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Simon Brault’s speaking notes for the G7 Culture Summit in Florence

31 March 2017

The director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts participated in the first G7 Culture Summit in Florence. Speaking as the cultural expert for Canada, he contributed to the conversation on the major cultural and heritage issues faced by the G7 countries. Here are his speaking notes.

We are living in a time of paradox.

Up until now, our abundant artistic and cultural heritage, the fruit of past creativity, has been tangible proof of the advanced civilizations that came before us. This heritage is an infinite source of knowledge, meaning and inspiration. It has fascinated experts and masses, and it has challenged the choices we're facing as a society. We must set aside our differences and come together to protect this heritage. Because we're living in a time where, all too often, arts and culture are the collateral damage of our conflicts, greed, recklessness and apathy.

Tourism offers the world the chance to experience cultural sites, but it can also compromise them, sometimes to the point of threatening their very survival. The great value we place on cultural heritage can make it a target for pillage and the destructive fury of terrorists.

To protect artistic and cultural heritage we urgently need buy-in from the greatest minds and the most informed political wills of society. We need them to ensure that our cultural legacy remains an integral part of our education, our progress, and our civilization. We were thrilled by the recent announcement by the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas. But there's still a long way to go to mobilize people and raise awareness.

The digital world we're living in only adds to the paradoxes of our times.

The digital revolution has been accelerating at an alarming rate since the turn of the 21st century. Its impact has been felt in sectors of society, all aspects of human activity, and all nations around the world. Yet always unequally, since inequality has been the unfortunate constant throughout our evolution. A new model of civilization is quickly becoming the norm: something between illusion and evolution, another paradox of civilization that can’t be avoided.

In this digital age, we feel like we live in a world without borders, where we are connected to and in constant contact with each other. Where we have access to all the content we could ever want to inform ourselves and have our say in what direction we take.

But at the same time, misinformation is gaining more and more traction. Our interactions are controlled by algorithms that map our habits to connect us to some and to close us off from others by invisible borders.

We've become trapped in our bubbles, in a world seemingly “all about us.” We're surprised to see outsiders, refugees and immigrants become stigmatized, as we idly stand by. We barely notice as withdrawal and identity-based conflict become the unspoken remedy for this unexplained and out-of-control globalization. On top of this wariness, we're seeing the crumbling of long-standing models of distribution, communication, exchange, consumption and mediation.

We constantly strengthen our technological mastery, believing that we can predict and prevent everything. That we can finally solve the mysteries and perfect the imperfections of the human condition. But have we forgotten that the ultimate imperfection, is that of being human?

Probably for the first time, the big question for our new model of civilization is: What role can human beings continue to play?

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves how our dependence on digital technology will affect human development, not to mention our ability to exercise free will. Before we are removed from the equation entirely, let’s use our power to make some conscious choices:

  • so that we don’t become tourists in the ruins of our past;
  • so that the decrees of digital giants don’t unilaterally determine how art is created and shared;
  • so that we can counter the dehumanization of, and by, digital;
  • so that art, literature, culture, and heritage remain central in our future, as an anchor for society and civilization;
  • so that we can work together, in solidarity, as players in a future we insist on being part of.

The Italian poet Cesare Pavese once wrote that “art is proof that life is not enough.” But I'm convinced that as technology continues, more and more, to control our lives to the point of alienating us from it, art will prove that technology is not enough.

That's why we must work together to seize every opportunity to place the arts, literature and cultural heritage at the heart of our societies. We must underscore their fundamental contribution to democracy. The emancipation of individuals and groups that are marginalized or excluded. Dialogue and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Social cohesion, diversity, education, the environment, economic development, trade and public diplomacy.

Public support for the arts and heritage must once again become a pillar of society. It must be promoted and recognized as an integral part of our human development -- not only by the experts, but by citizens from all walks of life, by all sectors of society.

Postnational Canada on the global playing field

For nearly 75 years, since the Second World War, we've been clinging, for better or for worse, to basic assumptions about the advancement of our societies.

But by confining ourselves to cultural, economic, organizational or other models on the verge of collapse, we risk falling into a pattern of reminiscing about “the good old days” and proposing similar plans for the future.

We must not, we cannot build our future on nostalgia.

In Canada, our past has precolonial, colonial and postcolonial connotations. But our present and future are undoubtedly postnational. This isn’t a question of idealism. It’s a question of doing away entirely with the idea of borders, accepting multiple citizenships, and upholding universal human rights.

In discussions on postnationalism, Canadian writer Mavis Gallant is often quoted. She defined a Canadian as: someone with a logical reason to think he is one. Some have interpreted this definition as the absence of a single Canadian identity. Personally, I interpret it as a conscious choice of one’s community.

I also see ties with philosopher Achille Mbembe’s comment that “identity is not essential; we are all just passers-by.”

State of affairs: the state of the future

Demographic changes, the globalization of trade, the constant presence of digital technologies in our lives and social interactions, the urgent necessity to redefine the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the aspirations of today’s young people... These are the driving forces of Canada’s profound and ongoing transformation – and of our understanding of our past, present and future as a country.

These were also the drivers of the large-scale transformation the Canada Council for the Arts began over two years ago. A transformation to vigorously uphold art’s critical role in society.

Our transformation started with the basic premise of shattering the very idea of a standard model. We broke down the silos of 140 programs isolated by discipline. We reconciled art, sustainable development and empowerment. But we also knew that in the long term, we wouldn’t be able to do it alone. At the last World Summit on Arts and Culture organized by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, I told my counterparts what I will repeat here today: when it comes to leadership in driving change, no one can do it alone. We need shared leadership – across all sectors, all practices, at every level, for all citizens. Ultimately, we need shared leadership across all nations.

Shared leadership

To aspire to this, we need to find new ways to discuss, reflect and challenge. We need new ways to rethink our collective experience, counter the dismantling of democratic values, and redefine human development. Digital will see us go from one extreme to the other: some will rely on the familiar and build up protectionist borders. Others will look to create networks and connections to benefit from cultural exchange. Somewhere between the two, we'll come together to review and renegotiate agreements that reflect the most current state of affairs.

Two weeks ago, the Canada Council for the Arts brought together the artistic community and digital thinkers at a summit on the arts in the digital world.

The summit aimed to dispel any myths we may have about technology and to break away from our ingrained pre-digital habits and models. It was a question of seeing digital as an opportunity to put creation at the heart of our sustainable development.

I would add that if there is one legacy we must protect, it is the right to create freely, and to access quality creation.

Obviously, a young country like Canada is not teeming with the heritage assets of other countries, like our host, Italy. But regardless of the nature or size of our respective cultural heritages, we must continue to uphold and defend the critical and non-negotiable importance of human creativity, arts and culture in our societies.

And to do this, to protect the very notion of cultural heritage, we must turn to a shared leadership, now more than ever.

In 2016, Freemuse registered 1,028 attacks on artists and violations of their rights across 78 countries, more than double the number of reported cases in 2015. These included direct violations of artistic freedom and even acts of censorship. Clearly, the models established after the Second World War can no longer guarantee freedom of expression.

The arts and human creativity which are embodied in our world heritage have the power to bring people together. And we must harness that power. We can no longer stand by, horrified and helpless, and watch humanitarian crisis after crisis, each one worse than the last. We must turn to the evidence of past, present and future human creation to help us imagine a better future for us all.

This is not the time to be fearful. It's the time to show strong leadership.

In his Inferno, Dante wrote: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Remarkably it reminds me of comment made – just a couple of weeks ago – at the Council’s digital summit when author and documentarian Astra Taylor said: “Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

We must foster a new cultural democracy, one championed and protected by citizens of the world who understand the importance of the arts and cultural heritage, and make them a part of their lives. Citizens who understand that support for artistic creation is ultimately an act of civic responsibility, an act of openness, and an act of hope still within our reach.

Maybe then will we see a shift in the balance. Maybe then we'll see social power coming from the bottom up, to save us all from descending into inferno.

Portrait - Simon Brault 2014
Simon Brault, O.C, O.Q.

Director and CEO

Simon Brault is the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. Author of No Culture, No Future, a collection of essays on the rise of arts and culture on public agendas, he has participated actively in initiatives such as the Agenda 21C de la culture au Québec. An initiator of Journées de la culture, he was also a founding member and chair of Culture Montréal from 2002 to 2014. In 2015, he received the Quebec CPA Order’s prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award for bringing together “two worlds that were once disparate – the arts and business – an alliance that significantly benefits society at large.” Follow Simon Brault on Twitter: @simon_brault

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