‘My idea of an ordinary person is quite different’

Via Hak Mao, the novelist Margaret Atwood on proposed cuts to art subsidies. The piece is specific to Atwood’s native Canada but should be read by every elite-populist politician, every self-styled ‘Voice of the People,’ every smug conformist in the land.

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we’ve been punching above our weight on the world stage – in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it’s a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an ‘estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined).’

But we’ve just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called ‘ordinary people’ didn’t care about something called ‘the arts.’ His idea of ‘the arts’ is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an ‘ordinary person.’ Mr. Harper’s idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that’s attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures – cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. ‘Ordinary people’ pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for ‘the arts’ in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. ‘The arts’ are not a ‘niche interest.’ They are part of being human.

Moreover, ‘ordinary people’ are participants. They form book clubs and join classes of all kinds – painting, dancing, drawing, pottery, photography – for the sheer joy of it. They sing in choirs, church and other, and play in marching bands. Kids start garage bands and make their own videos and web art, and put their music on the Net, and draw their own graphic novels. ‘Ordinary people’ have other outlets for their creativity, as well: Knitting and quilting have made comebacks; gardening is taken very seriously; the home woodworking shop is active. Add origami, costume design, egg decorating, flower arranging, and on and on … Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made.

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