Speech by Simon Brault given at the closing ceremony of the États généraux des arts et de la culture de la société acadienne
Notes for a speech by Simon Brault
Vice-Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts
At the closing ceremony of the États généraux des arts et de la culture de la société acadienne
May 6, 2007, Caraquet (New Brunswick)
When René Cormier spoke to me for the first time about your États généraux, when he was visiting the National Theatre School in Montreal several months ago, I listened to him with interest, curiosity and attention. As he continued to sketch out the main lines of this initiative, describing the various strengths that could be called upon and identifying the areas that could be opened up, my enthusiasm grew still more, and I felt a mix of admiration and envy.
I am one of those who have a profound conviction that the arts are more than ever called upon to shape the new directions of our communities, societies and civilization, as long as they are not considered within a purely sectoral logic, which is unfortunately too often the case.
Even though more and more voices are being raised, not only in UNESCO and the major international cultural forums, but in the economic and social forums of the world as well, calling for the decompartmentalization of culture and for its consideration as a dimension of human development, cultural players themselves still persist all too often in adopting an attitude of exclusion and isolation that takes a sectoral, even a self-serving approach to the arts: arts funding, quotas and protectionist measures for cultural industries, jobs, regulatory mechanisms, recognition of gains, cultural policies, specific programs, infrastructures, etc.
These are all perfectly legitimate concerns, and I would be foolhardy indeed, especially as the Vice-Chairman of the Canada Council, if I were to deny their importance.
However, when preoccupations with money, structures and organizational plumbing start to become the primary content of the discourse of artists or the organizations acting as their voice in the public realm, this is a great pity, since it ultimately only adds to the annoyance or – worse still – the indifference of our fellow citizens, who are struggling with their own problems and would like to hear something slightly more uplifting in the voices of artists.
In listening to René Cormier explain that the idea of organizing the Estates General was fundamentally a project to mobilize and rally the forces of all sectors of Acadian society, a project that would call for consultation to include the arts more forcefully at the heart of Acadian society in New Brunswick, I was truly thrilled, while at the same time hoping that this ambitious undertaking would not be derailed along the way.
Like many others, I now see that the vision and grit that have inspired you from the start have made for an inclusive and generous initiative that has never lost its way, and that has truly returned to the arts their role as a catalyst of the collective memory, builder of dialogue and trust, witness to the evolution of a people and the incubator of the hopes and dreams of the individuals and communities that define Acadia.
This grand rassemblement is a success that you can be legitimately proud of, and it will no doubt serve as a launching pad for achieving other objectives for the common good. It will also serve as an invaluable example for the cultural communities of this and other countries.
You have shown that it is possible to increase and deploy the ability of artists and cultural institutions to contribute to defining a social project aimed at solidarity, selflessness, dignity and freedom, bringing people together in a common purpose.
I am truly honoured that you have invited me to come and share a few ideas that I hope may make a modest contribution to this vast undertaking you have undertaken, and most of all, to what you call Les grands suivis.
First of all, we must remember that a discussion on the arts has an importance and urgency today that it could not have had less than a decade ago, when we had not yet fully gauged the depth and durability that the impact of globalization and information technologies would have on communities, regions, cities, nations and societies.
If we listen to what is being said by more and more politicians, chambers of commerce and leading columnists in the press, if we look at the scholarly literature and the studies being published regularly in the disciplines of sociology and urban planning, and if we examine the challenges of local development, we constantly come across a series of buzz words that refer, directly or indirectly, to cultural life, and translate a new awareness of the importance of the arts in a healthy society. In recent years we have been hearing talk of knowledge-based societies, creative economy, creative cities, creation as a development tool, and cultural diversity as a necessary means of positioning nations and as a means to salvation.
These days we hear a lot more talk about the number of jobs linked to culture, the direct and indirect economic spin-offs of this growing sector, the composition, development and role of the creative sector, the phenomena of attracting and retaining talent, and the way the cultural vitality of a region promotes national and international positioning.
We hear more and more about the manifold and too often underestimated effects of culture on quality of life, democracy, reducing apathy and criminality among youth, growing social capital and creating a climate of inclusion and tolerance within the community.
This kind of talk could be seen as a trend or as a new manifestation of political opportunism, but that would be a serious error.
We could also be cynical and attribute the recent emergence of such messages to an orchestrated strategy – finally, decision-makers have found, usefulness in culture! At last, the cultural sector has discovered arguments to allow us to aspire to the same key role in society as the education and health sectors!
But it would be a show of bad faith and strategic blindness just to be indignant about the occasional lack of subtlety and high-mindedness in discussions about culture in the political and commercial arena and take refuge in a scornful refusal to take these messages into account or stay in one’s ivory tower.
Setting aside the facile shortcuts, awkward intellectual constructs and short-sighted declarations that proliferate in the enthusiasm of the moment, let’s acknowledge that any show of enthusiasm - even if it is somewhat superficial and self-serving - for the addition of the arts and culture to the lives of our communities is a good thing, and serves as a useful platform from which we can speak more freely of remaking a world that we often feel is getting out of control.
New cultural concerns and worries about the state of the environment are two rising stars on the public agenda. We can take advantage of the impetus this creates to give the floor to environmentalists, scientists, philosophers, moralists – and artists, who give voice not only as experts and creative professionals, but also, fundamentally, as citizens addressing other citizens about the real issues of citizenship.
Because this is what is at stake!
Artists and arts institutions do not evolve separately from society; they are at the heart of the transformations that challenge and reconfigure our very idea of society. Their ways of creating, producing and presenting are evolving with the growth of technology and the accelerated fragmentation of audiences and markets and of public and private funding.
Artists are still seeking assistance from organizations like the Canada Council or the New Brunswick Arts Council, from sponsors, philanthropists and institutions like universities, libraries, museums and so on. This is the order of things – it is normal, natural and necessary. But the real refuge of art must be anchored in the individual cultural experience of our contemporaries and in the cultural life of our communities.
A direct connection can be made between the arts, culture and democracy. Without ever renouncing the ideal of cultural democratization, we have to update the promotion and defence of cultural rights that are at the foundation of the human condition, understood as a constant quest for liberty and the possibility of emancipation and full development.
This is evoked in the movement of Agenda 21 for Culture, which was incubated in Barcelona and launched in 2004 – an international movement that has more and more adherents among cities, villages and local governments the world over. I know, of course, that Montreal adheres to Agenda 21, but I haven’t had the time to research the situation for Acadia. If this hasn’t already been done, I urge you to bring the movement here…
Communities that adopt Agenda 21 undertake to give a renewed importance to the arts and culture by considering them as an essential facet of citizenship, which implies a commitment to preserving public funding of culture and respecting and guaranteeing moral rights and the fair remuneration of professional artists.
The adoption of the Agenda does not solve all our problems – that would be too easy – but it does allow us to connect a city like Quebec or a town like Caraquet with an international movement, while creating conceptual and practical references from which politicians and governments can adopt principles for action and criteria for useful and constructive accountability.
It is urgent for us to rethink our cultural systems in a way that includes the concerns of citizens. We are still operating with tools and mechanisms designed half a century ago, when we had to try to cultivate gardens in deserts and access to culture was reserved for an elite that was unwilling to share the rewards of privilege. Arts councils, ministries of culture and programs of grants to cultural industries were shaped in accordance with a logic that promoted a diversified, quality cultural offering.
Today, we live in a world where supply is reaching the saturation point and where systems of distribution and technological platforms are getting more and more sophisticated and democratized. The supply of cultural products is huge, fragmented and mind-boggling. This is especially true in the larger cities, but you just have to log on to be reminded of what’s out there, no matter where you live.
True, the sublime and the ridiculous rub shoulders in this vast array of choice, and the proliferation of what is offered in the arts and entertainment sectors can make enlightened decisions all the more difficult, but there is a revolution nonetheless.
Wal-Mart is the largest seller of literature and Amazon.com offers 2.3 million titles, while the major bookstores offer some tens of thousands. The iPods of the teens in a single subway wagon in Montreal or Tokyo could stock a good portion of the music composed since the Renaissance. And yet we continue to be more concerned with the supply side than with the demand side of this equation. This is a troubling paradox. We have to start thinking about creating a balance by taking an interest, for example, in cultural mediation. It is no longer enough to create, produce and present. We need to spend more time building bridges between works of art and citizens. We need people to get to people, transmit the codes, make people more aware of the arts, break down the sociocultural barriers that the individual sitting in front of his computer’s monitor hardly notices.
We have to realize that the exponential growth of distribution systems merely generates an illusion of the democratization of the arts and culture – the mirage of democracy. We must not confuse consumer availability with access to culture. True access requires the ability to understand, participate, exchange and share. In this context, the work of cultural mediation, which is an extension of the work of education, becomes more and more important. Public support for the arts remains fundamental, but it must evolve to take into account new needs of presentation and mediation – if not, we are heading toward a profound crisis of legitimacy that could provide arguments to those who would be tempted to turn out the light.
Citizens, just like the vast majority of political and economic decision-makers, still feel no more than vaguely concerned by these issues, and prefer to leave the floor to specialists, who monopolize it all too readily.
This has to change, and soon. We have to interest our fellow citizens not only in works of art, but also in the artists who live in the community. This is the work that you have decided to take up here. This patient, never-ending work presupposes that the artist accepts to also be a citizen addressing other citizens, since we have to find a common ground.
To assume one’s identity as a citizen does not imply denying professional concerns for anyone involved – no more for the artist than for the nurse, the plumber or the person looking for a job.
The citizen-centred approach consists in approaching the dialogues and exchanges we must establish in the community in a way that allows us to address the real concerns of our society, accepting to integrate, interrelate and, often, to transform the initial spontaneous preoccupations of individuals, pressure groups or professional associations.
This approach favours an appropriation of democratic issues by civil society that seeks to propose solutions and plans of action instead of relying on a political body that arbitrates the contradictory interests of individuals and corporatists.
In the realm of the arts and culture, a citizen-focussed approach inevitably challenges the market-based, consumerist approach that has been set up between decision-makers and artists.
The proposition that artists and cultural workers need to rethink their relationship with citizens is not a new one, but we need to give it renewed vigour.
All this work presupposes that we have adopted a broad definition of culture that does not deny the attributes of art, but situates them within their true scope. Culture is different from art, and art has above all the ability to question and shake up the culture without moving out of it.
Artists are often the voluntary, enthusiastic trailblazers who move into unfamiliar territory, and come back to us with words, images and sounds that fascinate, trouble, reveal, reassure, preparing us for changes or remaining mysterious to the public – of which we are a part. Artists are also the guardians of our memories, which are made fuzzy with the increasingly rapid passage of time and the barrage of cultural shocks we experience. This is what I realized yet again last night as I listened to Marie-Jo Thériault sing.
True artists are exceptional beings, but they do not live outside the human condition, nor do they live outside the culture.
This is why we need to emphasize not the things that oppose art and culture, but the things that contribute to their complementarity.
The idea that a broader definition of the idea of culture could do a disservice to art is still too widespread in certain intellectual circles, and often is a mere camouflage for snobbery or condescension toward the ‘non-initiated.’
Initiation into the arts from childhood, the practice of the arts as an amateur, cultural recreation, participation in projects of artistic creation inspired and guided by professional artists, the possibility of asking for the participation of public administrations in cultural development, access to venues for cultural presentation for all citizens, including those who are not wealthy, and demanding the consideration of the arts in the creation of the physical environment and urban design, preservation of the knowledge and heritage of communities, cultural mediation – and how many other aspects of cultural development – must be part of the policies and plans of the 21st century.
We need to put citizens at the heart of these policies, which means giving artists and institutions a more fundamental and essential place than that which consists in reducing them to the partisan beneficiaries of these policies.
Too often, cultural policies are defined to serve the immediate interests of the cultural sector, and thus they contribute to marginalizing it. As though it were feasible to talk about public health policy without taking an interest in the health of citizens, focusing solely on the needs of doctors and hospital staff…
The writings and discussions generated by holding Estates General are rich in content that you will be distilling over the coming months. The little I have seen or read has shown me that in Acadia there is a strong civic will to follow a common cultural path. This will is anchored in the community of professional artists and it is spreading into other communities.
I find this extremely positive and encouraging, and rest assured that many people will be closely following the outcome of the initiative you have launched.
Thank you for inviting me here. Keep up the good work!