Fraser Forum

The art of buying votes by promising 'arts' funding

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Last week, Liberal party Leader Justin Trudeau promised dramatic increases to arts funding in Canada if a Liberal government was in power. He would double the budget for the Canada Council for the Arts ($360 million per year), increase funding to Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board, and provide additional financial support to arts-friendly CBC (which falls under the rubric of "culture
Funding,” something even more nebulous and sacred than arts funding in Canada).
The federal government already spends approximately $4.2 billion annually supporting arts and culture. Together with provincial and municipal governments, total Canadian government spending on the arts comes in at $9.6 billion. More than a billion dollars is allocated to broadcasting annually and about $300 million on arts programs (literary, visual and performing arts).

A brief perusal of a single arts funding agency, such as The Canada Council for the Arts, reveals a myriad of funding categories for screenwriters, producers, musicians and painters. There’s a wide variety of other more obscure arts and culture programs ("Audience and Market Development Travel Grants" or "Grants to Aboriginal Dance Professionals," for instance) that stand to benefit from taxpayer funds. Many of these programs and grants spend tens of millions of dollars a year, but are known only to the most assiduous supplicants at the court of government largesse. 
Of course, Trudeau, like most politicians of all political stripes, is simply attempting to buy votes. What better way to get political supporters than to promise people more money and "free" stuff? While culture and the arts may appear to be small budget items relative to the oil industry, manufacturing or health care, the political appeal of arts funding is important for a number of reasons.

The first is that arts and culture are vague and often ill-defined concepts routinely invoked to promote personal, regional or national sentiments. Politicians claim to support the arts because they want to appear cultured, and concerned for starving painters and poets in dismal garrets. Artists play to our sensibilities and, when successful, stir our emotions and inspire euphoria or wonder. The arts are produced for the so-called "public interest" and to enrich "national identity." How could a politician not open the wallets of others to ensure that they and their party are illuminated by such wonders?
In a related way, arts and culture are often vehicles for highly charged ideological themes, like the films of Leni Riefenstahl, socialist realism under Stalin, or the multitude of works produced by the Allies during the Second World War. In these cases, the artists were inspired, enticed or threatened to produce propaganda that promoted state interests. Often the state interests at stake were clearly not in the interests of anyone but a privileged elite. 
Art and culture can, given their elasticity, become anything to anyone. In some cases funding designated for the arts and culture can be spent on programs not even remotely artistic or cultural. For example, the Pembina Institute, an anti-oil environmentalist lobby group, received $88 million over five years as part of government spending on "culture" and dimly related activities. Well-organized groups can work angles to extract funding for all manner of nebulous activities—consulting, conferring, consensus building, managing and so forth.
The issue at stake here lies not in the nature of art, but in the ways that art is funded. One of the strongest reasons not to support the arts through government funding is precisely because most art will almost inevitably carry ideological and philosophical implications and embody aesthetic standards that are in direct conflict with some of the very people who are forced to pay for that art.

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