The Venice Biennale opens this month. This every two year extravaganza of art is called “the Olympics” of the art world by the mainstream press. If by that the media means it is a bloated, shady, bankrupting force that showcases activities which have nothing to do with the real world, then yes, I would agree. Although I am happy for the artists chosen to represent Canada since they get to work on a scale they probably never will again in their life; I hate this kind of fest because it doesn’t transcend the current state of affairs, it actually reinforces it. Artist should be like movie stars it seems to be promoting. Really? Thanks, I’ll pass on that one, I like my weight, face and life to be mine if you don’t mind.
But then again I’m a crank who doesn’t enjoy this vertical ascension in our culture where the only winners are those at the very top. I like people to have more access to more things, I like artists who work hard and love what they do with or without the recognition of an award or festival spotlight, and most importantly I believe that culture is local and you experience it every time you walk out your door.
I spent this past weekend in Toronto which is always a good thing (crack smoking low tax clowns aside). Toronto has become my stimulus balm; I often feel centered and edified by being there. While urbanites may come into my neck of the woods to find solace I reverse the experience and find the chaos and energy of the city a wonderful fix to my simple existence. While in Toronto I usually do similar things on each visit; go to an art gallery or two or more, eat food I can’t possibly make at home (this time it was Italian cookies at Forno Cultura and terrine at The Federal), visit with brilliant people doing brilliant things and shop for books and music.
I had the added bonus of doing research on cultural planning. Why I was doing this isn’t interesting but the research was. Cultural planning has come about after years of people like Richard Florida telling everyone at the TED talks or IdeaCity that creative people are the future of our economies. He isn’t alone, there are lots of these ‘culture gurus’ out there who are pushing this idea that supporting culture will save us and make our lives better. If you Google cultural planning you come up with loads of reports and talks that include “visioning statements about your community” and “convergence of arts, leisure and community”. Creative people are the new manufacturing and tourism is the new industrial revolution so to speak.
While I agree with much of this sentiment and that culture does create both energy and money I can’t help but get kind of irked by the fact that people like Richard Florida have more brand recognition than the actual people he is talking about. I mean, who are all these creative people who are rejuvenating our towns and communities? I would think they should be people like Sky Gilbert (Google him, his CV is way too long to write in here and frankly more impressive than Richard Florida’s) who on a recent CBC panel slammed Florida by suggesting that gays aren’t all arts lovers. Some are plumbers. Apparently Florida uses gay culture widely as an example of a supportive arts community.
More distressing and less hilarious however is the fact that these ideas haven’t helped creative people at all. In fact most creative professions have seen a rapid decline of their income over the last decade. In this country the rise of artists vying for MFA status is testimony to the fact that you can’t make money as a creative person anymore, you have to teach or worm your way into some kind of academic structure for security. Writers have it even worse; not even newspapers or magazines pay decent fees anymore and they keep professionals at bay through offensive contracts and ownership rights. Cultural planning may be happening but it has strangely coincided with a demise of many creative pursuits.
During the 19th century the world’s economy switched very rapidly from agriculture and guilds (where crafts people created items we needed) to factories in order to make lots of things for the rise of the middle class; home owners who wanted all the mod cons. The result was a better standard of living and constant political turmoil. Protesters marred this transition. They thought that if there was going to be a new world order then working people, creative people and poor people needed to be involved. This is an enormously simple reading of history I know, but there are parallels today. If our economies are to be saved by creative thinking and innovation then why aren’t creative people at the table where decisions are being made? Why are cultural plans being written by marketers and not artists?
The sudden news of a Walmart wanting to open its doors in Kensington Market in Toronto is a perfect example of what I am referring to. The market is a thriving area due to the hard work of independently minded, creative people. A corporation has had nothing to do with its success. Therefore allowing one in to reap the rewards of decades of organic planning (yes, there was no cultural plan here) is immoral and downright offensive. Whether it happens or not is kind of beside the point. These decisions shouldn’t even get this far.
The cultural gurus who made a lot of money blabbing about the ‘creative economy’ over the last decade should be leading this fight and others. What will it finally take for these ‘thinkers’ to finally come out from under their comfortable and secure rocks?
Pic from ParisDigest.com