09/04/2012 07:46 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST

Is the Canada Council Just Funding Hobbies?

Most areas of government funding are being trimmed, so why not arts grants too? A probable reason why the arts program escapes the Finance Minister's knife is because any cuts to the artsy set, results in a nation-wide howl that the Philistines are taking over. But to some, that's seen as public money funding someone's hobby.

Flickr: buggolo

There was a rhetorical sigh of relief in the Canada Council for the Arts establishment that extensive federal budget cuts this year did not include them. While the DND budget is being cut by up to $2 billion, and the CBC budget of $1.1 billion is being cut by 10 per cent, the Canada Council's arts budget is standing firm at about $190 million.

Most areas of government funding are being trimmed. So why not arts grants too? A probable reason why the arts program escapes the Finance Minister's knife is because any cuts to the artsy set, results in a nation-wide howl that the Philistines are taking over, that cultural barbarians are in ascendancy. That sort of rhetoric.

In fact, the Canada Council for the Arts grants basically go to artists of whom the Council approves and who don't make waves. At least to many, that's how it seems. Put another way, visual artists whose work the public purchases don't get grants. Those whose work doesn't sell, often are the recipients of grants.

To some, that's offensive and is seen as public money funding someone's hobby. Hobby or not, much of what is viewed as "art" puzzles ordinary folk. Recently, a Governor-General's Visual Arts award of $25,000 went to Jana Sterback whose most acclaimed work was a dress made of raw flank steak, titled: Meat Dress of Albino Anorectic.

What in hell does a meat dress have to do with art? There is no disputing Sterback's knack for creating a work that provokes controversy, but to call it "art" seems abusive of the term. And a huge waste of taxpayer's money to honour it with awards.

I recall when my Russian translator in Moscow moved to Canada some 45 years ago. She was a lay expert on art who could identify some of the greats by their brush strokes. When she visited the Art Gallery of Ontario she was appalled that a huge fabric hamburger and ketchup bottle were on display as "art." She thought supermarkets with their brightly coloured shelves were far more "artistic" than a lot of the stuff on display in the AGO.

"What sort of a country have I come to where they think a fabric hamburger is art?" she once asked. I had no answer. In fact, the whole Governor-General's Award industry is financed by taxpayers. How it advances the cultural wealth of Canada is obscure -- if it exists at all.

Canada Council grants to writers are also misguided -- but sacrosanct. The CC boasts that it "offers a range of grants for professional Canadian writers, collectives and publishers," as well as "providing support for the creation, translation and promotion of Canadian literature."

Again, why do writers have to be subsidized by taxpayers if they are "professional" and earn a living through their writing? The answer is that many "writers" can't make a living because people won't buy their work, hence subsidization.

Again, the Canada Council seems to be subsidizing a hobby. The whole program ignores the oft-painful truth that "real" writers write. No matter what else they do, they feel they must write. Thus we get police officers, lawyers, doctors, advertising executives and others writing best-selling books and novels with no encouragement except their own addiction to telling a story. And that's as it should be.

A sorry truth is that state-sponsored writing or art rarely produces work of value. One only has to look at the old Soviet Union where the state dictated what was acceptable in art and literature -- and little of it is memorable today.

Of four Nobel Prizes for Literature, the Soviet system produced one -- and that a highly suspect novel by Mikhail Sholokhov. Solzhenitsyn and others have insisted that And Quiet Flows the Don was plagiarized, or stolen from a White Russian who was a prisoner during the civil war.

Sholokhov never wrote anything to match the original, which won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Literature. Other Russian Nobel writers defied Sovietism -- Ivan Bunin (1933), exiled in France, Boris Pasternak (1958), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970).

As far as Canada is concerned, the easiest way to tell a Canada Council book is to look at the books churned out by Canadian publishers. Apart from crime novels -- which an increasing number of Canadian authors are writing, and which are startlingly good, some verging on "literature" when one sees something along the lines of Knitting in Alberta or Fudge-Making in Saskatchewan, or Gypsy Moths in the Arctic (not real titles), one knows it's a subsidized book. The publisher gets a grant for publishing what very few people will ever buy, and fewer still ever read.

As for visual art, one only has to recall the University of Winnipeg hosting an exhibition of women's menstrual blood used as art, to honour the 14 women killed by Marc Lapine in the 1989 "Montreal Massacre. A pioneer in Menstrual art is Vanessa Tiegs whose work "is focused on getting women to embrace their menstruation and use it for art."

I have no idea if this fixation on menstrual blood used for art instead of paint has ever received a Canada Council grant, but it's the sort of thing that appeals to those who make the awards.

Again, $190 million given to the Canada Council to expand and encourage the arts seems mostly a waste, since those with artistic desires and talent, will do it anyway and not just because someone else is paying for it.