Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Disaster that is Art

I'm sure this will be a long post. Grab your coffee and sit back for an epic.

In 1981 Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers released his album, "Northwest Passage". The title track was a hit and became a cornerstone of Canadian culture. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has admitted his own love for the song, saying that Northwest Passage is the closest thing Canada has to an unofficial national anthem.

And this is where things get hypocritical. In the last election, Stephen Harper, whilst on the campaign trail and defending his government's $45 million dollar cut to arts funding, said that (paraphrased) ordinary Canadians don't care about arts funding.

The hypocrisy? Stan Rogers was a Canada Council funding recipient. I think it's fair to say that without the Canada Council, the CBC and other forms of government arts patronage, Northwest Passage might never have happened. In short, Harper likes Canadian culture but doesn't want to pay for it. I would be more angry about his comments, but I'm not necessarily sure that he's wrong when he says that ordinary Canadians don't care about arts funding.

This blog post is not about my Prime Minister's hypocrisy. It is about what is wrong with art, music, writing, film and stage today in its execution, funding and the public's understanding of it. It's about why ordinary folks don't care. It's about how artists either starve or work jobs to which they are not suited and undervalued. It's about how our educational system and artists themselves are deepening the divide between art and its audience. It's about the cultural black hole that is being filled by American values. In short, the arts are in the toilet and nobody wants to fish them out.

An uncomfortable truth about artists is that they need patrons. When an artist begins the slow process of building his or her career, practicing their craft, building contacts and reputations and expanding their portfolio, only the very lucky make any money. Those that do make money do not make a living wage. Therein lies the problem. People like living. Generally, if given the choice between following a dream and survival, people choose the latter option.

Artists in this situation therefore must squander their talents and waste their lives working unskilled jobs. For many artists, this secondary career becomes their only career. Some get tired of never earning money with their art. Others are forced into their non-artistic job to afford housing or children.

Patronage feeds artists. It lets them use their talents. It lets them quit those jobs they never wanted to work anyway, providing employment for other people who also need feeding.

Many businesspeople and politicians don't seem to understand this. When viewed through the lens of the free market economics, it makes no sense to support the arts. To the economy, starving artists are starving because they are creating product with no demand. They deserve their fate. Why waste money on something nobody wants?

It's a disconnect from reality. The longer artists practice their craft, the greater the demand for their product. If they can't feed themselves and produce their art at the beginning of their careers, they will never create demand.

About 500 years ago in Italy, the greatest revolution in the history of art occurred. It was the Renaissance and its power was fueled by patronage. Obscenely wealthy noble families, such as the famous de Medicis, kept artists in business with their favours and commissions. They competed with each other to see who could patronize the most beautiful art. It was a societal priority. I could go on and on about the Renaissance, but to attempt to do so within the confines of a single paragraph would be a terrifying injustice.

Well, them days is gone. Yes, our society has obscenely rich people. Yes, many of those people are patrons of the arts. However, it's fair to say that art is no longer a societal priority. Our societal priority, and I challenge anybody to contradict me, is sports.

Don't believe me? We just spent $8 billion dollars for a two-week party in Vancouver called the Olympics. For that amount of money, Canada could have paid more than 100,000 artists full-time minimum wage to practice their craft for three years. Want more proof? Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city of 200,000 people can barely keep its Symphony orchestra afloat. By contrast, late 18th-Century Bonn, a city of 10,000 people, had two orchestras and produced Ludwig van Beethoven. Canada produces top-notch NHL players, not musical genius.

Where art is to be found, it's quick and dirty. As Capitalism has entrenched itself in North American society, it just doesn't make sense to produce anything that lasts or is of high quality when you can cut corners. Open the newspaper and look for illustrations. Chances are, you'll see quickly-drawn, highly-abstracted first-drafts drawn in ink. Take it from me, the newspapers of yesteryear put love and effort into their drawings. How is it that the primitive, sub-humans of medieval Europe managed to erect towering, beautiful cathedrals and castles with their low population and lack of machine tools? Because to them, the art of their construction had value. Today with our ballooning population and marvelous technology, there is no reason to make a beautiful, stone WalMart with gargoyles and ornate carvings that is meant to stand for a thousand years. It's just cheaper and easier to barf out tin boxes by the hundred with concrete floors and unfinished ceilings.

Shouldn't we be ashamed that tiny villages full of toothless, smelly, gruel-eating apes who believed in werewolves could make prettier buildings than us? Nope. Nobody cares.

However, there is one branch of art that our society truly treasures: film and television. It is the divine art of the modern age, combining visual art, film, music, writing and crafting into one marvelous spectacle that we take for granted. For Canadians, most film is an abstraction. It shows up on our screens from very far away, created by people we don't know, and often it is free. Unlike other art, film and television is big business and is profitable. It replaces our need for art on a local level by beaming in easy entertainment. Why go out to a concert when you don't have to leave the couch and be entertained for free?

It's all too easy to forget that this multi-billion dollar industry is the result of the efforts of many tiny little artists who had to claw their way to success. It's also a little scary to think about how many Canadians are working in Hollywood and New York because they couldn't make their film careers work in Canada.

Canada used to have a film industry in the 1980's. Not just a coastal-temperate area that American companies could film TV episodes for cheap. Not just an annual film festival in Toronto that American celebrities attend to look pretty. I'm talking an actual industry. Funding was high. Tax breaks allowed random companies to produce a movie in Canada just to save money at tax time. Compared to Hollywood, yes, it was chintzy. Yes, most of the movies that were made in this period were low-budget horror flicks of dubious quality. But Canadian artists were working. In Canada. It all stopped when governments cut their film incentives and funding. Now this place is a howling wasteland for film, dependent upon the low-value of the Canadian dollar for survival. Pathetic.

It's not just the amount of arts funding that is at issue here. It is the method of distribution. It's an old problem. English author Samuel Johnson, for instance, refers to a patron as, "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help". Simply put, our system of government arts patronage gives the lion's share of money to people who have already established their careers.

I understand the thought-process that goes into it. Why waste money on an unproven artist? What makes an artist? If we start handing money out to nobodies who call themselves artists, surely fakers and layabouts will emerge to take advantage of our generosity. However, it is undeniable fact that starving, unknown artists, the people who need the money most, are being denied funding and offered a pittance when others are receiving large amounts of money they don't need. What's the point?

But you know, it's not just clueless politicians, bureaucrats and apathetic citizens that are causing all this misery in the art community. In many ways, the artists and educators that teach it are bringing it upon themselves. The sad fact is that art education is in horrible shambles.

I took art classes every year in high school. Not once was I taught to render on paper or in clay that most basic of artistic expressions, the human form. I had to buy a book called, "How to Draw Super Heroes and Heroines" to learn its value. I also took Creative Writing courses throughout high school and University, yet nowhere was I taught classical story structure: I had to learn that from screenwriting books after University. The education system taught me English but not how to use it to influence the hearts of humans. Similarly, I took a music degree in University and between my Theory classes and my Orchestration classes, I learned the bare bones of music composition, yet a basic element was denied me. No instructor was willing to tell me the meaning of those chords to the human ear and their emotional effect on "ordinary folks".

Unbelievable. Artists are being trained without the basic tools that will make them successful. I've been submitting short stories to a mutual review site lately and almost nobody knows anything about classical story structure and are shocked when I let them in on what seems to be this huge secret! Why is this happening? As you might have guessed, I have a theory.

You see, in the last century, the "modern" era began, followed by the difficult-to-define "post-modern" era. In these eras, guided by odd notions about "progress" as applied to art, artists started trying to be different than each other. They came up with genres that were at first reactions against the rigid forms and styles of the previous centuries, and then tried to invent new languages and modes of understanding. Abstract art, twelve-tone scales and nonsense versions of English were produced. The score of one piece of music, for instance, contained no musical notes: merely the phrase, "Crawl inside the vagina of a living whale." Some performance artist took snapshots of his self-inflicted castration. Recently, some students were arrested for skinning a cat alive and calling it art.

Honestly, is it any wonder that there is little demand for this product? As the artists of the modern eras invented their new languages, they left their audiences behind. Stuck on traditional ideas of art, "ordinary folks" paid for new artistic forms that weren't quite so radical: Hollywood movies, graphic novels, jazz and rock music. All these forms were ones that did not completely shun the lessons of the past.

Meanwhile, the lame-duck grade schools were at work. Somewhere along the way, it became "uncool" to constrain kids with artistic rules. It was during this era that the "personal essay" became the highest form of pubescent writing. In art rooms, children were encouraged to "do their own thing".

The post-modern high-art snobs who are entrenched in universities and the hippie grade-school educators are very different but they seem to have one thing in common: they don't believe in creative limitation. They expect that artists young and old should do their own thing and create their own artistic language from scratch.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with creative limitation, here it is. Apparently, the human brain finds it easier to be creative if it has a set of rules to work with or against. By removing the lessons of the past from curriculae, the education system has made being creative actually more difficult for students.

Some people may be reading this and thinking that I'm an artistic conservative. I'm not. If you like post-modern art, it's not my place to criticize you. It's not my place to say what I like is better than what you like. My point is that by leaving important information out of the curriculum, Canadian artists are being denied a critical part of their education which will help them connect with their audience. Wouldn't it be better to teach students the rules of their art as society understands them, then give them the choice later whether they wish to transcend them?

Rest assured, friends, art is not as mysterious as some persons would have you believe. Part of it is craft and can be learned. Many of my teachers in the past had me thinking that creativity is this elusive thing that descends upon you like luck, cannot be controlled, that certain persons are born with. That's partly true, some people have more talent than others. But all art involves learning how to use a tool and using your brain in conjunction with it. It takes practice and it takes proper training. Why would we send our poor artists alone into the world without that training?

So here we are. Ordinary folks don't care about art and those of us that do can't define it. For most people it's a mystery. People love music but have no idea how it's created. Abstract art hangs on gallery walls that is valued either for the artist's reputation, the overlong explanations that justify them, or their shock value. Post-modern music rattles in crumbling concert halls, played by under-funded orchestras, tolerated by audience members who when asked what they thought of it are obligated to say, "It was interesting". American television beams into our homes, each reality TV show slowly crowding Northwest Passage from our collective memory. New schools are being constructed without music rooms. If Mozart was alive today, he might just be serving you coffee.

So what the fuck are you going to do about it? Do you even care?

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2 comments:

  1. Excellent critique of the system, Cheruby. Here's to writing through the crap.

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  2. While I think that you're right for the most part about the patronage of art in Renaissance Florence, there's one point I want to correct. The Medici weren't nobles, at least not in the glory days of the fifteenth century. Like the great patrons of the fourteenth century, they were extremely wealthy members of the middle class.

    This is important for two reasons. First, the Florentine merchants supported the arts for political reasons. They'd just emerged from a long struggle with the aristocracy, and their power wasn't terribly secure. Patronage was part of demonstrating their position of leadership. They supported artists for some of the same reason that Saddam Hussein erected statues of himself across Iraq.

    Second, you need to remember economic background of the patrons to understand how most artists acquired funding. The guilds of Florence commissioned artwork through competition: the job went to the winner. That sounds pretty rough, but to the merchants of Renaissance Italy it made perfect sense. If you open up a business, you have to compete with all the other businesses on the same street. And there's always a chance, no matter how determined you are or how talented, that you'll fail and have nothing to show for all your hard work. So in the end, they felt that the problem of the 'starving artist' was unavoidable. They knew that business was risky, and they didn't see why art should be any safer.

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