The esthetic offence of government handouts

Apparently I am the victim of an enormous, constitutionally prohibited outrage. I have never received a single art subsidy. In days of yore this complaint might have been rejected by galleries, granting organizations and the general public who would apply to my oeuvre the antiquated technical critical term "bad." And I concede that my still lifes have a zombie-like quality of inanimate mobility while my stick men resemble neither sticks nor men, my abstracts are concrete and my concrete is behind the shed. As for my music, remember the old ads about how "They laughed when I sat down to play"? Well, I assure you I soon had them in tears.

On those grounds I would at one time have had a better chance of breaking into the art world as an easel than as a participant, while even Picasso would have rejected me as a model. But I am pleased to say that as progress levels everything worth having, an indignant editorial in the Globe and Mail this week denounced the federal Conservative government's decision to cancel some art subsidies because "To control access to those grants on the basis of ideology or centrally determined notions of good taste is censorship, plain and simple." I'm old enough to remember when people knew the difference between free speech and free money. But that was in the dark days, before the Charter.

Thus the NDP "Critic for Digital Culture," in an indignant press release that regrettably misspelled the word "disdain," declared that "Canadian artists shouldn't be vetted by the PMO and his pointy-headed staff of Rush Limbaugh-style ideologues." Uh, shouldn't that be "its" staff? Meanwhile a press release from the Office of the Leader of the Opposition called the decision "arbitrary" and included the sentence, "During the Conservative tenure, arts and culture have again and again seen their importance diminish and marginalized by cuts or ideological attacks" -- a sentence that does for the English language what Cubism did for landscape painting, while incorporating the distorted notion that anything not subsidized is marginalized. Impressive.

Let me say, and spray-paint it on a wall for good measure (an expression here meaning "in the hope of getting money for it"), that if you cannot make a living in the arts through sales of your work, or voluntary grants from private organizations, you are probably in the wrong trade. And people who don't like the way politicians and bureaucrats judge art might reasonably oppose state funding for culture. But if we are going to have such grants surely public authorities need some criteria for sorting applicants at least into "Yes" and "No" piles even if they don't publicly admit to also having a "Whoa Nelly, no!!!" pile. Unless you accept the views of the neofinancial critical school that in cultural matters the state should just be a conveyor belt onto one end of which tax money is dropped and from the other end of which anyone who calls himself an artist is entitled to pick it up in whatever quantities seem appropriate.

The Globe editorial deplored "a fundamental misunderstanding by the government of the nature of free speech in a democracy." I seem to be having the same problem myself. But maybe a Titian or Michelangelo could do us a suitably massive, tortured Hercules straining to carry enough money to the front end of the conveyor to satisfy the demands at the back end if we were to take seriously the concept that the government cannot have criteria for who receives art funding. Meanwhile, it would take Hieronymus Bosch to depict a smart set irate at these tiny cuts (one percent of the feds' $3.5 billion annual culture funding according to libertarian author Pierre Lemieux, who adds that such spending previously rose 15 per cent under the Tories) but unperturbed that genuine censorship is permitted under our abstract impressionist 1982 Constitution that guarantees rights "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." And by justified they don't mean to us, the hapless citizens, any more than we are meant to be able to do anything about public subsidies to artistic productions we wouldn't like if we had the misfortune to encounter them. Ask Ezra Levant, who has spent 900 days and $100,000, so far, defending his right to reprint cartoons as part of a news story, what he thinks of artists who cry censorship when they aren't given public cash.

As for the allegedly creative souls for whom loss of subsidies means loss of livelihood, permit me a small excursion into the genre known as folk art, specifically the derisive chant: "Cut your hair, take a bath, get a job."

Rustic, yet forceful. Now where's my grant?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]