Starving Elitists

How does the art of politics affect the politics of art?

This article was inspired by my travels to: Montreal, Canada

For Christmas this year, my siblings and I headed up to Montreal to spend a few days together. As two of us are college students and one is a travel addict (hi), we set out into the city trying to be as cheap as possible by seeking out all the free activities we could.


Luminotherapie is an annual glow-in-the-dark contemporary art exhibit!

One of the cheapest and best things to do in Montreal, it turns out, is immerse oneself in the arts. Though it was the dead of winter, and the night was freezing cold, we were drawn outside by the soft glow of an annual contemporary art exhibit called Luminothérapie. Its aim is to bring light to the darkness of winter, and in this exhibit were a series of glowing purple rings, scattered across a wide open area, free to sit in and snap pictures with. Surrounding the exhibit were a series of projected short films, lighting up the skyscrapers around us.

During the daytime, my siblings and I were able to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which had just opened a brand new pavilion called the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. The pavilion cost $25 million dollars to build, holds 750 works of art, is six levels high, and offered completely free admission until the end of January 2017.

It was cool to see so much contemporary artwork so publicly available in the city, and it led me to start researching how Montreal had the money for so much new artwork when many other cities these days seemingly do not. As is usual for me, I was basically led into a deep research black hole, this time on the murky relationship between education, art, politics, and democracy, and in conclusion I have come to understand that:

1) Despite the fact that art is a means of expressing free speech, there is a growing current of criticism or even resentment of the arts among Western politicians.

2) This has led to changes in art funding, producing unequal and insufficient distribution–and it is resulting in a crisis for the arts in several different countries.

3) In the Anglophone arts world, Canada has pledged by far the most investment in the arts for the coming years. 

Still with me? Let’s go…


The Politics of Art

When Meryl Streep got up at the Golden Globes this year and accepted her award with a lengthy and overtly political speech, the response, as the response to everything these days tends to be, was highly bipartisan. While it may be easy to say this was a consequence of her speech’s content, it is important to recognize that the adjectives used to describe Meryl’s speech are actually part of a broader conservative lexicon regarding the arts, one which has been repeated in multiple countries in recent years.

Disagreeing with artists these days means generally honing in on two points. Either critics state that the artist is a member of the “elite,” this so-called out of touch class of folks who is irrelevant to the common people anyways. Or, they suggest that artists should not speak out against politics at all, either to avoid being controversial, or because there is a lack of talent on their part and their voice therefore has no authority.

This delicate balance between politics and art is a unique struggle of democratic societies. I spent the past year of my life in China, where journalism, visual art, dance, and music are kept completely separate from political topics, so there, art may mean something different. But in societies which guarantee the right to freedom of speech, we are also guaranteed the right—not the privilege—to mix art and politics. Calls to discredit and devalue the words of artists within my own country are nothing short of terrifying to me, and yet through reading more about art around the world, I was able to understand some reasons why they may happen.


Reason: The Deprioritization of Art

Arts education holds life-long benefits for students. For example, low-income students who have arts-rich experiences in high school are more than three times as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students without those experiences. Arts education helps to improve standardized test scores; College Board found that students who take four years of art and music classes in high school score 91 points better on the SAT than students who take half a year or less. Studies have shown that musical training can increase connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and that adults who take music lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster in their old age than those who do not.

And yet ‘art’, and by this I mean everything from theater to music to dance to opera, has been branded as unimportant by the American education system—and for that matter, most other systems around the world have done the same. When times are tough and budget cuts need to be made in public education, it is almost always arts and music classes which get their budgets slashed first.

From a young age, this attitude is ingrained in us—that arts are a “privilege.” We see that it is something we only study when there is extra money available, something that the nice private school down the road has but that our struggling public school simply cannot make room for. By the time we grow up, we seem to inherently know that math and science are ‘real’ subjects, necessary for a career, but painting is not (despite the fact that it is a career for many!)

Government investment even beyond the public education system often reflects this same assumption that art is a privilege for the rich. This has massive consequences for the development of the arts worldwide. Government funding helps to create new arts organizations and give career options to new artists. It is responsible for designating where art happens, and who has access to it. It is a major way for people to utilize their right to free speech, and should be enthusiastically supported by any democratic government.

Unfortunately it is not, and arts funding is under threat worldwide. Here are the particular challenges going on, listed by country:


Arts in the UK

The biggest threats to art in the UK are unequal distribution and a government focus on cutting “unnecessary” spending.

The government is responsible for the majority of arts spending in the UK, and this has led to a vast gap in arts funding between London and, well… everywhere else. Cultural spending on the arts is about £69 per head in London, and £4.50 elsewhere. This is supposedly justified by the fact that the arts in London bring back the highest revenues, but of course, what it really looks like to most people is just another example of the huge gap between “elites” and “non-elites,” which has manifested in larger political conflicts (Brexit, for example). About 86% of the UK’s population does not live in the London area, severely restricting their access to the arts and contributing to the perception that art is only for elite city-dwellers.

National Gallery, London

It can lead to other problems as well; in 2015, much of the National Gallery in London was shut down due to a massive employee strike. The reason for the resistance was that the government had disclosed its plans to privatize the jobs of the museum’s employees—taking them from art-knowledgeable employees who specifically signed up to work for the museum, and outsourcing them to generic security guards, all in an effort to cut costs for the government.

With the current government of the UK struggling to negotiate the large, time-consuming questions of Brexit, it is not likely that fixing these issues of arts funding will be prioritized in the near future. The UK’s government-based arts spending has resulted in both restricted access to the arts for citizens, and debates about whether arts-knowledgeable employees are even worth paying at all.


Arts in Australia

The biggest threat to art in Australia is a government focus on cutting “unnecessary” spending.

Around 65 arts companies and organizations lost government funding last year with the release of the government’s latest budget. This has created a crisis, as most small-to-medium arts organizations in the country rely on government funding rather than individual donors to stay afloat. Many have been left struggling in the wake of the cuts, with uncertain futures; in fact, the artistic directors of theatre companies across the country penned an open letter calling the spending cuts an ‘unprecedented assault’ on the arts.

Possibly even more concerning are the massive spending cuts in giving grants to individual artists and projects. From funding 1,340 individual artists in 2013-14, the budget in 2015-16 only made room to fund 405 Australian artists. This will severely restrict career development for many new artists trying to gain recognition.

Art is not being prioritized in Australia either, and opportunities for new or underprivileged artists are actually being actively cut back on. Alright, what about the USA?


Arts in America

The biggest threat to art in the USA is the political call to eliminate government funding for it.

The arts in America rely strongly on individual donors to keep them afloat. However there are also many government and non-profit agencies which assist with grants. The most major one is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency funded with government money. Between 1965 and 2008, it gave out more than $5 billion in arts grants.

The NEA has come under threat a few times in recent years, however. One politician who has pushed hard for the organization’s complete elimination is Newt Gingrich. In the 1990s, he called for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to all be completely eliminated. He insisted the NEA funded artists that were “too controversial,” and that it was, once again, “too elitist.”

Even more troubling is that in 2009, the NEA came under controversy when Breitbart News published an article claiming the NEA was telling artists to create “pro-Obama propaganda” rather than art. Despite the fact that the NEA is a federally-run, bipartisan organization, and there is zero evidence to support their story, Breitbart was able to run this and stir up serious controversy.

So both Newt Gingrich and Steve Bannon, former CEO of Breitbart, are expected to be prominent figures in our new president’s administration, and both have called loudly in past years to defund the arts. Not to mention that public broadcasting corporations such as NPR are also generally lumped in with arts funding, and the president has literally said that the media is his “opposition party.”

If government arts funding is eliminated in America, we will see a widespread lack of arts funding for, again, those small-to-medium arts organizations and individuals who rely on grants to support their existence. We would also see increasing gaps in access to art–while large, wealthy cities like NYC may be able to rely on individual donors to fund all that elite culture, smaller cities would simply not be able to do the same.


Arts in Canada

While prior Canadian PMs have not embraced the arts, Justin Trudeau is saving the day.

Canada may be the Anglophone world’s beacon of hope as far as arts funding goes, but it is only in recent years that it has become this way.

In fact in just 2012, then-PM Stephen Harper was lambasted for a comment he made equating artists and elitists (sound familiar?) His specific words on art were: “I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”

Not only did Harper attack the arts in word, but in deed. His government slashed funds for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC—Canada’s national radio and television broadcaster), along with the funding for the National Film Board, the Department of Canadian Heritage and Library, and Archives Canada.

Thank you Justin Trudeau for funding the arts!

However, things have changed under Justin Trudeau’s new government. In his campaign, he promised to deliver more funding to the arts—and luckily, he has kept that promise. His government is investing a massive $1.9 billion CAD ($1.4 billion USD) in the arts over the next five years. That includes $675 milion for CBC alone, to help the organization recover from its budget cuts under Harper.

Says Trudeau on the arts: “Culture is what defines us. It brings us together. Yet for a decade, our cultural and creative industries have been under attack by Harper. I want our creators, in all fields, in all communities—including Indigenous Peoples and linguistic minorities—to feel supported and valued by their government. Cultural investment creates jobs, stimulates tourism, and improves our overall quality of life and sense of community.”


Why Should I Care?

You don’t have to be an art fanatic to believe that the arts should be protected, as arts and media are just some of the fundamental ways in which a democratic society’s freedom of speech can be expressed. Living in a society where free speech is guaranteed by law, but the means of producing this speech is actually restricted to a lucky few, is just as useless as living in a society with free health care but a huge shortage of doctors. If the government isn’t actively working to provide for and distribute your rights effectively, then your rights cease to matter, because in reality they do not exist.

To hear politicians claim that only elitists practice art, while simultaneously failing to provide enough arts education and funding to support non-wealthy artists, seems to me that the whole thing is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. How could a fresh graduate from a disadvantaged background possibly enter the arts world in the UK, Australia, or the USA, if they no longer have access to grants or small organizations to practice performing with? If you want art to be for “ordinary people,” then you are obligated to make art accessible for ordinary people. The Western world can’t honestly expect to uphold the right to free speech for everyone while it slashes funding left and right for media and the arts, and replaces those cuts with no alternative means for free expression.

I hope that all of you will help in standing up to support access to these cultural institutions—our museums, our concert halls, our theaters, our artists and singers and songwriters and dancers—for all citizens. If there is a cultural gap here, it is not the fault of artists like Meryl Streep, but the fault of politicians for failing to protect our right to access and create art.


For Further Reading…

Benefits of Arts Education