Harper and the arts

A curious Globe and Mail interview with Stephen Harper reveals his artistic side, presumably in an attempt to put paid to the notion that he’s a cultural Philistine bent on killing all government funding to the arts. It turns out that he has been a pretty serious piano player, on and off, even getting his Royal Conservatory Grade 9 (which is more or less where I’m at, informally).

For most of his adult life, he didn’t own a piano and rarely played, leaving him “a shadow of my former self.” But since moving to 24 Sussex Dr., which boasts an impressive instrument, he has taken it up once more. …
“I’ve always been torn on music and piano in a way because I actually get a great deal of satisfaction out of when I do it, but I get so wrapped up in it. I’ve always had that problem with the artistic things I’ve enjoyed doing — I’ve played piano, I’ve sung a bit, I used to write poetry — I’ve always found with these kinds of things that they draw me in and I can’t let them go. I find it difficult to do it just on the side, a little bit here and now,” he said.

As someone who’s been into piano pretty seriously, on and off, who went 14 awful years without a piano until I bought a digital earlier this year, yes, this resonates with me. I get what he’s on about.

Which brings us to a more nuanced view of his recent cuts to arts funding, which he defends on the grounds of fiscal discipline and being choosy about which arts programs to increase funding to and which to cut. He attempts a middle ground: “You don’t get to the point where you’re just abandoning it, because I think cultural life is too fragile for that. And on the other hand, you don’t get to the point where, to be blunt, you have creators or producers who are entirely cut off from public need or public demand.”

What Harper is arguing, I think, is that there is a problem if you have art without an audience, and if government funding simply allows art to be produced without any real need to connect with other people. Art is, after all, a form of communication. And I’ve long been leery of government grants, whether artistic or economic, and have demurred when well-meaning local friends have encouraged me to apply for them. I can’t see how it’s worthwhile to produce art that no one wants to consume. The trick is figuring out the threshold: what art is worth funding despite its economic unsustainability. That’s a different argument than a generic hate-on for arts grants, and a trickier thing to accomplish in practice.