Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Currently, in Canada and elsewhere, this is not the case. For many reasons, cultural participation remains the privilege of a minority. Sometimes it’s a matter of not enough time — sometimes, a matter of not enough money.
When Maria Rosario Jackson was appointed chair of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts in January 2022, she said she would work to give people “artful lives” — which meant, she told The Washington Post, not only participation as audience members, but also “making, doing, teaching, engaging … Aside from the economic power and economic impact that they have, which is vitally important, there is a power of the arts that allows us to, encourages us to, be curious, to hold nuance, to have the kinds of thoughtful deliberations and a view on humanity that I think is so critically important.”
One of the central elements of the new Canadian Cultural Contract proposed in this book is the creation of a fund that would enable Canadians to do exactly that — to feed the compassionate imagination in ways of their own choosing. Say that every man, woman, and child in the land gets $1,000 a year to pay for something, anything, to do with the arts and culture. Passive, active, it’s your choice. It’s not as revolutionary an idea as you might think. Dedicated government allowances for cultural activities are hardly new. Iceland, Spain, Italy, and France all provide some kind of cultural pass for teenagers, in amounts ranging from the equivalents of $430 to $720 a year, spendable on everything from books and music to concert tickets and movies. But those programs are aimed primarily at contributing to the survival of the pandemic-battered cultural sector. This new program would be solely intended to make it easier for everyone to afford a little art in their lives. Hold onto that idea, even if you have you’re your doubts; we’ll get back to it.
Money isn’t the only tool we can use to democratize art. Canada’s rural-urban split is acute; not all Canadians have equal opportunities to access live performance, even if they have the money to spend. But a next-best solution is waiting to be exploited. The new streaming technologies are only at the beginning of their influence, but we already know they have the potential to transform our experience of the arts. How do we democratize that transformation to the benefit of Canadian creators and Canadian audiences? The idea of Canadian content quotas meant to guarantee exposure for Canadian creators has been worked over exhaustively, and the Canadian Broadcasting Act specifies that every broadcast undertaking make “maximum use, and in no case less than predominant use, of Canadian creative and other resources in the creation and presentation of programming.” But we shouldn’t stop there. The new communications technologies can deliver an onscreen theatre experience almost equal in quality and impact to a live event. Has the notion of a national broadcaster become an anomaly, as some politicians tell us, or could it be expanded to become a national online streaming distributor for everything produced by our professional arts organizations?
When we talk about access, we also need to rethink our assumptions about how we assess the quality of the artistic experience. In a society in which we expect everything to have measurable value, we are conditioned to prefer professionalism in the arts we support. When we buy a ticket to listen to an orchestra or to see a play, we expect a return on our dollar in terms of performance quality. The training and experience of the performers — their professionalism — promises the likelihood of quality; their work is monetized, and constellations of awards exist to let them know how much it is appreciated. But by putting professionalism on a pedestal in this way, we set art at a distance from our daily lives.
The unfortunate effect of our eager adulation of the professional is the loss of respect for the amateur. The root of the word is in the Latin for love; it originally signified an individual who indulged in a particular activity (not necessarily artistic) but had no formal training and did not practice it professionally. Its modern usage implies inferiority, dabbling, activities of no monetary value. Yet it is in the non-professional world of the arts that many find their greatest satisfactions. Being an amateur is more about the journey than the arrival: the gratification lies in the process itself, not the end result, whether it be performance or publication or exhibition. You may not be able to sing or paint worth a damn, but you’re likely to appreciate singing or painting more if you spend time enjoying the doing of it.
Max Wyman wrote arts criticism and analysis for Vancouver newspapers and CBC radio for more than three decades.
The Compassionate Imagination: How the Arts Are Central to a Functioning Democracy, Wyman’s seventh book on the arts in Canada, is shortlisted for the Balsillie Prize for Public Policy. The prize winner will be announced on November 28.
Excerpted with permission by Cormorant Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.