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Friday, April 15, 2011

Portrait of an artist

When someone says “artist,” what is the first image that pops into your head? Is it Ned Flander’s beatnik parents from the Simpsons, with their berets and all-too casual attitudes? Is it some crazed Van Gogh-type, as ready to hack at his own ear as paint a masterpiece? Or is it a dedicated visionary trying to distill the angst of a generation into a single guitar solo? Would you want your child to marry an artist, or would you be perpetually worried they’d be led to a life of low-rent apartments and marijuana?
The word “artist” conjures up negative connotations for too many “non-artistic” folks. Artist isn’t a word they connect with hard work, efficiency, or necessary to a society. Rather, it’s seen as effeminate, foppish, lazy, useless, and/or non-productive. Harper’s comment in 2008 that artists aren’t cared about by ordinary folks is probably right. Because of this, politicians are able to get away with ignoring artists come election time. You always hear plenty of promises centered around tax cuts, social programs, family values, crime control, how corrupt all the other parties are, and so forth, but funding for the arts rarely makes the Political Top Ten.
Part of the problem is the vast scope of activities covered under that one topic. I can’t even list all the professions that would be considered ‘artists.’ According to CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, “the arts and culture sector employs as many people as the combined sectors of agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil and gas, and utilities.” Now I don’t have hard numbers on that, but it sure sounds like a lot of people. As a result, when you speak of ‘artists,’ you’re lumping writers in with actors, painters in with singers, theatre owners in with buskers. Because artists do not share a hive mind (and one sort might loathe another sort, potentially) it’s hard to get the whole gaggle of them to band together into an effective lobby. Perhaps by their very nature, artists are individualistic, so having them form ranks and march on parliament is about as easy as herding cats. When voting time comes, they just don’t count. They aren’t courted, not the way other segments are. Youth vote, senior vote, poor vote, ethnic vote (careful how you phrase that one), urban, rural, heartland, etc. For any and all of them, politicians get down on their knees and promise the world. Artists usually get squat.
When a product in the market-place isn’t working, it gets rebranded. So why not do the same for artists? They are an essential part of a nation’s landscape, more critical than any other single aspect. Yes, the people that make food and clothes and shelter allow us to survive, but art and culture is what defines any country that exists above the subsistence level. Remove all artists from Canada and we become, in a finger-snap, a colder version of America. We need them. Without them, we aren’t Canadians because we’d have absolutely no defining characteristics beyond the geographic description of our climate. So let’s call artists what they truly are: patriots.
How’s that for a name? “What do you do for a living?” “I’m a professional patriot.” How could anyone sneer at that? Patriotism is seen as a virtue. A whole new generation of creative patriots, spreading their visions and works across the land. Just imagine the glory of it! Even the Conservatives might suddenly start liking patriots! How could you be right-wing and not give money to the patriots? Do you hate Canada or something?
Patriots: for the 21st century and beyond!

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