The Next City Discussion Group, Making art that matters (part 2)

Andrew Coyne
The Next City
September 21, 1996


  1. Richard C. Millar, Senneville, Quebec, responds: October 19, 1996
  2. Christopher Maule, Ottawa, responds: October 25, 1996
  3. Michael Sturdy, Armstrong, British Columbia, responds: November 1, 1996
  4. Walter Pitman, Toronto, responds: November 7, 1996
  5. Mendelson Joe, Toronto, responds: December 8, 1996
  6. Andrew Coyne replies
  7. Ross Bradsen, Toronto, responds: April 19, 1997

Richard C. Millar, Senneville, Quebec, responds: October 19, 1996

Andrew Coyne really hit the nail on the head.

I buy original art, but I can decide for myself what culture I’ll pay for, and I don’t see why I should support it through my taxes. As a taxpayer working in an export industry, I find the continual whining about support for the arts on CBC particularly galling. It’s driving me to listen full time to National Public Radio, which while subsidised, at least has to earn direct listener support and so reflects listener interests.

Christopher Maule, Ottawa, responds: October 25, 1996

The contributions by Robert Fulford (“The CRTC Comedy Hour”) and Andrew Coyne (“Making art that matters”) on cultural issues make excellent points. However, Coyne may want to reconsider his statement, “There is no public support for state funding of religion.” Religious organizations, as charitable entities, receive preferential tax treatment with respect to donations and real estate. This probably makes religion the industry with the longest record of state support. Given its recent performance in providing educational services to native children, it is by no means clear why it should continue to receive these subsidies.

Interestingly, religion has some parallels with culture in the sense that the benefits of both are difficult to document and assess. For example, some religions offer salvation while it is claimed that culture promotes national unity. The claims of culture are hotly debated, perhaps it is time to visit the subsidies for religion.

Michael Sturdy, Armstrong, British Columbia, responds: November 1, 1996

In “Making art that matters,” the author (and the accompanying illustration) makes the argument that the state, in subsidizing the arts, actually has the effect of diluting our gene pool of talent with mediocrity. Mediocrity is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but are the artists, critics and curators on the juries of public money any less discriminating than those who administer private arts funds? How does giving an artist a grant make that artist less interested in sharpening his cutting edge than, say, an artist who must drive a cab all night as well? Let the markets present and future decide what is mediocre and what is not, but there can never be “too much” art. The problem here is that there is far less public money for the arts now, not too much. Canadians want the debt paid down, so Darwin must run the art shows for awhile.

I must take exception to Mr. Coyne’s somewhat irrelevant remark that “Spiritual salvation is surely at least as good as art. Yet there is no public support for state funding of religion; its mere suggestion would draw loud protests.” Obviously Mr. Coyne believes in spiritual salvation, but there are a lot of Canadians who resent the fact that there are a lot of empty pews sitting on a lot of valuable real estate that is owned by religious institutions who don’t pay a cent in property taxes even though the state helps them the same as those who do. Water, sewer, garbage collection, street maintenance and so on are services that the state has been giving away gratis for years. Why should churches be exempt? “Loud protests” have created a referendum in Colorado that would cease tax exemption for churches in that state.

Instead of taxing religious institutions, maybe we should make them subsidize the arts. We need more tortured crucifixes, bleeding heart Jesus paintings and weeping statues of the blessed virgin. Spiritual salvation depends on it, so what’s the difference? Churchgoers wouldn’t have to feel like freeloaders, and finally we would have “art that matters.” But hang it in a gallery and patrons would find their way out faster than Mr. Solomon can flag a cab back to the big city.

Walter Pitman, Toronto, responds: November 7, 1996

Mr Coyne’s thesis is that the “subsidization” of the arts by governments and agencies of governments is unfair to those who do not wish to contribute to the arts through their taxes and, more importantly, produces a good deal of art that does not “matter.”

Mr. Coyne opens his article opining the fact that all media coverage of the arts relates to its economic problems and its political correctness. Having identified a problem that artists themselves find irritating, Mr. Coyne then exacerbates the situation by defining the arts almost entirely in economic terms. He sees the arts as essentially “product” – paintings, films and performances. Even on that level he never reveals what differentiates “good” and “bad” art, or what constitutes art that “matters” – only that too much of it is by definition “bad.”

Ironically, he does this at a time when, by his own definition of the “arts,” Canadian artists are receiving accolades as never before from the world beyond our borders. Canadian books, films, musical compositions, performances are winning awards and standing ovations everywhere in French- and English-speaking countries. Judged even by that inadequate definition, in the eyes of the world it appears that we are producing a great deal of art that “matters.”

However, that is only a small part of what the arts and artists are about. Mr. Coyne says little about the real value of the arts to the individual and the community. There is nothing about the arts as a way children develop confidence and can go on to learn languages, mathematics and sciences, as Howard Gardner and his colleagues at Harvard University have demonstrated in important research on “multiple intelligences” that has taken place over the past 10 years. Nor does Mr. Coyne say much about the way the arts are a means by which we, as humans, can express our despair and disappointment in a healing rather than destructive way. Nor does he point out the moments of sheer joy and ecstasy of the moment that the arts, and not just the “professional” arts, bring to individuals and to the community.

The arts may be a “product,” but more important they are a process by which we grow and develop as decent, caring human beings, learning about ourselves and others, reaching understandings about the nature of humankind through artistic explorations of intellectual and spiritual questions that have confronted the species throughout recorded history.

Too much arts by that wider definition – surely not! If, as a result of public support there are paintings to be viewed, performances to be given, films to be seen, these enhance our togetherness as community – no small contribution in these days of technological isolation. But to concentrate on an illusory overabundance of product as an argument to reduce “subsidies” to artists is to miss the point that arts literacy is a universal entrance to civility in daily behaviour and creativity in a host of activities quite beyond what we refer to as the “arts.”

Mr. Coyne laments that “governments pour $3 billion every year into the arts’ upkeep.” The statistics Canada statement of government expenditure, as Mr. Coyne concedes, are related to total “cultural” costs and actually come to $6 billion – nearly $2 billion of which go to broadcasting, nearly $2 billion to support libraries and over a $1 billion for heritage resources including nature and provincial parks, archaeological sites and so on, leaving something less than a billion from all levels of government that could be identified as “subsidy” to artists and arts organizations for the “making of art” – a far cry from the sum of public support that Mr. Coyne assumes that artists are pocketing each year.

Any perusal of the levels of government grants to artists will reveal the fact that they are surprisingly low in value and meagre in number. For every artist receiving a grant, dozens are refused and hundreds never apply at all. Those who do receive assistance normally go through peer evaluation that effectively weeds out the incapable and self-indulgent. The modern democracy that took over the role of noble house, the church and wealthy patron that once made it possible for an artist to survive, has not made it lucrative by any stretch of the imagination.

One could make the argument that the major “subsidizers” of the arts are artists themselves. If one looks at the salaries commensurate with qualifications and experience in most categories of arts workers compared to other categories of workers, that statement reveals a truth that should concern us when they are also asked to justify the minimal response to their needs of governments at every level.

Mr. Coyne refuses to accept any difference between “making widgets” and making arts. He states, “I’ll believe that art is not like widgets in this sense, the day that artists refuse payment.” Well, Mr. Coyne, artists are imposed upon by nearly every charitable organization in the country to give performances, appear on television, provide a piece of art and do, indeed, refuse payment – not an expectation of “widget-makers.” As well, hopefully like “widget-makers,” they often give a donation to the cause as well.

“In Canada, we subsidize everything,” Mr. Coyne complains. That is sheer nonsense. He might begin by talking to the Mirvishes. More importantly, he might contact the directors of hundreds of choirs across the country who receive no “subsidy” and whose hundreds of thousands of choristers perform for nothing. He might also talk to those who participate in countless numbers of multicultural activities – dance, drama, visual arts, music – only a fraction of which receive any public support and do give performances for no remuneration whatsoever. He might interview the thousands of craftsmen and women, not one per cent of whom receive any public “subsidization.” And that would be only a beginning in any search to find artistic activities that receive little or no public support in Canada. If as a result of a government program with all the checks and balances stated above, an artist with revealed talent can receive necessary training, have time to write and not draw a paycheque for a few months, go into the classroom of a school in a less well-to-do neighbourhood, travel to a remote part of the province to bring joy where public performances are a rarity, allow a theatre company to experiment at the edge of dramatic art, encourage a composer to write a piece of music that expresses a Canadian commitment; it does not seem a waste of public money. No one would suggest that tax resources be poured out to fund the whim of any person who calls him or herself an artist, but we are light years away from that situation in Canada.

Mr. Coyne’s preoccupation with numbers of artists is quite bizarre. In a nation of nearly 30 million people it does not seem inappropriate to have 4000 writers any more than perhaps 40,000 truck drivers and 400,000 salespersons once one recognizes the educational and human developmental role of the artist. In the matter of assigning human resources, I am more concerned with the army of individuals whose only role is that of manipulating the global financial infrastructure, creating nothing but vast profits for the few and destabilizing the economy that must support the many. Mr. Coyne’s lumping of architects with dancers and sundry others to form 200,000 full-time artists does not seem out of line with the numbers of artists found in other countries and is of no significance unless one regards the artist as a socially destructive individual whose overabundance in numbers will undermine the health of the nation.

In that context he might have admitted that virtually every country in the western world (and eastern, for that matter) makes a contribution to their arts and artists. To mention only a few countries for which comparisons are appropriate – France, Germany, the United Kingdom all “subsidize” the arts more generously than Canada. Even that bastion of free enterprise with whom we share the continent “subsidizes” the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts, state arts councils and countless municipal agencies even though there are concentrations of corporate and foundation wealth providing support to the arts many times per capita in excess of what arts organizations can find in Canada. To end the “subsidization” of the arts would certainly make Canada unique in a way that few Canadians would appreciate.

I make that statement with support from a document published by the Ontario Arts Council in 1995. When Ontarians were questioned, 79% said that the arts were important to the quality of their lives, 67% said that they would miss the arts if there were none available in their communities, 87% agreed that if their community lost its art activities, people living there would lose something of value, 92% felt that arts activities helped to enrich the quality of our lives and 88% believed that it is important for the quality of life in their community to have arts facilities such as art galleries and theatres. To say that these numbers point out that the arts could be self-sustaining is to suggest arts deprivation for many whose lives would be that much less meaningful, particularly children and young people. It makes no sense in this or the next city.

Why are the developed (and developing) nations supporting the arts – besides the obvious reasons of encouraging the economic advantage of having people employed, drawing millions of tourists to spend money in their country, having artistic product to export abroad? Could it be because of the importance of having a citizenry that is creative, imaginative, reflective and intelligent? Is it not the same reason we “subsidize” a public schooling system and publicly support colleges and universities? (I suggest this example is a better one than Mr. Coyne’s identification of churches as institutions, which do not receive “subsidy” even though they do good works for the very reason that he is wrong. Churches do not pay property taxes. Surely a more effective “subsidy” could not be given and it is one that arts institutions would covet. As well, charitable status for givings from its members is a form of “subsidy,” as it is for “good works” organizations of all kinds.)

We pay taxes to support public schools, even if we have no children, because it is in our interest to have young people graduate with knowledge and skill rather than wander the world uneducated and incapable of making any contribution to the community. The crudely put adage “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” could be paraphrased for the arts . . . with compelling justification.

If we can stop thinking of the arts as simply commercial product and understand it as part of the process by which the intellectual and spiritual life of the community can be enhanced, the arts become a part of the “commons,” as much as transportation and communication infrastructures that are paid for by all, used by some more than others and are the basis of a modern civilized community.

It would clarify the discussion if we could replace the loaded word “subsidy” with a more positive term “investment.” It is surely an argument that the enormous “subsidies” given to business and industry (tax write-offs, grants for training and retraining, assistance for exploration, indeed countless forms of aid that make grants to artists pale to insignificance) are really investment in job creation. The arts, as Mr. Coyne concedes by his listing of the explosion of work in areas served by the arts and artists in the last quarter century, can make the same argument but can in fact make a better one: Dollars to arts and artists create more jobs than comparative support provided to the private industrial sector – by a large measure.

The fact is that a modern industrial state, and now the post-industrial information economy operates on a system of interdependence, with transfers of public money to assist both the private and voluntary sectors that support functions that all of us need in order to live abundantly, or live at all. It is this interaction that assures a civilized supportive community – rather than a mean-spirited, embattled collective life that spirals down to violence and anarchy.

Are there examples of “subsidies” that undermine society and cannot be perceived as investments in social health? Certainly! If, as a result of giving the forests to corporations, we find that our trees are cut down and not replaced, that “subsidy” is an outrage. If as a result of corporate power and government subservience, the nuclear industry not only puts people at risk but saddles generations with enormous debt and a costly and unreliable energy source, that indeed is a foolish “subsidy.” If as a result of overly generous support for a private sector that allows it to off-load its costs on the public purse, avoid appropriate taxation, ignore environmental limits and at the same time garner monstrous profits, something is wrong with such subsidization, particularly when we wake up 20 years later to discover the poor a good deal poorer and the rich a great deal richer both between countries and within national boundaries. That means that people suffer as a result of those “subsidies” – children starve, are homeless, sick and uneducated. That is “bad” investment and we know it.

The arts are very different. Growth in aesthetic appreciation, intellectual command and an understanding of others is growth that does not pollute or threaten the life of future generations.

In the insert in which Mr. Coyne disparages the role that nationalism plays in the lives of ordinary people thereby undercutting any argument for supporting the arts as a patriotic duty. In so arguing, he reveals his commitment to a global economy that will continue to impoverish many while making a small number of the corporate and financial élite with little commitment to any community incredibly wealthy. He is quite right in identifying and dismissing this nationalistic role of the arts in bolstering his argument. He is also in a small minority of opinion – some 4 per cent. The above-mentioned report on the attitudes of Ontarians indicates that 96 per cent agree that “the success of Canadian artists gives a sense of pride in Canadian achievement.” Globalization may be to the economic advantage of some elements of the economy, but as jobs disappear to low-wage countries we are discovering that national governments are the only protection we have to rescue the social programs that have been the triumph of the 20th century. More than ever before, people are realizing that a sense of belonging is an aspect of their quality of life. It is also the case that local economic development may be the salvation for young people faced with less expectation of a job than those of previous generations. Many of these enterprises will involve the arts.

The identification of national and provincial deficits as a danger signal has been necessary, but to unravel generations of social development in order to achieve a quick fix has been the lunacy of the ’90s. It was not “subsidies” to the arts and social services that created the deficit as much as it has been the “subsidy” of undertaxing the corporate sector and fiscal policies that have increased its power and profits on a global scale. It is the ultimate irony that the strategies that are now in place to reduce the deficit and achieve a balanced budget are further damaging the very people who were impoverished by the policies that produced the deficit in the first place.

The sustainable next city will have to be very different to the urban context we now enjoy. However, it will be congenial to a large extent on the basis of the accessibility of the arts to every child and adult within its boundaries. Artists themselves will make the art that “matters” and thereby create a society that nurtures creativity, imagination, wonder, awe and compassion – as well as prepare young people to contribute to the new economy that requires flexibility, ability to work in teams, communication skills and a host of other attributes. The small amount of investment that Canada now makes in the arts simply makes that solution more possible.

If as a result, our generation leaves something of beauty, of social and spiritual analysis and inspiration that will assist following generations to cope with the momentous challenges they must face, then government investment in the arts is surely the most effective use of tax resources that could be imagined.

Mendelson Joe, Toronto, responds: December 8, 1996

The bludgeoning anti-art diatribe painted by linear wordsmith Andrew Coyne is so damn logical and earnest it would take a master of debate like Moses Znaimer to neutralize Coyne’s foul wind.

As a primitive painter, I can only respond to Coyne’s pyramid of reason by saying art is essentially unreasonable, illogical and alinear. And, yes, Van Gogh produced his work with only one known sale, but somebody somewhere helped him survive long enough to create the magic many humans today acknowledge and savor a hundred years after his death.

As for taxpayer funding of the arts, I’m the first to denounce the fact that many individuals who receive grants are shams and shameless gluttons. No affluent person should be eligible for an individual arts grant nor should a part-timer be eligible. Nevertheless, I contend that economically-challenged (poor), full-time, committed (self-employed at his/her art for at least five consecutive years) artists deserve government support because, as Van Gogh and countless others have shown us, artists do live difficult existences, and the products of their struggles often go unrecognized for decades after their passing. I suppose I’m saying all humans deserve basic survival needs, especially those who dare to actively and methodically produce work that seems useless and even more especially, in a society that is essentially wealthy like ours despite the growing gulf between those with electric fences and those with no dinner.

No matter who produces art, whether it’s a six-year-old playing with crayons or the players in a rural village theatre group, the pursuit of ideas and imagination promotes the possibility of a world where humans might rise above pragmatic linear thought in celebration of all that is illogical like love or meteor showers or hot fruit pie.

Linear thinkers are clearly good for solving profound messes we humans create for ourselves. I’m speaking about those wizards who attempt to correct man’s big booboos such as the proliferation of nuclear power to name one very big booboo.

But then there are those linear champions like Mr. Coyne who appear to function as highly articulate warts on the backside of cynicism; Coyne lives to dull any dreams that are not imminently profitable.

So, though there are too many artists in Andrew Coyne’s Canada, I’d much prefer artists at large to cold-blooded bean-counters who would downsize a poem if it was not cost-effective.

The title “Making art that matters” is by definition a broad slight upon the spirit that inevitably inspires humans to create impractical manifestations which we term “art.” Everyone knows subsidies are essential to keep a ballet on its toes. (It’s simply not the same as hockey, Mr. Coyne.) My brain and experience tell me that in a civilized society, governments will always have to accept that the arts require special care and late night feedings, so imagination flourishes over thuggery and greed.

Andrew Coyne replies

I am grateful to Mr. Pitman for his lengthy reply. I only wish there were more in it that addressed itself to the argument I made.

To recap: I argued that it is a mistake to equate support for the arts with state support of the arts. If people want to support the arts they can; if they don’t, there doesn’t seem much point in forcing them to. There is nothing to prevent them from doing so, as in the case of “public goods,” and no evidence from history that the art that people paid for themselves was any worse than the art that was bought with other people’s money.

Indeed, if anything, we should expect to find the reverse. A work of art is not a thing of which we can never have too much (I quote again Mr. Pitman’s own esthetic credo: “The more art there is, the better it is”). It is a relationship, between the artist and his audience. That relationship, I argue, begins not with the finished product, but with the decision to create it, a decision that is inevitably tied up in how it is paid for (indeed, that is the whole case for subsidy). To the extent that it places itself between the artist and the audience, state support dulls the sense of obligation each ought to feel to the other, and to art.

The esthetic experience is necessarily personal; so, too, should be decisions about funding. That’s an artistic argument, but it remains also a statement about a civil society and the grounds on which we are entitled to demand that others pay for our pleasures. The undoubted merits of a particular work of art, or of art itself, are not sufficient in themselves to make the case for state support; if we’re going to take other people’s money to pay for something, no matter how wonderful it may be, we are obliged to show why we cannot pay for it ourselves.

What, then, is the substance of Mr. Pitman’s reply? I list his main arguments in order of appearance: The arts are good; It’s not that much money; Everybody else does it; The arts are good; People love the arts; Other things are subsidized; and of course, The arts are good. How do any of these make the case for state support — as opposed to support — for the arts?

I am alive to art’s potential use “as a way children develop confidence,” its value as a means of expressing “despair and disappointment,” not to say the “sheer joy and ecstasy of the moment” and the rest of art’s many sublime delights. I am just not clear how any of this applies to people who do not ever come into contact with the arts, nor wish to. And if they do not in fact have any direct experience of these pleasures, why should they have to pay the same as those who do? Mr. Pitman may believe it is enough to “enhance our togetherness as a community” that “there are paintings to be viewed, performances to be given, films to be seen,” but I cannot help thinking it is probably at least as important that those films actually are seen — and that subsidy makes this less likely, not more.

We can argue, then, the precise amounts that governments contribute to the production of art, but whether it’s $3 billion a year or $1 billion or $1, it’s money ill spent — and money that is unavailable to other causes for which the case for subsidy is better established. It is not, in the same vein, an argument for subsidy that artists get so little of it if they should not be getting any of it — especially as they seem so willing to work without it. But certainly the availability of subsidy has helped fuel the rapid expansion of those seeking work — and funding — as artists and, thus, has necessarily left each having to make do with less.

Mr. Pitman’s other arguments are equally baffling. That other countries subsidize the arts does not make it right; that other things are subsidized in Canada, on the other hand, may be either right or wrong. Where it is wrong, as in subsidies to nuclear power, it hardly makes subsidizing the arts any more right. Where it is right, as in public education, it is for reasons that are not present in respect of the arts. We do not, as Mr. Pitman fancies, pay for public education “because it is in our interest to have young people graduate with knowledge and skill.” Our interest in those young graduates’ skills is fully discharged by the salary that we pay them. We subsidize public education in order to ensure that children from poor families can go to school, and if we were wise we would subsidize the families rather than the schools. Possibly those children will study the arts at school and, so, encounter art’s civilizing mission. Wonderful. That is a very different matter than picking up half the tab for the carriage trade’s nights at the opera.

Mr. Pitman seems incapable of distinguishing between a good whose benefits are largely restricted to those who consume it directly, and which can therefore be paid for privately, and those whose benefits are diffused over the community at large, and which can therefore only be paid for collectively. If he likes a thing, it is simply deemed to be of benefit to the community. About the only place he succeeds in conjuring a collective benefit from the arts, a benefit enjoyed just as much by those who do not attend the arts as by those who do, is in the matter of national pride. This is indeed an argument for state involvement in archiving extant works: the National Gallery of Canada, for example. A collection of the finest art that a society has produced may well be the object of national pride; as such, it may be something people would be willing to pay for, whether or not they actually visited the place.

This is to be distinguished from the usual business of subsidy, which is directed to supporting artistic creation. The celebration of works on which there is already a high degree of consensus is more likely to generate a collective benefit, or “positive externality,” than the commissioning of new works on which tastes may differ violently. By the same token, the culture that arises from the accretion of individual judgments and individual sacrifices seems more likely to inspire national pride than the subsidized offspring of closeted peer juries.

But to repeat: The problem of subsidy is independent of the quality of the work produced. I do have concerns about the kind of art produced in a cultural milieu that is so firmly rooted in contempt for the audience. But even if state support produced nothing but Shakespeare and Molière, there are larger questions afoot than just: What does it mean for art? We must also ask: What does it mean for society? On what grounds, in a liberal democracy, are we justified in reaching into our neighbor’s pocket? It is not enough to argue the means by reference only to the ends.

The palace of Versailles is a magnificent artistic achievement. It probably could not have been done in a democracy. It does not make the case for absolute monarchy.

Ross Bradsen, Toronto, responds: April 19, 1997

My company is in the product development business. We take ideas and turn them into salable products. The process is as much art as it is science. Just as a sculptor takes an amorphous lump of clay, we take a variety of materials, manufacturing processes, and information (market research, costings, and so on) and “mold” them into a product that we hope will be the correct mix of benefits for a sufficient number of consumers to be willing to pay hard cash for.

Often the mix is not quite right, and we have to revise the design at our cost to better meet the consumer need or changing market dynamics. This process is creative, artistic, visionary, and, dare I say it, a darn sight more difficult to achieve given the myriad of real life practical constraints (sourcing, costing, regulations, collective decision making, and so on) than an artist has in creating a work that really only needs to meet his own standards. Not only this, but a business that has “created” a product or service must then go through the rigorous, time consuming, and costly process of making their offerings known to their customers and then forcing sales closure.

The definition of art is the creative application of skills. People in business do it every day. The difference is purely economic: Business artists are commissioned, others are not. If an artist wants to make a living, then he must do what the rest of us do (either collectively as a company or as a solo entrepreneur), do the research, create what people are willing to pay for, create awareness, generate a sale.

It is a tragedy that Van Gogh was not recognized during his lifetime. Sad though this may be, people at that time did not find his work sufficiently inspiring to pay good money for. If an artist’s work is good enough, and it is marketed properly, we will buy his product. Don’t ask me to subsidize an artist who does not have the drive, education, and general wherewithal to make it happen.

We are all artistic in our own fields. The tragedy is that the traditional artist wants no part of business and businesses fail to utilize the very skills that will turn their me-too products and services into unique and valuable entities.

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