Thursday, September 25, 2008

Colin Jackson, "Towards A Surplus Of Meaning"

When Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts to finance the war effort, he asked, “Then what are we fighting for?”

That's the opening line to a provocative article by Calgary film producer Bruce Harvey at In a time when some of our politicians seem to have declared war on - or at least declared their contempt for - the arts, I can only wish we could find a Winston Churchill for our day, for our country. Blood, sweat, tears - and art.

I found that quote when following up on an extraordinary article that artistic pal Morris Ertman emailed me this morning. It originates at that same site, and is written by Colin Jackson, president and CEO of the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary.

The division of the art of daily life from the high arts of Western origin is only about a hundred years old. Picture a night at a European theatre in the 18th century. A cross-section of the population was there, behaving in a way we might consider unconscionably rowdy. The commoners in the pit heckled the performers. The wealthy in their boxes glanced up occasionally from their card games to catch an aria.

There were none of the march-on, march-off stage rituals of today. In the 1840s, when Hungarian composer Franz Liszt performed, he greeted patrons at the door and schmoozed with his audiences. Parisian papers criticized another pianist, Alexander Dreyschock, for playing so loudly, the ladies found it difficult to talk. These environs were doubtlessly hard on the artists, but attending a performance was a community experience – intimate, comfortable and shared.

In the 20th century, across Western cultures, we changed boisterousness into awe. Don’t clap between movements of a symphony. Sit down. Be quiet. Admire. This new code of behaviour identified the insider, the elite. It also amplified the authority of those few citizens who chose to denigrate the arts, artists and humanities.

The truth is Albertans, like all human beings, are artful and expressive. We sing, dance, bead, write, draw and paint. Statistics show we overwhelmingly want our children to be literate in the arts. We understand that fluidity with music, words, images and movement will add immensely to their happiness. Confident adults are those possessed with many means of self-expression.

Today the arts in Alberta are at a crossroads. In one direction lies innovation and influence. In the other, irrelevance and marginalization.

The path of innovation and influence amplifies the arts as a means for sharing ideas, values and emotions. Through them, we explore our empathy for each other. Arts enrich the character of our province. The achievements of Alberta artists burnish our pride.

Irrelevance and marginalization occur when the arts are perceived as elitist activities dividing the upper crust from the rest of the sandwich, a frivolity undeserving of serious attention and, at best, grudgingly supported.

The choice between the two paths lies with the province’s leadership and with us, the artists and the arts workers. We have degraded our ability to communicate with the wider community, a sad irony for people whose business is communication. We lost our confidence and, with it, our influence.

There is an urban myth beloved by the cranky that arts organizations are poorly managed. In fact, the failure rate among arts operations is exceptionally low, which is all the more admirable given that the field is notoriously poorly capitalized and the margins of error razor-thin. Another myth is that the public does not care. Also not true. A recent Ipsos-Reid poll showed that 84% of Calgarians think it would matter if there were no performing arts in Calgary.

Maybe because of embarrassment about emotions, maybe because of a desire to control the wild spirit of creativity, Albertans often talk about the arts in the language of the marketplace. There is an embedded mythology that to understand worth we must attach a cash value. Decisions revert to numbers and measurements. How misleading. The fundamentals of life are love, spirit, generosity, joy, well-being, values, rights. This is the language that takes us on our way to a more meaningful society.

The Lougheed government in the 1980s saw Alberta as an arts and cultural leader in Canada. The community responded, proud of the skill, talent and courage of our creators. Subsequent governments were the opposite, seeing the arts not as a community asset but as a private amusement. Some artists, rather than shrugging off such small thinking, internalized the notion of being marginalized. They acted as marginalized people often do – sounding whiny, clingy and entitled.

Alberta’s political parties have defaulted into service providers, promising to alleviate our traffic woes and fears of recession. Opinion polls drive policy. That narrow approach to politics ensures only one thing: that voters will decide nothing. Big political shifts happen because of influential leaders – good and bad – who win over their populations with the dream of a better society.

Boldness, vision, direction based on a blend of passion and reason should determine an election. Alberta, home to mavericks in business, arts and politics, is one of the jurisdictions where people would rise to a unifying call to action. People are looking for inspiration.

We can learn from American presidential candidate Barack Obama who, in a recent speech, said: “Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country. I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans. I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper. That, in the words of Dr. [Martin Luther] King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

And, here lies our opportunity. We Alberta artists, citizens and artist-citizens can co-create our culture based on the best of Alberta’s heritage. Together we can write beautifully, speak eloquently and create film and images that move the hardest of hearts.

We can drop the labels of lesser or more worthy, elite or plain folks. And, in place of judgment, see each other as creative beings sharing a journey of wonder and delight. We are a people, most of whom are blessed with material wealth, health and education. We recognize what an unusual opportunity we have. There are very few places in the world with as robust an economy as Alberta. And fewer still of those wealthy places – think Dubai, Shanghai, Singapore – have the personal and political freedoms we enjoy. All that is missing is a shared dream and the self-confidence to execute it.

The British cultural thinker John Holden observes that throughout history great places did two things very well: they made money and they made meaning. Alberta is a world leader in creating wealth of the pocketbook. Now is our opportunity to create wealth of the soul.

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