Atwood on the art of Harper

Harper’s huge recent cuts to arts programs, along with his remarks about arts being a “niche interest” and “a bunch of rich people at galas whining about their grants,” are a slap in the face to people like me, who devote countless hours to volunteering for the arts and the pursuit of our own artistic endeavours. Harper’s gaffe (as it’s shaping up to be) is a window into the man’s soul, which looks to be a chill and forbidding place to live.

Out of interest i dug up what i could on Harper’s cultural cred. From a Wikipedia article, here’s some background:

  • born in Toronto, father an accountant at Imperial Oil.
  • attended Northlea Public School, John G. Althouse Middle School, Richview Collegiate Institute. Graduated 1978, top of class with 95.7% average.
  • was member of Richview Collegiate’s team on Reach for the Top.
  • enrolled at U. of Toronto but dropped out after two months.
  • moved to Edmonton, worked in Imperial Oil mail room. Later, advanced to work on company’s computer systems.
  • enrolled at U. of Calgary; completed Bachelor’s in economics. Earned Master’s in economics, 1993, thesis on  “the influence of political cycles in the formation of fiscal policy” (according to the 2004 Globe & Mail article Educating Stephen ).

Hmm … not a lot of evidence there for artistic savoire faire. But the article does go on to list some serious cultural chops. Harper:

  • has several hobbies.
  • has participated in many artistic endeavours.
  • is an avid fan of ice hockey and the Calgary Flames.
  • has ventured into sports broadcasting. During TSN broadcast of World Junior Hockey Championships, appeared in interview and expressed views on state of hockey today. Expressed preference for overtime period in lieu of shoot-out.
  • taped cameo appearance in an episode of TV show Corner Gas which aired in 2007.
  • reportedly owns large vinyl record collection.
  • is an avid fan of The Beatles and AC/DC.

Oh, well, okay then — by that measure he’s clearly qualified to both comment on and control (read: “strangle”) the country’s artistic future. However, let’s give a moment to one of our country’s preeminent artists, dagger-tongued author Maggie Atwood, who in a recent Globe & Mail opinion piece (To be creative is, in fact, Canadian) demurs with Harper’s view. Do read the whole thing, but here are the first few paragraphs:

MARGARET ATWOOD

From Thursday’s Globe and Mail

September 24, 2008 at 11:00 PM EDT

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we’ve been punching above our weight on the world stage — in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it’s a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an “estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined).”

But we’ve just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn’t care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an “ordinary person.” Mr. Harper’s idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that’s attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures – cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. “Ordinary people” pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. “The arts” are not a “niche interest.” They are part of being human.

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