THE MEANING OF CULTURE HAS CHANGED (1)

In Canada, the meaning of the word “culture” has changed, as it has experienced a worldwide shift. What it refers to, today, generally goes beyond the confines of art and creativity to embrace a wide diversity of societal phenomena, from tourism to communication. It is as if art and thought had lost their monopoly over the meaning of the word. The new information technologies and their Web manifestations (from YouTube to Facebook) have the power to give everyone their 15 minutes of fame (as Andy Warhol put it). Given the potential of these new technologies, everyone can become an artist to the extent of their fantasies and the dizzying expansion of their ego, therefore acquiring a new kind of subjectivity: no learning process and no special knowledge required.

In the contemporary sense of the word “culture,” art is one component, and no longer absolutely central. Communication is taking over, with the result that the media are seen as the prime vectors of thought, more important than literature, drama, music, painting and so on. Art forms have proliferated, and their boundaries are constantly widening in a way that defies labelling. Culture is everywhere, so much so, that it is in danger of being nowhere. It covers every aspect of society, from research laboratories to diplomatic networks by way of local, provincial and federal politics, community and city politics, and international relations, not without a measure of clamour and confusion. I reject the idea of contrasting local culture with world culture, or provincial with federal, but there is a great need for harmonization. We have to prevent cultural activities from becoming atomized or balkanized into tiny fiefs wasting their substance in duplication and unproductive squabbles. Our very first thought must be to defend free access to culture for everyone. To that end, Canada’s cultural diversity is a treasure that we must actively exploit in order to counter the tendency towards the micromanagement of culture that results from an excessively doctrinaire application of multiculturalism.

Today, globalization is taken for granted. The liberal world no longer really acknowledges technological or ideological boundaries. Yet culture cannot be subject solely to the laws of the market, or its less “cost-effective” forms will be under increasing threat and may even disappear. There are already numerous areas of activity—not just cultural activity—that could not survive without strong government support. Non-commercial films, theatre, creative writing, the emerging visual arts: these could not survive the market-based selection process that regulates the private sector. Patronage cannot therefore be an absolute remedy, since the resulting law of the jungle would very quickly eliminate works that do not deserve to survive if the yardstick is profitability. People may argue that the great poets and the great painters did not receive grants, that they lived and created in poverty and, in some cases, in deep distress, and that their works nevertheless achieved recognition and fame. Point taken, but would they still be around today without assistance from government that keeps memory alive and guarantees the future by subsidizing publication and exhibition activities?

It is in fact a government responsibility to protect all the ecosystems of our world in which the profit motive can lead to depletion of our reserves and natural resources. In that spirit, the government is responsible for protecting the ecosystem of our culture, by recognizing that market economics can produce great achievements, but not in every field. Let me be clear: I am not here to defend state-conceived art and esthetics. On the contrary, we must reject culture and art that is subject to authority, no matter how democratic; yet we have to take the same precautions to protect culture otherwise subject to market esthetics. Everything cannot be reduced to a dollars-and-cents solvency, a mercantile approach. The relationship between the state and the private sector must be based on open dialogue in which cultural issues come before business issues.

It is when government takes the strongest action, that private sponsorship undertakes to complement, rather than replace, public money. Culture must not be regarded as an unproductive expenditure or a necessary luxury, when it actually constitutes a substantial sector of the economy that is of as much interest to the provinces as it is to the federal government, and provides a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people.

For example, the Saint-Roch district is one of the oldest faubourgs of Québec City. With its location close to the bridge, the railway and the large port warehouses of Québec’s Lower Town, it was an ideal place for the development of commerce and industry as early as the eighteenth century. Workers and merchants set up all around and created a community life that was dynamic and cosmopolitan. Economic development continued for two centuries, then declined in the mid-twentieth century, and then shut down completely between 1960 and 1970. As a result, businesses, social development and cultural vitality suffered the same fate. The district transformed into an urban desert. It became home to society’s rejects, drugs, prostitution and violence. City officials forgot about it, preferring instead to concentrate their efforts on the development of soulless suburbs.

Not until 1992 did the City of Québec create an economic revitalization program for the district, urbanizing it in such a way as to restore the richness of its memory and heritage, while at the same time opening it up to the realities of modern life: affordable housing, social and cultural development strategies, opportunities for people to live and work in the same community.

In addition, the program offered technical support to the artists and developers who set themselves up in the district. Since 2000, $380 million has been invested in Saint-Roch for the purpose of restoring, renovating, rebuilding and recreating the vitality of a bygone era. Today, we find performance venues, theatre companies, art galleries and arts and crafts stores. The district has become a locus of trade and creation, and that in turn inspires and attracts residents and visitors in great numbers.

Culture should therefore be seen as an essential component of Canada’s economic life that does produce added value for our national heritage, and develops a pool of workers whose creative labours breathe new life into society well beyond the specific areas in which they are active. As a result, sustained and flourishing creative activity has a very positive impact on research activities in other areas of technology, as it works to incorporate more and more cultural disciplines into the life of society.

According to the June 4, 2009 issue of Macleans, Calgarians spend more money on arts and culture than do Canadians in any other city: 41.5% on attending live shows, 53.5% on visiting a museum and 52.2% on an activity related to arts and culture. According to the last census in 2006, Calgary is the second most rapidly developing city in the country. From this, we can infer that economic booms facilitate cultural patronage and that everyone benefits: artists get the financial support they need to survive and develop, while the business world awakens to the social and economic value of art and the importance of investing early in creativity.

This observation leads me to believe that, currently in Canada, the meaning of the word culture is changing. Slowly but surely, we are recognizing the value of creation in the survival of our neo-liberal and hyper-technological societies, and consequently, the perception of the role of artists is undergoing a profound transformation. For additional proof, I would point to the ever-increasing number of mediators and intermediaries between art and society. And that is a good sign, provided they do not start overshadowing the creators themselves. Middlemen and intermediaries between art and society have proliferated. This process should not be at the expense of the key players: the creators. The activities of institutions have also expanded, in many cases through projects developed by artists, and their diversity is something we have to keep in mind. Financial support for artists must not be subject to an ideological quid pro quo. Culture is not an issue to be adopted by a political party, but a primary concern for any society anxious to ensure its own survival. A country that neglects its culture is in danger of losing it.

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