When Stephen Harper launched his now celebrated broadside at the cultural-industrial complex (“all sorts of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayer, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough”), the response was as predictable as it was incoherent. In most countries, the argument for subsidy is couched in a huffy insistence that art is not a business like any other. But this is Canada, where rent-seeking is both our highest art and our most profitable business, so here artists have learned to protest that, in fact, they are a business, and should be subsidized like any other.
I don’t propose to rehash the whole argument here. (Interested readers will find the subject explored at punishing length at andrewcoyne.com/essays/Against_arts_subsidies.html.) Suffice it to say there is a difference between support of the arts and state support of the arts, and that the separation of art and state would be as much to the benefit of art as anything else. (“Above all,” said Dégas, “we must discourage the arts.”)
What was more interesting was the political response. The instant analysis from all corners of the political class was that Harper was playing “wedge politics,” using a largely symbolic issue—the $45 million in funding cuts that precipitated the fracas is a tiny fraction of the Heritage Department’s budget—as a means of splitting off one group of voters from another. This is commonly agreed to be a heinous crime, especially as practised by Conservative politicians. The possibility that those on the other side of the issue—the Liberals quickly announced an increase of $250 million in arts funding in response—might be doing the same thing does not seem to have occurred to anyone.
But of course they do. Just as Harper was appealing to his base (“ordinary working people” who “come home, turn on the TV” and see all those “rich galas” they paid for), so the Liberals were appealing to theirs (the people who receive the subsidies, and those who identify with them). Harper may have been tapping into the resentment his people feel for their people, but rest assured Stéphane Dion was doing exactly the same. Each, in his own way, was offering to protect his’n from their’n. In a word, it was about class: class envy, class snobbery, call it what you will, but that’s what it was.
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