Does Reality Matter?

The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. It is also one of the world’s five most visited museums. In its cool, quiet exhibition rooms one can wander alongside strangers, pondering the meanings of ancient shapes and inspirations. Visitors are Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Indian… but in the hallways of the museum we are merely fellow humans enjoying the art.

The National Palace Museum of Taipei is either the result of a rogue looting of Communist Party property, or the result of a noble effort to protect and preserve China’s ancient artifacts. It depends on one’s reading of the history of China after the fall of the last dynasty, whether one sees Taiwan as a state in rebellion, or if the true state in rebellion is the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland. It is a situation where two places with the same origins have two totally different ideas about what the facts of their relationship are. Both truly and honestly believe that their position on the autonomy of Taiwan is the only one based on fact, and that any suggestion to the contrary is insane.

This should not be confused with a “difference of opinion,” by the way. This is an actual disagreement over what is factually true.

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Those not familiar with the conflict may think this disagreement over reality to be silly or strange, but they would be wrong. In almost every conflict situation on Earth, people are wrestling with this same struggle every day—a struggle of contesting narratives which do not add up to a coherent truth. In Israel and Palestine, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in Turkey and Armenia, narratives are split about what things really happened and what did not.

Yet another example is Chinese and Japanese narratives on what really happened during the Nanjing Massacre. “300,000 dead,” read the signs in the museum in Nanjing, China, whereas the Japanese claim it was closer to the 50,000-100,000 range. How can something as concrete as 200,000 human lives become a disputed fact? I’m not sure I understood until America spent a week arguing over what we could all plainly see with our own eyes: whether Obama’s or Trump’s inauguration photo showed more attendees.

For in the wake of the 2016 US election, it has become popular to talk about Americans’ “bubbles.” We grow up in certain neighborhoods, surround ourselves with similar friends, and only read newspapers that confirm our original beliefs, therefore we live in bubbles which need to be popped.

I agree to some extent, but “bubbles” is a bit of a weak word for something that is more like “alternate realities.” And it shouldn’t exactly be treated as something unprecedented. All it proves is that America has joined the “society-in-conflict” party, alongside places like Taiwan and China.

In other words we are not alone, but it is not exactly good company.

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Calligraphy art

Some people like to treat differences in interpretations of reality as though they are differences in interpretations of art. As a dreamer and idealist myself one might think I would count myself among their ranks. And believe me I have tried. During election season I lapped up every single article I saw about the perspectives and characteristics of Trump supporters, hoping to at last find the key that would unlock a comfortable understanding of them. As someone with a relentless desire to understand absolutely everything it filled me with so much frustration when every article seemed to fall just short of enlightening me as to what exactly their reality is constructed of.

Art can be so peaceful because of both its connection to, and separation from, genuine reality. With a friend, you can stand in front of an abstract painting and give your own opinions, considering each other’s viewpoints equally.

“I think it’s a horse,” your friend whispers.

“No, I think it’s a birthday cake,” you whisper back. But you still leave laughing and walking together, no matter how strong your disagreements on the painting.

Why can’t the real world just be like this? I suppose it’s because art may either inspire or depress, but rarely does one leave the halls of a museum totally changed. Rarely therefore does art affect one’s actions in real life… but a person’s view of reality does matter, and it deeply and severely affects real life, especially for those whom that worldview hurts.

Whether the police shot an innocent man or a dangerous criminal is of huge importance; whether a woman was saying yes or no is a matter of serious gravity; whether climate change is genuine or a big coordinated hoax is a matter of the actual survival of our planet.

In these types of situations, it is absolutely imperative that we know the real truth, and cannot leave room for “interpretation.”  So yes, reality matters, and reality is a matter of life and death.

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Palace Museum Interior

The real truth can be hard to come by. As humans with the capacity for logical thought, our instinct is strong to always use facts in our arguments, assuming they are more accurate than emotions. This can be a problem. While most humans agree that emotions are fallible and should always be taken with a grain of salt, we do not exercise the same amount of caution in trusting the facts we see on the Internet or even the ones we hold in our own heads. Facts are seen as iron-clad and argument-ending, while in reality, facts are just as slippery as emotions in that we need lots of context to fully understand where they’ve come from and why they exist. Our understanding of the world will never be objective and uncolored, because we all are susceptible to fallible emotions—and we all are susceptible to fallible logic, too.

I wish I could be more kind and forgiving towards alternative viewpoints on reality, recognizing that all of us struggle with finding the truth at some time or another. And yet reality deserves urgency. A potential genocide is going on in Syria. Am I supposed to nod and listen mildly when someone suggests with “purity of intent” that letting people die there is safer than letting them into the US as refugees?

Am I supposed to be cordial and accepting of the reality that my fellow citizens voted for a man who bragged about sexual assault? Am I supposed to accept that in their realities where the same words were said, somehow those words didn’t reek of the same grotesque meaning, the feeling of being grabbed in a dark bar or catcalled on an empty street? Am I supposed to pretend it’s okay and acceptable to me that so-called “alternate interpretations” exist where either I’m being silly, those words don’t mean what you think they mean, or the worst, the reality where all men just go around saying and doing those things? Is that really something I’m supposed to hear with an open mind, like Trump is not disgusting because all men are absolute pigs, and both men and women are allowed to live in a world where they believe this to be true and unchangeable?

Don’t people want something better?

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Me and Blurred Reality

In a way we all have the power to create the realities we want and then inhabit them. Social media makes it even easier. We can curate our experiences on Instagram and Facebook to make glorified lives for ourselves. In a more tangible sense, the way we act often dictates how others act to us. Those who believe no one can be trusted are generally not trustworthy themselves, and those who believe the world is beautiful seem to find the most beauty.

Those who don’t want to believe their own clothes are on fire can stand there grinning in denial until they die, if they so choose. Those who don’t want to believe Trump is a bad guy can create a reality where everyone else is somehow worse. But honestly, what good is that doing anyone? Shouldn’t the opposite also be true, that if we dream up a reality where the world is peaceful and loving we could live there too?

I still believe we can. I believe in a reality where people first and foremost respect other people. Where we all fight together to understand the absurd complexity of this world. Key emphasis on together, because some of the few things I know to be true are that human beings all want mostly the same things, life is kinda scary, and all of us are super confused.

Look, I wish we could live in a world where looking at reality was like looking at a painting, and we could all see something different and that would be okay. But in real life, if we build the wrong reality people get hurt.

At the very least, can we agree to show ourselves some respect by believing in a reality that’s better than this?

Taiwan: A Tale of Two Narratives

Disclaimer: I realize the political history of China and Taiwan is controversial and emotional for those invested in the conflict, and so I want to be clear that none of my words should be interpreted as a political statement on who I believe is “right” or “wrong”… it is not my conflict, I’m not trying to make a personal statement, I just try and get the facts as straight as possible.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of southeastern China and its capital is Taipei. Taiwan is also called the Republic of China, but should not be confused with the People’s Republic of China, which is the official name of mainland China. The exact relationship between mainland China and Taiwan remains a matter of dispute.

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The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds thousands of ancient Chinese artifacts

A Brief History____________________               

The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, fell in 1912, an event which can be seen as the turning point between ancient and modern Chinese civilization. The Republic of China (ROC) was the first government which emerged from the chaos. Through the 1920s the ROC government (led by the Kuomintang Party, or KMT) worked to unify China and establish itself as a legitimate government. Specifically, the KMT claimed it would make China a modern democratic society.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, was also growing in popularity as an opposition party which craved a revolution. They attempted to fight back against the government in the 1920s, but were too weak to pose a serious threat at the time. While the two parties were able to cooperate in fighting the Japanese invasion of the mainland during the 1930s and WWII, this truce collapsed as the war ended and the two were once again on different sides.

The parties entered an all-out civil war in around 1946, but this time around the Communists were better prepared. By 1949 the CCP had emerged from the war victorious. As the KMT retreated to Taiwan (along with two million refugees) and declared Taipei the “temporary capital” of the ROC until they could return to the mainland, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the formation of the CCP-led, Communist, People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Beijing as the capital. The PRC is now the state most closely associated with the name “China,” although as you can see from the above, Taiwan also emerged from the same civilization.

Taiwan Today                                                                    

There is a split narrative between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese views of the current situation. In the PRC, the government position is that when Mao and the CCP won control over the mainland they also gained jurisdiction over all territories which constituted the historical civilization of China—including Taiwan—and therefore believe Taiwan is under their control. However, in Taiwan the government claims that the PRC has never had jurisdiction over Taiwan, the CCP is an illegitimate government occupying China, and the ROC is the only legitimate representative of the nation of China.

In terms of international recognition, the majority of nations now recognize the PRC as the official representative of China. In the United Nations, the ROC represented China until 1971, when member states voted that the PRC should represent China instead, which basically cancelled Taiwan’s UN membership. Due to its contested status and a desire to preserve the relationship with China, few nations have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, a number of nations conduct unofficial relations with Taiwan (and China turns a blind eye, but still does not want to hear about it).

What do the people think?                                           

The KMT succeeded in leading Taiwan down the path to democracy, and so there is an active debate amongst the Taiwanese population over this issue. While the mainstream position in Taiwan is that it does not belong to China, the question is whether it should go on being the Republic of China and claiming the mainland as its own, or if it should relinquish the claim and officially become the independent Republic of Taiwan.

Meanwhile in the PRC, the mainstream position is most definitely that Taiwan does belong to China… and I personally have never met a mainland Chinese person who was in any way willing to question that position.

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Chinese map of China… that ocean boundary is also controversial

On Political Correctness                                                 

  • On my blog I may occasionally refer to Taiwanese people, culture, or food as being “Chinese” and I want to be clear that I mean this ethnically, not politically. In Mandarin there a useful distinction between the two concepts; if one is a 中国人 / Zhongguo ren one belongs to the country of 中国, or the PRC; if one is a 华人 / hua ren one belongs to the 中华民族 which is more like “Chinese ethnic group.” When I say Chinese in the context of Taiwan I mean the ethnic 华人 not the political 中国人.
  • There are three topics mainland Chinese hate talking about, called the three T’s: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. All of these topics make Chinese people visibly uncomfortable when brought up. If you try and talk politics on these themes you should expect either a fiercely political answer or a very Chinese-textbook sounding rehearsed answer and then closed lips. Talking about these topics in China feels as rude and uncomfortable as telling someone in America that they’re fat (something which is actually totally okay in China!) In short, every society has things which make people uncomfortable. Don’t make people uncomfortable.
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Don’t mention it…

The City With Three Heads

3 head city

The best view in Hong Kong is from the top of Victoria Peak, which is the city’s highest point. In the area called Midlevels, Hong Kong’s ultra-rich experience this world-famous view on a daily basis, in apartments which dot the sides of the slope all the way up.

On a humid Monday morning, I was sent to teach a private English lesson in one of the area’s luxury apartment buildings. I’d tried to look a bit nicer that day in an attempt to fit in, throwing on some cheap pearls and my black heels (though I was still pretty sure that with my grey cardigan from Target on, I wasn’t really fooling anyone). I took the subway to a bus station and hopped on a rickety minibus which wound its way alarmingly quickly up the hill. The man in the lobby gave my client a call to make sure she was ready for me, and I was whizzed right up to the 50th floor.

I stepped into a flat that looked like a model home. The furniture was so pristine it had either been delivered a day earlier, or had never been used. Not a single speck of dust sat on the floor, which was a gleaming dark wood. Blanketing the walls were giant windows, overlooking the expanse of the city, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and the boats of Victoria Harbour. I could barely breathe just looking at it.

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The view from the top of the Peak AKA about the same as the view from my client’s apartment…

A maid offered to take my shoes and I immediately kicked them off, not wanting to damage a thing. She got me water, then coffee, as I tried to make myself comfortable around the ridiculously elaborate dining table. My client walked out, a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

“How are you?” I asked her.

“Yes?” she replied, blinking. Apparently that was the only English she knew.

We spoke a bit in Mandarin, her native language, first, as she was from mainland China. I taught her basic greetings in English, and then watched her struggle to communicate with her maid in Cantonese. After about an hour, I returned to the lobby. There, in fluent English, the doorman led me to a parking attendant who, in fluent English, directed me on how to take the minibus back to the metro.

While speaking English is not the only marker of educational attainment, and I’m sure my client is a very shrewd businesswoman in her native tongue, the situation still doesn’t feel 100% fair. It’s because the parking attendant and doorman, likely fluent in at least Cantonese and English and possibly Mandarin too, actually had to gain more skills growing up to attain their service positions than my client did to attain her phenomenal wealth. They had to gain more skills than even I did to obtain my job as a teacher of that same client, which most would agree is a higher-class job than a parking attendant, even if it’s at a luxury building.

The scenario is a good representation of the different parties who coexist in Hong Kong today, and in particular, the extreme lengths Hong Kongers need to go to just to stay afloat in their own city.

Still pretty British (Photo Credit: BBC)

After over a century of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, and ever since, wealth from the mainland has been pouring into the city. Offices have moved across the border, creating jobs for people fluent in Mandarin. Beautiful properties have been purchased by those who can afford them, and hordes of tourists from the mainland flock over and fill the already crowded streets, buying up all the luxury goods in sight.

While the culture of Hong Kong is similar to China in that people tend to be polite and indirect about addressing concerns, somehow when Hong Kongers talk about Chinese people all of this goes out the window. It’s not just the sheer size of the crowds that is a nuisance, but the fact that Hong Kongers believe the Chinese to be uncivilized. “They walk too slowly, talk too loudly, and don’t dress fashionably,” they’ll say. “And they don’t even speak English!” It seems most of Hong Kong’s ideas about “civilization” have come directly from the British colonial attitudes which governed their city up until the 1990s, but the irony of looking down on China as “uncivilized” when there was previously no border there seems to be lost on most Hong Kongers.

Instead, what people here seem to understand is that Hong Kong’s relative Britishness always gave it a competitive advantage in the international business arena, as it made it easier for foreigners to set up shop—that is, until businesses started flocking to mainland China instead. Hong Kongers can laugh at the Chinese all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have achieved extraordinary success without having to jump through the long list of “civilization” hoops that Hong Kongers have spent centuries clearing to engage with the world. Now, mainland China is where big business prefers to go, despite the large cultural gaps there that are not shifting, and despite the skills that most Chinese do not have, such as speaking English.

The irony in that is not lost on Hong Kongers at all.

Now, the region is in a state of cultural whiplash. The rules about what is necessary to be successful have all been scratched, and Hong Kong is scrambling to figure out how to regain its footing. Should it deepen its ties to the Western world and ensure all students speak fluent English? Should it begin using Mandarin as the main language of instruction, while adopting more Chinese-style classes on mainland values and history? Should it forget the rest of the world and double down on local investment, Cantonese, and Hong Kong culture? Or will some combination of the three provide the perfect way forward?

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My favorite picture of the collision of China, the West, and Hong Kong

Like most exam questions, Hong Kong has decided “all of the above” is the best answer here. In an effort not to leave anything out, as it could damage their students’ chances later in life, Hong Kong schools are teaching everything, and students are feeling the pressure. By the time students are in high school, they can speak three languages. They have one class dedicated to Hong Kong society, another dedicated to Chinese history, and a third where they must slog through Shakespeare. In terms of raw skill-building, the students are knowledgeable about an impressive variety of topics. The downside is that there seems to be little room left to teach skills like critically thinking about these ideas, or even firmly arguing an opinion, which is actually what most of my adult students want to work on. Perhaps it’s the great diversity of cultures the students are made to encounter, and the great uncertainty about their city’s own future, which seems to say that every angle is worth considering and every skill is worth having. I guess no one really knows what will come in handy.

Hong Kongers are trying to gain enough knowledge to fill three heads, to keep up with the mainlanders and expats who generally only need to fill one. No matter how competitive Hong Kongers are compared to the other parties, the game is already stacked against them.

I believe this won’t last forever—eventually, things will boil over, and there will be a new status quo as far as what skills are really necessary to get a job here. But what exactly this will look like is uncertain. All I know for sure is that in a city with three heads, only one will be allowed to tell the body—and that includes all three pieces of it—where to go next.

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.

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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

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/will-less-art-and-music-in-the-classroom-really-help-students-soar-academically/2012/12/28/e18a2da0-4e02-11e2-839d-d54cc6e49b63_blog.html?utm_term=.70893233c3a6

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/04/28/music-art-and-language-programs-in-schools-have-long-lasting-benefits

 

UK

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/11/national-gallery-staff-strike-exhibitions-privatisation

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/nov/05/arts-spending-london-bias

 

Australia

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/may/19/the-70-drop-australia-council-grants-artists-funding-cuts

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/comment-australia-council-funding-loss-hits-home-for-arena-theatre-company-20160515-govjya.html

 

America

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/15/312779821/in-pricey-cities-being-a-bohemian-starving-artist-gets-old-fast

http://articles.latimes.com/1995-12-31/entertainment/ca-19460_1_nea-funding

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Endowment_for_the_Arts

 

Canada

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/arts-federal-budget-canada-council-heritage-1.3501480

https://www.thestar.com/news/politics/federalelection/2008/09/24/ordinary_folks_dont_care_about_arts_harper.html

http://hyperallergic.com/246967/why-canadas-new-prime-minister-might-be-good-for-the-arts-eh/