The question asked of Gillis isn’t offensive –
the interviewer, and the surrounding discourse, are.
The recent interview of Canadian iconic dancer Margie Gillis on SunTV has sent the arts community into a tizzy. The treatment of Gillis by on-air interviewer Krista Erickson was clearly an attack, not just on her, but on the entire public funding of the arts.
Much of the blogosphere criticism lobbed at Erickson has been to express shock at the bullying nature of the interview. “When it comes to journalism, shouldn’t it be somewhat of a moral obligation for the reporter to put aside her personal opinions to look at a situation from different perspectives, gather information from different sources and, obviously, allow her guest to express her point of view?” writes Louis Laberge-Côté on one blog (http://backofthebook.ca/2011/06/09/on-suntv-and-margie-gillis/5202/). Laberge-Côté then goes on to cite all kinds of stats and numbers about the economic impact of the arts, and that if Erickson had “done her homework” surely she would have seen the light.
C’mon. This may be a well-intentioned and better mannered criticism than of the person it targets, but it is also typical, and misses the point. SunTV is not about journalism; it is about power and persuasion. It does not care about facts if those facts get in the way of promoting its political purpose.
Erickson was so over the top in her rage that she appeared desperate. There may be some reason as to why. Since it’s launch in April, the fledgling news network has been tanking in the ratings. According to the latest BBM numbers, SunTV is attracting only about 4,000 viewers on average in its target demographic of people aged 25 to 49 (http://www.thewirereport.ca/reports/content/12545-sun_news_drawing_an_average_13000_viewers_bbm). The network is clearly struggling for leadership. When asked about target audiences, Luc Lavoie, senior adviser to parent company Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Péladeau said, “We’re trying to attract people who are not attracted to people who are not interested in the product on the air.” Got that? Say it five times and it might make sense.
Clearly the network is lost, and in their attempt to draw more viewers, they are trying to out-rage their US inspiration, Fox News. We’ll see if it works. But no one should be worried that this particular interview is going to do any harm to Canadians’ view of the arts across the country. It will not have that affect any more than people who held that point of view in the first place already harmed it.
What is more useful – yes I said useful – about the interview is the bellwether it represents for arts communities across the country that the economic justification arguments for public funding of the sector simply don’t help us in our cause anymore. And the only alternative is to wage against the new Conservative wave using a values-based approach.
Once you cut away all the crap from their exchange (and there was a lot of it), the essential question Erickson was trying to ask Gillis was (I think), “Why should taxpayers funds the arts?” This is a completely legitimate question. However, the completely legitimate answer would never in any way satisfy anyone who wanted to measure that in economic terms because that is not ultimately what furthers most arts company’s mandates. The vast majority of us are not-for-profits.
Throughout history, artists have had to justify their existence. You would never expect a doctor or a firefighter to have to do the same. Yet they, like artists, cost the public in the form of tax dollars because it adds to the public good. Some years ago, around the time of the Chretien era cuts to the Arts Councils in the mid 1990s, the sector started arming itself again with economic justifications, later fuelled by authors like Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class). “You dare not cut us again,” they would say, “because the arts are good for the economy.” “For every dollar the government spends to support an arts event, it gets back X dollars in economic activity.” That sort of thing. For the most part it’s worked, and there have been few if any cuts to any Councils across the country, and in many cases increases. Can you imagine a doctor justifying what she did by drawing a connection between saving lives and increasing economic output? It might be true, but no less absurd to hear it come from a doctor.
The defense the economic argument offered to the arts would only last so long. In the process of gathering all the data, writing the reports, and making a convincing financial case, the reason we engaged in the arts as a career at all – the values-based response – took a back seat. It was if we started waving our hands up in the air, saying, “Hey look, we’re profitable too! Can you leave us alone now?” Did we really think the “Capital-C” Conservatives, who just didn’t like or “get” what we did in the first place, would be swayed for long on this argument? We never belonged to their club, but we drank their Kool-Aid anyway. And now we’re paying the price.
Now, artists have been backed into a corner about this, in the face of new Conservative opposition that doesn’t care about the economic research. The discourse of the economic benefits of the arts now dominates its taxpayer justification, but the new attack is about values. Erickson was clear about this when she started waving her hands up in the air, mocking dance, and saying in multiple ways that she didn’t “get” what dancers did. Well, what art does she “get”? Does she go to theatre, Canadian films, art galleries? Does she read Canadian books? Does she read? I’m willing to bet that once that part of the argument is probed, it is revealed that the true purpose is the overall undermining of anything Conservative ignorant people label as “artsy fartsy”. It’s subjective, so it can’t be of any real value, therefore it should be cut or eliminated altogether.
And that’s the difference between the arts sector and other taxpayer-funded sectors. Doctors heal – that’s real. Firefighters put out fires – that’s real. A dance performance? What does that do? A painting? My kid could paint that.
Of course, we know what it does, and we know how it contributes to society. And yes, some of that is economic. But let’s stop playing the game that it is the primary thing we want people to think about. Any Canadian artist who tells you they do what they do because of the money is… well, create your own ending.
The NDP did not become the new Official Opposition because their economic platform wowed the nation. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t hurt. But the reason voters flocked to them this time was because they represented a values-alternative to the lackluster leadership-cum-management style of The Conservatives, who see everything purely in terms of economic progress at the expense of other things that also matter to Canadians.
We should be doing the same. And we’re good at it, much better than trying to hold our own in a discussion about the ROI of taxpayer investment of a gallery exhibition. We should be devising new strategies to meet that attack head-on by revealing to those critics that aware of it or not, they too are affected positively by what artists do.
And that means an active lobbying effort. In the face of the new values-based, “I-don’t-get-you-so-I’m-going-to-cut-you” attack on our sector, we cannot afford to dismiss our critics as not worthy of a counter-attack. Let’s just call it a day on the economic side of that, because the simple fact is they don’t care about our economic output. They never did, it just kept the soldiers at the gate for a while.
Marie-Andrée Labbé in her blog at Urbania.ca writes the feeling she was left with after the SunTV interview:
Je refuse d’être obligée de créer un groupe pour soutenir le droit à la beauté du monde d’exister. Je refuse d’avoir à me battre pour ça. ...Ce que je vais faire, c’est sauver ma peau. Me dissocier. Fermer la télé. Me couper du monde. M’occuper de ma famille, lire des livres écrits par des gens brillants, regarder des films de Woody Allen, remplir mon Ipod de musique géniale ou country, manger des tonnes de légumes verts, essayer de me faire inviter à Noël chez France Beaudoin, faire beaucoup de course à pieds et savourer mon existence paisible à l’abri de la fille de Sun News. …Parce qu’appartenir ne semble plus être une aspiration sensée dans la réalité d’aujourd’hui.
I refuse to be forced to create a group to lobby for the right of beauty to exist. I refuse to fight for that. I refuse to explain to those who don’t understand what’s wrong with this interview, what’s wrong with this interview…What I’m going to do instead is save my own skin. Disassociate. Turn off the TV. Cut myself off from the world. Take care of my family, read books written by brilliant people, watch Woody Allen films, load my Ipod with genial or country music, eat tons of greens…take up running and savour my peaceful existence sheltered from the girl on Sun News. …Because belonging no longer seems like a reasonable aspiration in today’s reality.
Understandable, but really? (And why Woody Allen?) This is the temptation of the response given the fierceness of the opposition that is now here. Well, an incorrect point stated loudly doesn’t make it less incorrect. And we had better be ready not to “refuse to fight for that”, because the threat is real now and it doesn’t care about our economic studies. It just doesn’t like us, it knows we’ll never vote for them anyway, so there is nothing to be lost by eliminating our support. In the survey currently being conducted by Toronto City Council to poll public opinion on possible service cuts (http://www.toronto.ca/torontoservicereview), two of the five response options start with the phrase, “I Don’t Care…”. When was the last time you took a survey in which you could have answered, “I don’t care”?
That’s the time we’re living in. Well, I do care. And if Krista Erickson wants to take a chance at caring too, I’ll take her to the opera.