Why Arts Funding is So Important

I got into a discussion earlier today on the Etsy forums about arts funding, and it’s rattled around in my head for a few hours and turned into a bit of a monologue.

As those of you in Canada are probably aware, there have been major cuts to arts funding in this country during the past half-decade.  Stephen Harper’s conservatives don’t even make a pretense of providing arts grants and funding, and have slashed budgets left right and center, all under the guise of cutting frivolous spending during an economic downturn.  Never mind that art can pull a society out of depression by providing a forum for the free exchange of ideas and encouraging the out-of-the-box thinking that is needed to spur change … apparently Canadians “don’t care about the arts” and so funding them is not important.

The result of this is, of course, that arts organizations are becoming smaller, more limited, and in some cases shutting down all together.  Obviously I myself am most familiar with theatres, and the amount of paid work available to new professionals like myself has dwindled to almost nothing in recent years … I’m sure it’s a trend that’s being seen in arts across the board.

Of course, even completely devoid of funding, the arts will never disappear entirely.  Even in repressive societies ruled over by vicious dictators, with the threat of death hanging over the heads of the creators, outsider art continues to happen on the fringes and in the shadows.  People will risk their livelihoods and even their lives to protect precious manuscripts and paintings from destruction under oppressive regimes, and will quietly create their own masterpieces in places where they can’t be seen or stopped … or sometimes out in the open, right under the noses of the autocrats (I’m so in awe of the people in Soviet Russia who turned publicly funded propaganda works to their own subversive meanings, and that’s by no means the only place where it happened).  Art is a huge part of what makes us a society and gives us a culture, and it’s something that many of us simply need to do.  When it comes right down to it, I know for a fact that I’ll never stop creating until the day I die.  I love it too much, and see too much importance in the artistic process, to ever let it go.

But just because art will never go away, doesn’t mean there’s any reason not to fund it.  Art brings us together.  It holds the mirror up to life, exposing both the good and the bad in the world (hopefully with the effect of increasing the good and weakening or destroying entirely the bad).  It defines us as people and peoples.  And when the funding goes away, the quantity and quality of the art being created will suffer.  After all, it’s hard to be creative and expressive when you’re working a crappy day job (or two) to pay the bills, numbing your brain and expending your energy on something that you have no passion for.  Would Da Vinci have managed to be such a genius if he’d been spending his days working retail or waiting tables?  Would iconic artists of modern times like Warhol and Pollock have had time to step so far out of the paradigms of society if they’d been worrying about where the next rent cheque was coming from?  How many paintings go unpainted, plays go unproduced, and masterpieces of literature go unwritten just because the artists simply don’t have the time?

Now, some artists hold the opinion that government or corporate funding cheapens the art being produced, making it commercial and propagandistic.  When money comes into question, ugly words like “artistic control” and “censorship” start to get bandied around an awful lot.  But really, what’s the worst that can happen?  If you truly offend the sensibilities of your donors or refuse to create something that you don’t artistically believe in, you might possibly lose your funding, but isn’t that the worst threat that they can possibly offer?  Is refusing funding because you might possibly one day lose it really a logical course of action?  That would be like never taking a job you’d love to try because you’re worried that you might one day in the future get fired.  And hey, even if you do lose your funding, you can always hunt for another source.  At worst you wind up working on your own dime, which is where you would have been anyway if you refused the funding in the first place.

The lack of arts funding out there is especially painful when held up against the other spending and splurging that the government is doing.  Money is being shelled out for corporate bailouts, government and industry conferences and retreats, sports events, promoting the Alberta tar sands, helping clearcutters in B.C., and TV and radio commercials reminding us all about how the government cares so much about our needs (hah).  Drama and music programs are being cut from schools, but god forbid the football team can’t get new uniforms.  Local television stations are disappearing so that we can all get more reality TV and celebrity bullshit.

What’s worst in all of this is that even we artists have come to accept our fate.  The stereotype of the “starving artist” is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can’t envision a well-funded artistic lifestyle.  Struggling and suffering is considered to be “just part of the process”.  But why?  Wouldn’t we be more effective as critical thinkers, critical observers of society, if we weren’t spending so much of our time worrying about making rent, or getting enough to eat this month?  Wouldn’t we be more productive if we weren’t spending 40 to 60 hours a week in meaningless toil, just trying to “get by”?  I’m not saying that all artists should be getting a free ride, here, but the value of creation should be such that it can pay for itself, or at least make a significant contribution towards its own cost.  We undervalue artists, and we undervalue art.  We equate creation with suffering, and thus creation suffers.  Blinding brilliance is being buried under an avalanche of poverty, and we are all made poorer for it.

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