Thursday, May 20, 2010

It’s not the economy, stupid

I spotted this article from Halifax’s Chronicle Herald on my friend Trevor’s Facebook page earlier this week, talking about cultural funding cuts back in Nova Scotia, and I felt compelled to wade in with my $0.02.

The article, written by Andrew David Terris from ARTS NOVA Cultural Research and Consulting, chastises the NDP government’s surprisingly short-sighted decision to reduce the province’s culture budget by $1.1 million. Most core programs will remain unchanged, with nearly half the cuts coming to one-shot initiatives.

I’m totally with Terris when he says that Nova Scotia has one of the worst track records in Canada for investing in arts and culture; it’s probably the chief reason I no longer live in that province. It pisses me off, for obvious reasons, when I hear about governments at any level cutting funding for the arts. But I think what got my dander up about this article is the way that Terris frames the argument for more funding for the cultural industry. Terris loses me when he writes: “Unfortunately, the Nova Scotia government’s ongoing failure to invest in the province’s cultural sector will have serious economic consequences.”

Um, no. As sad as it is to say, the economic contribution of the cultural sector to both Nova Scotia and to Canada at large is negligible – less than 4% of GDP and less than 5% of total employment, according to recent numbers from StatsCan. Even when you factor in sexy, newfangled industries like digital media, bio-tech, nano-tech, etc, the total combined contribution to our country’s economy is still just a fraction of what traditional sectors like natural resources and manufacturing provide. To argue that a government should invest in the arts or the economy is doomed is reckless and specious.

It’s pretty clear where this kind of thinking is coming from, though. Terris cites an atrociously argued report called Building the Creative Economy in Nova Scotia, which in turn takes most of its ideas from the lunatic urban theories of blowhard Richard Florida. Florida, for those of you who don’t know, is most famous for his ideas around something called the “Creative Class”. He argues in his books and newspaper columns (and on his extremely high-paying speaking tours) that this group of workers – artists, writers, musicians, web designers and other “high bohemians” – are what will drive massive economic development in the “new paradigm” of our future economies. Investing in this Creative Class, the theory goes, will herald in a new era of dynamism, creativity, and sophistication to urban areas, creating a super-charged atmosphere of creativity that will in turn attract bucket-loads of capital and investment.

Utter hogwash. Florida is not an economist but rather an “urban theorist”, and the data and methodologies he uses to argue his ideas have been attacked by academics, journalists and real economists alike. How anyone can believe that art galleries and funky cafés will ever produce more or better-paying jobs than manufacturing and natural resources is beyond me. What Florida spouts is nothing more than yuppie validation, and is not based on reality. The truth remains the same: traditional capital spawns the cultural sector, not the other way around. But a lot of urbane, cosmopolitan creative types buy into Florida’s theories because they see it as a silver bullet for arguing for more cultural funding: after all, if culture is the future of the economy, if it is going to be the engine of tomorrow’s prosperity, then why wouldn’t you invest in it? These people are probably exhausted trying to argue for more cultural funding based on other, non-economical grounds, and Florida tells them exactly what they’ve been waiting to hear.

I am not exhausted. To argue for the arts based on economics is a fool’s errand, and I think Florida’s theories are dangerous. He posits, for example, that cities should be more accepting of gays and lesbians because they will play a huge role in this new super-creative economy. Really? And what if they didn’t? What if someone could prove with an Excel spreadsheet that homosexuality is a net-loss to the economy? Does that mean we should then shepherd in homophobia and intolerance? Of course not. You don’t accept gays and lesbians into your community because they’re good for the economy. You accept them because it’s the right thing to do – because doing so makes ours a more just and humane society.

The exact same thing goes for the arts. I’m a staunch proponent of the traditional argument for cultural funding, which goes somewhat like this:
  1. There is something much more to a healthy society than just a strong, upwardly mobile economy, and
  2. Arts and culture play a vital role in whatever that something is.
That’s it. If you’re an artist, that’s the beach you die on. But when artists themselves – not to mention their hangers on, advocates and lobby groups – stop believing in the inherent truth of point 1 and start seeing everything through the prism of economics, then a whole Pandora’s box opens. Notice, for example, that right-wing pro-business groups here in Canada have started locking their lobbying crosshairs on the traditional humanities departments at our universities. They’re arguing that these hallowed (but, thanks to postmodernists, endemically masochistic) institutions should be “revamped” – i.e. done away with – in order to make way for places to train creative types to work in these kinds of “new economy” jobs that Florida pontificates about. So great: workers will be able to design websites and or curate art galleries, write press releases or use Photoshop without ever getting a grounding in the fundamentals of intellectualism, without learning how to think critically or argue logically. These people are building their houses on sand.

Sadly, I actually believe that traditional arts and culture are a net loss to the economy. Whatever they add to GDP, the arts probably take more away from it in terms of funding and other public support. But you know what, that’s the way it should be. Because there is more to life than just economics. There is something to be said for art for art’s sake. But if creative types themselves don’t believe that anymore, then why should anybody else?


  1. care to cite that StatsCan report?

  2. Mind you, "recent" is a relative term for the good folks at Statistics Canada, but here's the report:

    If anyone has figures that are more current, feel free to cite them (and I'll gladly perform a mea culpa if they prove that a&c have doubled their impact on the economy.)

  3. "I am not exhausted" would make a fabulous rallying cry, don't you think?

    This is also a fabulous essay. I think I've read bits of Florida here and there--he is pretty seductive.

  4. Thanks RR. Hooray for not being exhausted! (I was actually a little groggy today, tho.)

  5. Yeah, great piece, Mark. The beach we live and die on.