Zainub Verjee: Will the COVID-19 crisis prod us to truly embrace a Canadian culture that gives agency to artists?

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      By Zainub Verjee 

      How should we imagine arts in a post COVID-19 crisis scenario?

       While the  reportage on the impact of this crisis on arts is predicated on a box office model,  the idiom of tourism has established itself as central to the idea of arts, along with its concomitant fact of the "festivalization of culture" as the norm across Canada.

      As the chatter of recasting the sector raises its head, the question becomes urgent, and often posed: What shape will the arts take in a post-crisis scenario?

      On one hand you have the status quo-ist forces and on the other there are those who want to accelerate the entire neoliberalization of the sector, leaving no agency for the artists and institutions, nor any possibility of advocacy on their behalf. In such an eventuality, that voice will be completely taken over by other kinds of entities, such as those representing real-estate and government-relations interests.

      In the clamour, what gets lost is the fact that the arts are not just about an artist or a cultural institution or a work of art; they're a complex ecosystem— a web of processes, policies, institutions, and systems of knowledge. In the current crisis, it implies that in the domain of arts and culture, it is not the economics per se which is at stake but rather the very political economy of arts.

      The public-policy context in which art and culture function is not a priority either for the politicians or even for the scores of artists and culture workers, who do not comprehend the politics of culture or the institutions that they engage with. This is complicated by the ambivalent nature of a cultural policy itself, let alone a more nuanced understanding of its differentiation from an arts policy, thus resulting in the poverty of public discourse.

      Yet, every generation has their actors who end up fighting the cultural battles, often reinventing the wheel. For some the exasperation stems not only from the feeling of living in a loop reality but through the fact that presents Canadian art as a fait accompli. Invariably, when one zooms out, the questions get posed in all seriousness: what is Canadian art? More precisely, what has become of art and culture in Canada in the past seven-odd decades in the post-war era?

       Let’s start with the systemic reality.

       In 1951, the final report of Canada’s Massey Commission (a.k.a. the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences) was released. Better known as the Massey Report, this document provided the armature of what would become a state-defined national culture in Canada and gave birth to the idea of Canadian content. I have written and spoken on it extensively terming it the Great Canadian Amnesia.  Premised on 19th-century ideas of nation-state’s obligations towards civilization and less for culture, the Massey Report becomes the political document that offers social control, protection, and patronage of arts towards its mandate of producing a “national culture” as part of the nation-building process.

      By the '70s, the rumbling against the report had begun. Susan Crean termed it “national identity as a cultural smokescreen” in her book Whos Afraid of Canadian Culture?, calling it "the effort of an elite class of patrons to preserve its own cultural forms by transforming them into Official Culture.” Maria Tippett in her book Making Culture: English-Canadian Institutions and the Arts Before the Massey Commission identified the ideological biases in how the elite kept the community artists, folk art, amateur artists, and artists’ activism at bay. 

      In a politically expedient measure, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s offered the managerial template of multiculturalism to package difference as a recited truth in the context of sameness of the Massey Report. In an act of policy review, the 1982 Applebaum-Hébert Report, firmed up the nexus of national and neoliberal, as Free Trade offered a different logic to the process of establishing the “national culture”.

      Through the 1980s to the early 2000s, the very locus of cultural policy has been a subject of intense debate as the central concerns of a cultural policy were co-opted by other disciplines such as Culture Studies and Cultural Anthropology in an evolving post-colonial discourse. The focus of the debate was pegged on meanings rather than management and governance of culture. However, today the central premise of a cultural policy is no longer the state patronage of art or value of art itself  but more focussed on citizen’s right to culture. This is different from the post war impulse of “democratizing culture”, which took the form of “audience development” that both replicates and reproduces forces of status quo. The box-office model is a further extension of this process of acquisition of cultural capital.

      The crisis of cultural policy and institutions, if not of the Massey Report, then of its heirs and successors in cultural administration, is too important a story to be left to a future generation to tell. Today, as old narratives repeat, their biases both become more powerful and, to those in power, more invisible. The Massey Report continues to have a bearing on the present state of crisis in the culture sector and its policy-making. Systemic change takes time and vision and a leadership with fortitude and selfless investment.

      The pandemic has brought a new set of protagonists to the fore, a new generation that is addressing the survival of arts in this crisis. Living in a "breach of event", as one update replaces the other, we lose our sense of history. In such a spasm of history, we foster an amnesia.

      The choice before us: Will the current crisis prod us to truly embrace a Canadian culture that is beyond the closed confines of a two-founding nations plank allowing for a range of voices and giving agency to the artists, or have we mortgaged our imagination to the Massey Report?


      Zainub Verjee is the laureate of 2020 Governor General's Visual and Media Arts for Outstanding Contribution. An artist, critic, with expertise in cultural policy and cultural diplomacy, she was at the fore front of the cultural policy work in the 1980s-2000s in Canada and internationally. She has worked on issues of Artist Labour, Racial Equity, Cultural Diplomacy and Culture Trade. Former Executive Director of the Western Front, her work on the BC Arts Board led to the formation of B.C.Arts Council. Currently, she is the Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries in Toronto.