I wrote an opinion piece for eye last week on arts grants. Feel free to add your comments at the end.That’s what arts grants are, right? Free money. You know this guy who used his grant as a down payment on an SUV. Heard of this other woman who used hers to make grapefruits talk to each other and someone else who made lesbian porn with public money. Taxpayer money! Your money and my money!
All of this makes for a great bitch session at the bar after a hard week taking the boss’ shit and doing real work while the artists get up at noon for an hour’s scribbling in a notebook. Or making a potato sculpture. Or whatever it is they do between their afternoon absinthe binges and picking up their grant cheques. It also provides easy fodder for devastating dismissals of spoon-fed artists in print, as Bert Archer demonstrated in a sideswipe at the end of his appreciation of James Joyce in this space last week. It’s fun to lampoon artists, even though I am one myself. And given the kind of unpleasant and undignified things people have to do to pay the rent, it’s understandable that those of us who get to do what we are passionate about take a certain amount of flak. Especially when even the artists I’ve talked to are a little vague on why grants are important. Because arts grants aren’t just a good thing. They aren’t a form of charity for the fey and sensitive and suffering souls. A touchy-feely impression that they’re nice is not going to stand up to the winds of change. There needs to be a well-rounded analysis of their social value. On my trips to the dystopia to the south, I hang out with my American counterparts in the indie-press community. They’re struggling, and they’ll always be struggling. Even if they develop an audience of thousands of people they’ll still have to supplement their incomes by teaching or doing something else. No access to grants makes their lives harder: pretty much all of them have full-time jobs, and the idea that I don’t is as amazing to them as our healthcare system. (Since 9/11, I’ve also had five or six people confess that they’ve checked out the Canadian immigration website.) When I explain that the two grants I’ve received over the last eight years gave me the opportunity to work on projects that didn’t have to make money, they’re confused. I explain it this way: arts grants fund the R&D wing of our cultural operations. Just like research and development in the scientific community, this allows for new methodologies and new strategies to be investigated without having to turn a profit. But in science, experimentation is a valued part of the process. When an artist is called “experimental,” it’s often derogatory. There’s this idea that if it’s not understandable to a mass audience or a layperson, it’s fraudulent. But mass culture doesn’t spring from a vacuum. The arts and the sciences are both communal activities — everyone’s building on and reacting to the stuff around them. So that neat camerawork in a blockbuster summer movie was inspired by some more obscure film the director saw, which in turn was inspired by an underground photo exhibit, which in turn was inspired by something else… but only the person at the end of the chain of inspiration gets paid — the guy at the head of the line is the only one who isn’t invisible. Grants address this blind spot of pure market capitalism. As much as economists like to present it as a force of nature, capitalism is a construct we made, a robot that can’t tell the difference between things that we feel are priceless and things that are valueless unless we step in. Clean air, for instance, has less inherent market value than a can of Coke. Grants are a little like speculation. By supporting projects and propagating ideas that are currently too far ahead of the curve to make money, we’re investing in an artistic legacy that we all benefit from. Maybe it’ll happen anyway. If we just tell the people who germinate new ideas how priceless their contribution is, maybe they’ll still make stuff and get it out there. View it as a kind of filter. Starve ’em all and let god sort them out, as Archer would have it. But even overlooking the ethics of that, only the artists with considerable drive and ambition will manage to get it out there, and that will undoubtedly have an effect on the kind of art that’s produced, and that we eventually consume. Being an artist with a fair amount of drive, and knowing plenty of more gifted people paralyzed by self-doubt, I know that talent and drive are two different and only occasionally coinciding things. There are some problems with the grants system — people can get dependent on public money and make passionless art for a committee rather than for an audience. But hell, people get hooked on private money, too, and make derivative art trying to please an imagined demographic. Pitting the grant-funded artist against the market-funded entertainer usually ignores the fact that the people who do R&D and the people who find applications for it are both working towards our cultural enrichment. Whether it’s a corporation or a council paying for it has an effect on both the artist and the art, naturally, but at least a diversity of sources in Canada means that the artist needn’t feel beholden to just one of them. Private sources are varied, but all of them have to toe the bottom line — I’m happy that when I get sick of hustling for private cash there’s the option of navigating the public bureaucracy for funds, boring as this is. Giving people more freedom in this respect makes for better art. And, yeah, some of it will be self-indulgent crap. But I’d rather feed a few frauds if it means not starving our geniuses.