Saturday, February 6, 2016

Culture as a Public Good

I have lived away from Canada for quite a while now, but I still am surprised sometimes at where Canada is going. It is an odd experience being an expatriate. What prompts this is an article in today's Globe and Mail about Canadian culture as a public good. Here is an excerpt, just for flavor:
The policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s are unknown to transnational distributors of foreign content – that would be Google, YouTube and Netflix – while Canadian consumers are increasingly sidestepping the domestic distributors who, whether by inclination or by regulation, produce Canadian content.
Anything bother you about that? Canada is, of course, strongly influenced by being America's hat, as it were. A thinly-populated nation of a very similar ethnic and cultural background smack dab up against the most powerful nation in the world has to feel a bit defensive about its identity and culture. Canada is a cobbled-together entity, made up of those scraps of the British Empire left over after the American Revolution. A wonderful place, despite all that, but one that has always been rather unsure of who it was, exactly. Not American (shudder), not British (shudder twice), but without the rough-and-ready individuality of, say, Australia.

So, back in the 70s, it was decided that Canada's "cultural industries", meaning Canadian television, movie-makers and music producers mostly, had to be protected from US competition lest all we have to watch turns out to be re-runs of Law and Order. No! A stand must be taken, at taxpayer expense, to defend uh, great Canadian television shows like, uh, help me out here? Perhaps the Canadian movie industry which, apart from some Quebec movies seems to be largely American products shot in Vancouver like the X-Files and Battlestar Galactica? No? Great Canadian musicians like Bruce Cockburn, Alanis Morissette and Leonard Cohen? Well, frankly, I doubt they need money from the Canadian taxpayer any more than Celine Dion does.

So what I think we are actually talking about is subsidies to the cultural industries, not the artists, but the middlemen, happily standing in line for their handouts from the public trough. And this is supposed to be a public good? Could someone slap me please?

The article, by Kate Taylor, describes the nuts and bolts of what she calls a crisis:
Netflix is taking an estimated $445-million a year in subscription fees out of Canada; YouTube is taking an estimated $22.5-million in annual advertising revenue out of Canada; iTunes and Google Play are taking $50-million in annual music sales out of Canada. And half of the estimated $432-million in ad revenues that the newspaper and magazine industries are losing every year to digital platforms is also leaving Canada.
What this means, simply, is that individuals in Canada are purchasing those cultural artifacts that they choose to and that the Internet has made available to them. If they prefer to subscribe to HBO so they can watch Game of Thrones instead of a second rate cop show set in Vancouver (itself an imitation of a US model) then this poses a terrible problem for Canadian Culture, which must be controlled, manipulated and force-fed to the populace by the Powers That Be, meaning cultural czars in Toronto. What is being left out of this accounting is those dollars, big American dollars, that are being spent by Americans to purchase Canadian cultural products. Not much in the way of television or movies, mind you, but quite a substantial amount of Canadian music. Leonard Cohen fills big halls the world over so all that revenue should be counted as accruing to Canada. Celine Dion has sold 200 million records that need to be added in.

So, in reality, there is no crisis whatsoever, except in the pocketbooks of those cultural middlemen that have gotten used to living off the fat of the taxpayer while delivering nothing but bland, forgettable cultural "products" that Canadians have had forced on them. This is a particularly revealing excerpt from the article:
What’s to be done? There are practical steps that could be taken – you could ask Internet service providers to start contributing to the Canada Media Fund just as cable and satellite providers do – but since there is often public hostility to and misunderstanding of such measures, it might be a good idea to lay a bit of philosophical groundwork first. Why can’t we just leave Canadian producers to compete in an international marketplace? Why do we need Canadian content in the first place?
Ah yes, that public hostility that needs to be managed! Let's have a look at that "philosophical groundwork." There is not much there, but this comes the closest: a world where narratives and images are as powerful as money and guns, a successful society does not import every single cultural good that it consumes; that a creative society is one that creates things.
Let me be the devil's advocate for a minute here and say that narratives and images are NOT as powerful as money and guns. The Second World War was not won by the side with the coolest narrative and niftiest images--the Nazis obviously had the grooviest uniforms--but by the side with the most B24 bombers and aircraft carriers. Sure, a creative society is one that creates things, which is just the tautology that a creative society is creative. Sadly, Canada, apart from pop music, isn't very creative. To be quite honest, you have never heard of any Canadian television shows because they are feeble and boring imitations of American television shows, only existing because they are propped up with taxpayer subsidies. You have likely never seen a Canadian movie for the same reason (as opposed to an American movie shot in Canada). You have heard of quite a few Canadian pop musicians because they are creative and popular enough to sell around the world. They don't need any subsidies. And if Canadian television and movies were any good, neither would they.

The bottom line is that, basking in the prosperity of unearned public subsidies, the Canadian cultural industries have been cranking out crap for decades.

Any culture in Canada that is truly a public good will be sought out and purchased by the public because they see it as good. It is a simple enough concept. But that is an unacceptable answer to the Canadian Powers That Be because it offers, in the immortal words of blogger Glenn Reynolds, "insufficient opportunities for graft." Taxing citizens to give subsidies to people to produce television shows and movies that they do not want to watch is nothing more than graft.

Now I know you are asking yourself, "could Canadian television really be as bad as he says?" I offer in evidence an episode from a show deemed one of the Top 10 Canadian TV Shows: Mantracker:

After that we really need some Canadian music to clear the palate. Here is my favorite Canadian popular musician, Leonard Cohen:

It is pretty clear to me that the more you support and nurture the pseudo-creativity of "cultural industries" the more you ignore, if not actually discourage, real creativity. Case in point: Canada.

UPDATE: This has sparked a bit of discussion in the comments, so let me add a parting thought. What is deeply troubling to me about the Canadian approach to culture and the arts is that all of the agency is given to government. The "policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s" are all activities of government. Government has a very iffy history in this area, usually declining rather quickly into propaganda rather than culture. Analyzing how this works in Canada would be best discussed in another post (after a lot of research). One thing I am pretty sure of is that creativity in the arts and culture always, ALWAYS, comes from the individual mind. It is not something that can be protected and nurtured by government policy. Governments can offer patronage and some of this can be good. Support for orchestras and opera probably depends on this. But if we look at history we see that most patronage comes from a few influential individuals: French aristocrats, Russian noblemen, wealthy Viennese. Sometimes the Church or a municipality like Venice or Florence. But in those cases as well, I suspect that a few influential individuals were behind it.

If you want to support the arts, it is very simple: commission artists and composers and arrange for the works to be disseminated. How do you choose who to pick? Ah, that would depend on aesthetics!


Anonymous said...

The Canadian taxpayer subsidizes symphony orchestras by absorbing about one third of their costs. I take it you're against that.

Marc Puckett said...

I did watch several episodes or a season of Slings and Arrows: thought it was quite good for X number of episodes & then it became too predictable or whatever; anyway, I stopped. I presumed it was a Canadian program from the outset, ha. But that is what happens to most television serials, after all, Canadian or otherwise, in my case at least: I barely hung on for the last episodes of Justified, e.g., & if they'd insisted on continuing it for another season I wouldn't have watched.

While I don't watch many movies these days, I can almost always figure out which television series are Canadian because-- I don't know, really; apart from Durham County and S & A I haven't seen any of the other programs in the list-- it seems to me that the actors and actresses speak well-enunciated and -articulated English, there is always a presumption that there is good and evil in the world with the moral universe that entails, & even if there is meant to be an atmosphere of post-modern grunge everyone is so spotlessly clean and well-coiffed, perhaps. Will confess to viewing an episode a day of Schitt's Creek over the past few days, which is about as formulaic as you can get but manages to be occasionally very amusing, & I can always watch Catharine O'Hara-- am not sure but would wager five bucks it's a Canadian production.

I wonder if the symphony and opera companies in Canada are as much subsidized as the television/film industries? I expect so. While my views align fairly well with your's & Professor Reynolds's in this business, I can concede that different societies will make different judgments about this matter of subsidies to cultural institutions. In the US where e.g. there are many hundreds of private production companies and broadcast/cable providers, it disagrees with me that the federal government supports a national television/radio system. The monies spent or wasted there are, however, so comparatively small that I don't lose any sleep over it (but imagine if NPR were the state broadcaster!).

Marc Puckett said...

Are there, who are the, great contemporary Canadian classical musicians? Jon Vickers, requiescat in pace, died last year; I know Barbara Hannigan and the now retired-from-the-stage Ben Heppner, & there is that pianist Jan Lisiecki, who is famous enough for a pianist barely out of his teens but is scarcely 'great'. It's a construct, a list of 'greats', that must have a fairly large subjective component, I'd think.

Bryan Townsend said...

@anonymous: I actually tread around that particular question rather carefully. I said, "It is pretty clear to me that the more you support and nurture the pseudo-creativity of "cultural industries" the more you ignore, if not actually discourage, real creativity." Inasmuch as a symphony orchestra is similar to the other cultural industries like cable or tv networks and suchlike, then I have some real doubts about the efficacy of subsidizing it for the reasons I gave. But insofar as it is a creative musical organization then I would defend public funding. I wish it weren't necessary, but symphonies and opera have never been commercially viable at any time, to my knowledge.

Marc, it sounds as if you are much more up on Canadian television than I am. I am probably the least-qualified person to comment on it as I don't watch any broadcast tv and only occasional series (on DVD). I agree, most series dribble out and become unwatchable. The significant exceptions are those created by Joss Whedon that always seem to get better with each season.

It is not the actual creators that I am attacking here, by the way, it is the glad-handing middlemen and corporate entities that cream off the profits.

I have talked a bit about Canadian musicians and composers here and there--try the search engine on the right. But the only really great Canadian classical musician I can think of is Glenn Gould. Canadian composers are a pretty motley crew with R. Murray Schafer being the grand old man of Canadian music. And most of his stuff I find to be pretentious crud.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Glenn Gould was a great pianist with very interesting, original ideas about the classics. But, as a composer, he was an utter disaster. Even his "fugue" (even though it was meant as a lark) is embarrassingly bad. Funny how skills don't always extend across a whole field. Plenty of insightful literary critics proved to be mediocre novelists.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh no, I wasn't recommending Gould as a composer--far from it! Frankly, it would be surprising if he were a good composer. These skills don't seem to come together in our age. Friedrich Gulda is another outstanding pianist whose skills as a composer were not in the same ball park. Now don't let's talk about me, ok?

Anonymous said...

Some great instrumentalists turned out to be great composers as well: Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Townsend, etc.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, in past times it was quite typical for a great performer to also be a great composer: Mozart, Vivaldi and the ones you mention come immediately to mind. Oh, and going back a bit, lutenists like Dowland and Francesco da Milano. But Rachmaninoff was probably the last of that kind of performer/composer. Prokofiev as well. Since then, the two roles have been divided--largely by the aesthetics of modernism, I suspect.

But there are some interesting exceptions: both Steve Reich and Philip Glass are core performers of their own music, though not known independently as performers.

Marc Puckett said...

"Darius Milhaud, who is probably the most prolific modern composer, leads his Symphony No. 3 with Chorus and the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra on a recent Westminster disk which reminds one how delightful this facile composer's music can be." Howard Klein at the NYT in 1966. I'm guessing that DM performed fairly often, including others' works. Great? no; 'facile', ha.

"Since then, the two roles have been divided--largely by the aesthetics of modernism, I suspect." Hmm; will have to think about that.

I imagine, however, when we're talking about contemporaries, that perhaps we ought to discard the 'great'-- who knows? while I can pretty confidently aver that Justin's not going to become a great writer of 'composed music' nor ever conduct orchestras performing it, I can't do that about Sir James MacMillan (who does both now regularly), say, or Daniil Trifonov.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, I said that partly because the tradition virtuoso performer tends to disappear from high modernism. Sure, you need to be a virtuoso reader of very complex rhythms, but not much more. In the case of Cage, a good deal less.

David said...

Bryan, I wanted to increase the maple syrup and back bacon content in this comment thread. I thought that Marc's question in his second comment above didn't get enough input. My list of names of current Canadian personalities with presence in the arts would include: pianists Louis Lortie, Angela Hewitt and Marc-Andre Hamelin, Violist: James Ehnes. Ensembles: The Elmer Isler Singers, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Orchestre Metropolitain. A conductor named Yannick. Opera voices: Meesha Brueggergosman, Isabel Bayrakdarian Russell Braun and Michael Schade to name just a few (longer list here: (We didn't even have to resort to mentioning Drake and that Bieber kid and his Fur Elise)

Two Canadian television series that beat the average: Republic of Doyle (a Private Investigator's adventures in Newfoundland) and Corner Gas (a Saskatchewan comedy series that ran for 6 seasons and had many cameo appearances from Canadian Icons including singing astronaut Chris Hadfield and at least one Prime Minister).

That is probably enough waving of the red and white maple leaf banner, but at the risk of being accused of "piling on" I will add some recognizable Canadian names from the silver screen:
Mary Pickford, Christopher Plummer, Mike Meyers, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogan and Ryan Gosling.

As to your main point about the role and method of government aid and sponsorship of the arts, that is a Canadian reality that as you say is largely driven by Canada's geographic location as the States' "toque". Like intermittent Quebec separation referenda, it is something we have learned to live with as we enjoy the work and talent of our artistic community.

Bryan Townsend said...

David, thank you for adding some much needed information to this discussion! I have to sheepishly confess that I have not watched Canadian television since the late 90s and no television at all for the last twelve or thirteen years. The last time I listened to the radio it was a CBC broadcast of one of my concerts, I think-- a long ways back. So I appreciate you filling in some blanks for us. My critique was of the ideology contained in the Globe and Mail article. As for Canadian artists, let me add a truly outstanding guitarist, Jerôme Ducharme of Montréal. What Canadian composers would you like to mention?

David said...

OK. Bryan, you have found my weak underbelly: Canadian composers of classical music. One under-appreciated name is Healey Willan, British born but lived much of his productive life in Toronto. Composed over 800 works. Best known for his organ compositions and religious music. His Introduction Passacalgia and fugue in E flat minor is among his more known pieces. (Wikipedia:

In the jazz world, Oscar Peterson was a treasure.

Jeph said...

I think a much more effective method of fostering creativity on a national level, would be to make sure that there is free arts education in all the schools. That's how Sweden did it, and now they are a major epicenter of popular music production. Some of it cookie-cutter, but some of it very interesting and literate.

Marc Puckett said...

David, Didn't realise that Louis Lortie was Canadian or Marc-André Hamelin; am afraid I presumed that they are French. Listened to Lortie's recording of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit not long ago; it had been mentioned here, I believe.

Bryan Townsend said...

@David: Good that you mention Healy Willan. I have certainly heard of him, but he never made an appearance in any theory or history class I took in Canadian universities. Which is rather disturbing if you think of it. I am right now listening to his Symphony No. 1 in D minor, which is on YouTube. I would think he deserves a post. But is he really Canadian? Educated in England and didn't move to Canada until he was in his 30s.

Jeph, I agree entirely. Sweden and Finland are both classical music superpowers and it is likely because of their outstanding education programs. Plus, that far north, there is nothing better to do for most of the year 8^)

@Marc, yes we have a number of outstanding pianists. Apart from the ones from Quebec, they include Angela Hewitt and, of course, Glenn Gould.

David said...

Bryan, perhaps Canada's claim to Willan is based on the pro-ration of his years here (53 vs 31 in England). According to this source, he is called the "Dean of Canadian Composers".

Bryan Townsend said...

Good point! I hadn't done the addition.