What We’re Really Talking About When We Debate the Value of the Arts: A reflection on the #CultureShock Debate

Shannon Litzenberger – December 1, 2014

published on: 2014/12/01 15:30

Shannon Litzenberger shares her take-aways from the Culture Shock debate entitled "Hard Facts VS. Proverbial Truths: The Impact of Arts & Culture on Canadian Citizens & Communities" held on November 20, 2014 at the Community Knowledge Exchange Summit. Moderated by Canada Council for the Arts Director and CEO Simon Brault, O.C., O.Q.

“Hard Facts VS Proverbial Truths: The Impact of Arts and Culture on Canadian Citizens and Communities” brought together Alain Dubuc, O.C., award winning economic journalist from La Presse and Shawn van Sluys, Executive Director of the Musagetes Foundation to debate the following resolution: "For arts and culture to be fully valued by society, their impact must be demonstrated with hard facts."

What ensued was well-argued case making for arts and culture on the part of both debaters, with a thoughtful and pointed preface by moderator and newly appointed Canada Council for the Arts Director and CEO Simon Brault, O.C., O.Q.

As a long-time arts advocate and policy thinker, I am all too familiar with the cases we make for the arts. The economic cases: arts and culture contributes significantly to GDP, creates jobs and generates tax revenues; the instrumental cases: engagement in arts and culture contributes to health and well-being, empowers youth to succeed in school, and motivates citizens to volunteer and engage in their communities; and the intrinsic cases: the arts encourage creativity and self-expression, shape our sense of belonging and inspire national pride.

I was not compelled to consider how we should make the case for the value of the arts but to whom? and why?

Hearing both Shawn and Alain speak to many of these arguments, I was not compelled to consider how we should make the case for the value of the arts but to whom? and why? Does ‘society’ really need convincing that their culture should be valued? While Canadians might be known to have an infamous inferiority complex, to imagine that we don’t value who we are, that we don’t express our cultural and social values openly and often, would be ridiculous.

So when we debate the value of arts and culture, let’s be clear about whom we’re talking to and why. This debate is not social, but political. And, it’s not about the value of arts and culture in and of itself. It’s about the value of arts and culture as a public good, worthy of adequate government investment to promote an active, democratic and accessible engagement in the diverse expression of our collective identity. It’s also about protecting our sense of identity and belonging as a nation, from the populist, elitist and exclusionary forces of a purely market driven economy.

When we reflect back on the origins of our cultural policies, dating back to the Massey report of the 1950's, Canada was cautioned that if we did not publicly fund a collective sense of identity through the arts we would be at risk of becoming more American. This sentiment gave birth to our system of public investment in arts and culture – a system that is floundering as government investment fails to keep pace with a rapidly growing arts and culture sector that reflects an increasingly pluralistic Canadian cultural identity.

The challenge is not a simple one, and the answer is not only in the hands of the public sector. However, as governments increasingly see themselves as corporate entities focused primarily on economic goals, we are losing sight of why the arts are publicly funded in the first place. Engagement in arts and culture gives us space to define our shared values, to understand difference, to contemplate our evolution as a society, to facilitate our personal creative expression, to feel a sense of belonging, and to express our unique identity as a nation. These are aims that any democratic government should be eager to support in order to better understand the collective consciousness of the citizens they represent, defend and make decisions for.

But as economic aims headline our political conversations, making the case for arts and culture has devolved from a principled argument about defending a fundamental public good that contributes to our well-being as Canadians, to an argument about job creation, contribution to GDP and tax revenues.

There was a time when the role of government (with the help of better-supported non-profits and charities), was to protect the economic, social and cultural well-being of its citizens, providing a kind of counterpoint to profit-driven, private sector interests. As our political system becomes more ideological and partisan, has it also become less representative and responsive? Have our values as Canadians become less and less reflected in government decision-making? Are we, indeed, becoming less Canadian?

“A nation’s civilization can be measured fairly by the extent to which [its] creative artists … are supported, encouraged and esteemed by [the] nation as a whole.”

To defend the arts in economic terms has become a contemporary trend and an unfortunate, but necessary, tactic when speaking to governments about investment. As Massey cautioned us more than a half century ago, this approach is not a sustainable one. He knew then that “A nation’s civilization can be measured fairly by the extent to which [its] creative artists … are supported, encouraged and esteemed by [the] nation as a whole.” Measured in these terms, how far have we really come?

If we wish to defend the value of arts and culture in Canada, let's listen carefully to, and consider the role we expect of our elected officials. How do they reflect our values as Canadians? And, more importantly, how will they enable Canadians to express and celebrate our own collective sense of self? How will they invest in our progress? Will they put our collective well-being at the forefront of their agenda? Will they make the case for arts and culture?