of profiting from culture. But because of the baggage that “culture” entails we’re not talking about it like a cut to natural resource export, or manufacturing export, or technology export… we’re talking about the “value” of culture.

And then we’re surprised when we can’t reach a national consensus?

Government funding isn’t sancrosanct. I strongly believe that any government funding in any sector needs to have performance targets, measurable results, and the general goal that limited resources should produce the most good for the largest amount of people. I think that’s a basic premise that all Canadians would support, regardless of their political leanings. But in the uproar smoke and noise about the larger issue of ” culture” three fundamental questions about the $45 Million arts cuts remain unasked and unanswered:

1. Why were *these* specific funds targeted?
2. What are they being replaced with (if at all)?
3. Where is this savings being (presumably better) spent?

I have no problem with the Harper government (or any government) determining that an initiative isn’t performing as well as it could, and reallocating scarce resources into better performing areas. That’s quantifiable independent of ideology. That’s business.

However, many of the funds that were cut (to my understanding) were in the process of having studies done to measure their effectiveness – studies that weren’t concluded. Instead of concrete rationale, we Instead we’ve gotten vague suggestions that the bulk of the funding savings has been earmarked for the Olympic Torch Run.

Broader issues of “art” are important, and need to be had with all the passion and vitriol our sector can muster – but we shouldn’t be afraid of nuts and bolts “dollars and cents” discussions either. One is important for defining the national spirit, one is important for defining the national budget, and the Canadian Cultural sector is strong enough to defend itself on both those fronts.

[ Edit 10/13 – Please don’t hesitate to tell me when I’ve clearly Frankensteined two sentences together and missed the fact that the clauses in each entirely no longer remotely resemble the English language ]