What is the Price of Reconciling Freedom and Responsibility in a Changing Democracy?

June 03, 2019

Simon Brault speech
Big Thinking lecture series – Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences Annual Congress
June 2019

I want to start by thanking the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences for inviting me to take part in the Big Thinking lecture series. I’m especially pleased to be afforded the opportunity to reflect with you on the issues of ethics, and political philosophy that are increasingly present and keenly felt by institutions like the Canada Council for the Arts.

Today, I’d like to discuss the civic responsibility of a funding institution in a sector in which viability relies on the quality and relevance of its content and experiences. Quality and relevance are measured in terms of public engagement and the democratic legitimacy—or, to use a trendier term, social acceptability—of the public funds this sector relies on, in Canada, at least.

The Canada Council for the Arts’ founding legislation states that the Council’s mandate is to “foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts.”

The bilingual video of Simon Brault's speech followed by a question and answer period.

In practical terms, the Council allocates public funds to support artistic creation for which the anticipated quality is assessed by peers; and relevance is eventually validated in different ways—by the public’s relative engagement, by a critical reception that is increasingly fragmented, and by various other outcomes, be they cultural, community-related, economic, educational, diplomatic, sociopolitical, and so on. These outcomes are methodologically difficult to measure, when measured at all. But the power to allocate funds—which at the Canada Council are increasing until 2021—also creates expectations in the arts community that are more or less realistic, albeit quite persistent, especially among those individuals and organizations whose work has been endorsed and subsidized more than once. Such expectations are understandable and legitimate, and there is no way around them.

But more and more, expectations concerning the Council’s decisions are growing beyond the rather small circle of our grant recipients. For artists and organizations looking for public sector support and institutional validation, the expectations are financial. For a growing portion of the public, and more specifically for groups or movements seeking recognition, equality, social justice, and inclusion, the expectations are political and ethical.

The notion of art for art’s sake is less and less accepted, and the expectation is that public funding of arts and culture will contribute to the much-desired democratic utopia that is the common good or public interest. Between the unconditional defence of the absolute sovereignty of artistic freedom (all too often used to justify the status quo or maintain privilege) and accusations of wanting to exploit artistic creation to serve socio-political ends, there is a wide margin for frank and open debate—especially regarding freedom and responsibility. Such debate must also embrace and make room for those voices that have, up until now, been excluded.

For a long time in Canada, as in other parts of the world, public funding of the arts consisted of transactions between granters and grantees, as though it were a private affair only insiders could understand. This is no longer the case. Expectations from artists and the public have grown—and are now being expressed openly from all directions. At the crossroads of these expectations, the Council’s activities take on their complexity; it is also where the Council redefines its civic role. .

In my view, the Canada Council must not exacerbate tensions by meeting the expectations of some to the detriment of others. It must not seek to impose, constrain or penalize; rather, it must take into account the phenomena and trends that are having—or will have—an impact on the creation and sharing of art. The Council must attempt to grasp, clarify, and articulate the issues. It can initiate dialogue, create space for mediation, and perhaps even directly facilitate sectoral change by supporting initiatives emerging from the arts milieu itself, as it did recently by promoting workplaces free from bullying and sexual harassment.

But where the Council’s influence is most felt—and where it must clearly express its intentions and objectives—are in its programs and funding decisions. The Council’s intentions and objectives must evolve because society always finds ways to resolve contradictions or remove obstacles standing in the way of development. What exactly are we supporting? What is artistic excellence today? Who defines it? Who assesses it? Who are the peers being asked to pass judgment on the aesthetic value and relevance of the proposals received? Who is being urged to submit grant applications? To whom are we talking? Under what circumstances, and with what discourse? An inflexible defence of quasi-sacrosanct principles—such as that of artistic excellence—has too long detracted from these questions. Today, I assure you, these questions are being posed with increasing insistence both inside and outside the hallowed halls of the Canada Council for the Arts. And no one is taking these questions lightly.

Art and democracy

Art’s immense symbolic significance impacts society in various ways. It can be used to justify and reinforce the established order and its underlying power dynamics. But more often than not, art expresses, illustrates, critiques, questions, alters and sometimes even transcends the hopes and failings of society through artistic offerings that counter banality and greyness, if not darkness and horror.

I like to believe in a notion introduced by Albert Camus, [unofficial translation]: “The ultimate goal of art is thus to confound judges, eradicate all accusations and justify everything—life and the people in it— with a light that is beautiful, because it is the light of truth. No great works of art were grounded in contempt and hate.” [Albert Camus, L’artiste en prison, preface of La ballade de la geôle de Reading by Oscar Wilde, 1952.]

Art is not content to reproduce reality in a servile way, but it does invariably re-examine reality, aiming to enrich and make it tolerable through its transformation. Art that refuses to invest in the present cannot take its place in perpetuity. This durability is a concern shared by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958): “The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words—which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves.”

From the moment it takes shape, artistic creation is necessarily of its time—as must be public support. This means the Canada Council cannot ignore the social context in which it makes its investment. It cannot find itself at odds with the ideal of the common good. It cannot abandon the democratic quest from which our institutions—all our institutions—should not evade if they hope to endure.  

In her recent book entitled Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone (2019), Astra Taylor deftly remarks that:

“The forces of oligarchy have been enabled, in part, by our tendency to accept a highly proscribed notion of democracy, one that limits popular power to the field of electoral politics, ignoring the other institutions and structures (workplaces, prisons, schools, hospitals, the environment, and the economy itself) that shape people’s lives. This is a mistake.”

I believe the Canada Council for the Arts has an increasingly important role to play within our democracy. Its mandate to foster the study and enjoyment of the arts confers upon it an open and progressive social mission, one that must constantly be updated, keeping in mind the contemporary nature of artistic creation in mind.

Fully embracing the Council’s civic role requires that we not yield to oligarchies or powerful factions. We cannot allow the grants we award to be the purview of a small group, nor can we allow our support to serve only certain aesthetics or certain segments of the artist population. It is our duty to put into practice the democratic principles of equality, equity, inclusion, and freedom of expression for all. It is our duty to solicit, invite, support, and make heard other artistic and literary voices to join those we already support and that we must continue to encourage. It would be easy to meet only the needs of our current clients under the pretext they have not been met for the last decade or longer. But that is not our mission, and it is certainly not our duty.

The artistic creation of up-and-coming generations and diverse groups demanding equality and inclusion will not only broaden aesthetic, social and, possibly, economic boundaries in the arts sector as we know them, but also advance democracy. Allow me to quote Astra Taylor again: “With each successive push, women, racialized people, indigenous people, colonized people, disabled people, queer and transgender people, trade unionists, socialists, and other visionaries have not just spread but transformed the concepts of freedom and equality, giving them substantive meaning while revealing their necessary interconnections. . . . Every step of the way, the disparaged and dispossessed have those contentious aligned terms, freedom and equality, at the center of the unfinished and unpredictable path toward that alluring but elusive horizon of self-rule. It has fallen to them to broaden our democratic vista, in part because the marginalized are positioned to see truths the powerful cannot, or choose not to, perceive.”

We are certainly observing the rise of such voices, for example, with the current surge in Indigenous artistic creation. The Canada Council has chosen to support this with increased means, and within a context that respects self-determination and the cultural sovereignty demanded by Indigenous peoples, as a necessary step towards reconciliation, justice, and dignity. The interest sparked by Indigenous artistic creation in Canada and on the international stage is vibrant and genuine. There are numerous examples of shows, exhibitions, films, concerts, and artistic expressions of all types that completely upend preconceived ideas, stereotypes, prejudice, and ignorance of Indigenous peoples’ realities.

The renaissance of Indigenous art is at once a manifestation of Indigenous artists’ absolute need to create, an undeniable confirmation of the push by Indigenous peoples for their inalienable rights, and a symbolic expression of one of the most important movements that can restore the full meaning of democracy to our system. This renaissance was also historically inevitable, as Indigenous peoples have never separated art from nature, life, healing, and spirituality.

The opportunities public organizations can—and must—take advantage of to better align with societal progress are not created out of thin air, nor are they created according to a top-down logic that would impose choices out of step with reality. Organizations need to shoulder their responsibilities with a keen awareness of the current meaning and potential scope of their mandates. This awareness must demonstrate a shrewd understanding of society, and citizens must be able to relate to—and see themselves in—the actions of organizations.

In our 2016-2021 strategic plan, Shaping a New Future, we make this vision clear, stating that:

“Public arts funding is not based simply on short-term financial needs—even though these are obviously important; it is about building the society we want to live in.”  

For the Canada Council, this vision is crystallized and strengthened via the creators and organizations it supports, and the audiences they attract. André Malraux once wisely wrote that, [unofficial translation] “Art is the shortest path from man to man. Works emerge in and of their time, but they become works of art through what escapes them.” (La Métamorphose des dieux, 1957)

I believe that, notwithstanding the use of the word “man” to refer to all human beings, this quote summarizes the fundamental contribution of the arts to our collective development, and indirectly evokes the responsibility of funding organizations to maintain this multifaceted and ever-changing dialogue between arts and society. If the arts no longer stimulate our societies, who do they stimulate? Is there any other answer to this question than “Nobody”? If funding provided by public organizations is circumscribed by parameters that confine access to a small group—and, heaven forbid, always the same group—are we not thumbing our nose at change and societal evolution? Here, I can quickly and categorically answer, “Yes.” So as not to sink into stagnation and thereby contribute to the progressive erosion of our humanity, artists and all citizens must understand the crucial nature of the civic role public organizations play, and take ownership of the democratic platform these organizations offer.

Of the urgent need to create safe spaces

We feel as if we’re open to what the world has to offer, as if we’re closely connected and in constant dialogue with each other, as if we’re better informed and actually have a say in the world’s future. This is an illusion exacerbated by digital technology.

But disinformation is continually gaining ground, and the ties we build are often determined by algorithms that confine us within the invisible borders drawn by our habits.

When we exist in a world where everything is designed to persuade us we are the centre of the universe, we are surprised to discover that we are merely passive spectators of democracy’s destruction, and the stigmatization of the ‘other,’ be they foreigners, refugees, immigrants or some other group with which we do not identify. We hardly notice when self- isolation and identity-based tensions appear as solutions for inexplicable and out of control globalization.

Our ever-advancing mastery of technology gives us the illusion that we can predict and prevent anything, as though we could live our lives free of the imperfections and mysteries of the human condition. Oddly, the only true imperfection is forgetting about the human condition.

We must give human beings safe spaces where they can trust and open themselves up to others, where they can safely express themselves, engage in civil debate, and be heard.

These spaces must be created beyond the colonial mindset, beyond any wish to revoke, appropriate or deny other people’s rights, whether through colonialism, populism, imperialism, cultural relativism or anything else. And art still has the power to create these spaces.

Certain artists voice concerns that politicians don’t dare allude to, but which the human beings that hear them, regardless of country of origin, can relate to. These sometimes discordant voices are the guarantors of democracy and its renewal.

As Nobel Prize for Literature winner Wole Soyinka once said, arts and culture can speak truth to power, to leaders and all those who exercise power. (Interview conducted in 2018 on Facebook, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). But of course, it is not always a truth they want to hear.

Artistic freedom cannot run counter to the recognition of—and respect for—every person’s cultural rights, and operate outside the society in which these rights evolve. When it infringes on these rights, artistic freedom creates spaces rife with mistrust, as was the case with the #MeToo movement and highly publicized controversies around cultural appropriation.

Discussions around issues such as systemic racism, discrimination, colonialism, decolonization, censorship, political correctness, artistic freedom, bullying and economic exclusion have not spared the cultural sector, and they illustrate perfectly the complexity of establishing truly safe spaces. What’s more, such discussions have underlined that the freedom of expression so crucial to artistic creation is not an absolute privilege; indeed, it must be exercised in a way that respects cultural and human rights. Making headway in the arts is not a given—artistic expression must not become a prerogative.

More than a hundred years later, and after many debates on art for art’s sake, one wonders if this thought would not surface today in the form of a new conformism that would allow art to impose itself above common rights.

The Canada Council is increasingly confronted with these discussions. This occurs as peers assessors deliberate on artistic projects and proposals from arts institutions and organizations. And that’s a good thing, because it confirms the genuine diversification of our peers, a diversification that must continue. The Council is also increasingly challenged in the public arena, as was the case last summer with the controversies around the shows SLĀV and Kanata. Each time, the Council must demonstrate the way it works, its programs, its principles, and its services are accessible to everyone, and defend the rights of all people, particularly those of individuals fighting for democratic progress through inclusiveness and those of artists who express themselves creatively.

The idea that the Canada Council for the Arts could operate in a neutral space that no public debate could possibly disturb is decidedly unrealistic. Then again, the Council cannot and must not turn into a tribunal or political authority that attempts to settle all of our societal issues, and that dictates standards and acceptable behaviour. Nor should it become charged with righting all the wrongs suffered by the victims of history. That would overstep our mandate and undermine our institutional credibility. It would also be an unbearable assertion.

Our role consists in shining a light on the multitude of paths artists can take as part of their creative processes and on their drive to reach audiences, including international audiences. Through this role, we take into account the movements, advances, aspirations, technological changes, and other forces that shape social development, and that inevitably become material for artistic and literary creation, as well as factors that influence the inclusion of art in the public sphere.

And so it is at the heart of this tension between rights, achievements, perceived or actual privilege, and strongly expressed legitimate claims that the Council sought to foster a renewed engagement with the arts community in its complex relationship with the forces that redefine society. Without such renewed engagement, the Council will suffer the same public desertion to which too many of our institutions have fallen victim.

Participating in the reconstruction of the social contract

But I am positive we will not soon hear the bell tolling the end of the arts’ contribution to sustainable development. Quite the opposite. And I would like to stress the critical aspect of the tension between serving a sector and serving the whole of society, so that the arts are given a place at the proverbial table where our future is discussed and, for the most part, decided.

Acknowledging social change, publicly countering the representation deficit, reflecting society as a whole, challenging the status quo, questioning the arts sector’s claim to being progressive, and, while doing all this, fostering the emergence and diversity of new ideas—essentially, being an incubator and accelerator of change—these are the ways in which one’s democratic legitimacy is earned and confirmed. Is this bold vision always popular? Not always, especially when tensions between society and the arts community are aggravated. This vision is certainly less popular with those who demand, in the name of artistic excellence and their past achievements, that the Council’s support remain exclusive to them.

We are attempting to meet a Canada-wide demand for the advancement of all society, not just that of circumscribed interests. And the limited and self-serving vision of a few often threatens the full potential of the entire arts sector to take into account—and participate constructively in—the progressive movements that traverse our societies, like the recent movement for reconciliation and against colonialism and cultural appropriation, or for the environment, diversity and representation, and equity. Financial concerns still too often overshadow the significant symbolic reach of the arts and the power of the arts to create a sense of belonging and safe spaces, which are essential for a diversity of voices to express themselves freely.

Independent decision-making and institutional responsibility

How do the founding principles at the root of the Canada Council for the Arts’ creation, more than 60 years ago, enable us to meet current realities?

To better understand the founding principles, let me take you back to 1957, the year the Canada Council was created, and to the thinking that prevailed at the time. Let’s explore the principle of independent decision-making at the heart of the founding principles. I should note that the post-World War II era understood how the arts had been manipulated for propaganda by governments. And the Council’s founding architects provided it with a mandatory arm's-length relationship with the government in hopes of supporting the arts while also respecting the freedom of artists to pursue projects on topics they deemed crucial. We must remember that this system of support to the arts, a good arm’s length away from the government, was introduced by the British in 1945 to avoid the interventionism and authoritarianism of Nazi Germany’s misappropriation of art as a tool for propaganda. Our current strategic plan underscores this point, stating that “ultimately, governments fund the arts to build a creative, compassionate, resilient and prosperous society where people can express themselves fully and freely.”

After more than 60 years of existence—in an age where opinions are shared instantly and abundantly, in an age rife with fake news, and in which real news is accused of being fake by those who do not want to hear it, in an age where populism and cultural relativism are spreading their propaganda, in an age where the principle of independence remains fundamental to the defence of artistic freedom and all cultural rights—how important is it to have independent decision-making? Well, it’s vital, and we must defend it no matter what, no matter the price, because there isn’t a price too high for defending cultural rights for all. And while many citizens may not recognize themselves in current political, economic or other institutions and systems, the Canada Council, through its independence, provides an open public platform. Today, the Council rejects dogmas, including those it built in the past. It is doing everything in its power to not become hostage—in fact or appearance—to those who would distort its mandate under the guise of a rigid interpretation of artistic freedom or a definition of excellence whose narrowness is increasingly suspect in the eyes of those whose artistic voices have been ignored or condemned to systemic privation.

We must maintain the independence afforded to us by legislation in order to support the development of all society within a perspective of inclusion and relevance. We endeavour not to serve the oligarchies mentioned by Astra Taylor. And we endeavour to live up to the democratic responsibility initially entrusted upon us, which we must always reaffirm, if not regain.

In 2016, we made clear commitments to create new possibilities for artists of every background in this country, and for new audiences.

I believe that with our plan, our commitments, our strategic investments, a national and international understanding of our mandate, and, of course, the incremental doubling of our budget, which we will reach in 2021, we are well positioned to amplify the true role and scope of the arts in the development of our pluralistic society. I believe we can be a 21st-century democratic institution. Never again will there be a more appropriate time to show our ambition and resolve towards the arts and culture. And I want to make sure the Council doesn’t miss this opportunity to do its part, and thereby exert a positive, sustainable influence on the viability of the arts sector, and indeed the future of democracy.

Conclusion

At the beginning of this speech, I asked what might be the price of reconciling freedom and responsibility in a changing democracy. I was thinking of a quote by Victor Hugo, who once said that, [unofficial translation] “Everything that increases freedom also increases responsibility. Nothing is so weighty and serious as being free; freedom is a state of consciousness.” (Actes et paroles, 1870-1876).

And so, I now ask you the question: who wouldn’t be willing to pay the price of freedom—whatever that price might be?