State of the Arts, The Haliburton Highlander

Victoria Ward

Olympian challenges

Summer is upon us and the Olympic Games this year will not only showcase excellence in sport but also art. In fact the artistic expo adorning the games will be unprecedented in terms of excellence and funding. Londoners have been told all year to brace themselves for cuts, but this summer, there are pots of money for art!

I’m not surprised a global powerhouse like London would have the finest examples of art there is while the world is watching; I just can’t get my brain around the idea that it seems to be okay to wreck unions and destroy social programs with austerity cuts and yet have a whack of cash in the ready to fund art.

I realize that private money and a host of interrelated funding bodies help to make these huge art forums happen, and that it isn’t just governments that put up the money but still. With anti-austerity protests happening just next door in Montreal and people exhausted by endless economic uncertainty it seems strange to me that the art world carries on without a nod to the plight of our most vulnerable people: the middle class.

Perhaps you don’t think the middle class are vulnerable. I beg to differ. Who has been paying for education, art, roads, clean water, and protection from pollution, (the list goes on), for many decades? Not the enormously wealthy I can guarantee you that. People become wealthy because they figure out how to get out of paying for such things. No, it is the people among us who work over forty hours a week at jobs they might love or not, and pay taxes, people who have cottages here for example.

I guess I don’t understand why the art world isn’t standing up for these hard working people who put make art a focus in their lives. In this country it could be that since our Prime Minister has said that the government will get out of funding anything that does not fit into their mandate, artists are sheepish to get involved. We already live at recession worthy incomes. But wait, the Canada Council for the Arts has said that it’s funding hasn’t been touched. I therefore await the federally funded art work dedicated to anti-austerity and the death of our middle class.

During the Paris Commune in 1871 artist Gustav Courbet lead a huge group of protesters toward the statue of Napoleon hoping to pull it down in support of the communards. He was charged with vandalism. When workers took up the fight for socialism in Mexico artists Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo marched in the streets with them – he missing an art opening in New York for it. Musicians such as Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and Canadian Matthew Good have dedicated much of their careers to promoting ideas of justice and compassion.

These artists fight for the working man who may have been a miner or a factory worker, but today they may be a very tired mom of two, with a junior executive position in a media firm that may or may not be bought by some huge corporation which may or may not lay her off. Her lifestyle (including money to purchase art for example), her dreams and her children’s education are allowed to just hang in the balance while world leaders debate whether countries that have given the world democracy and the Renaissance are worthy of help.

I admit that the prospect of seeing no less than ten dance pieces by the late genius Pina Bausch (which is scheduled during the Olympics) might make me forget the plight of the common man. But will these huge, million dollar art extravaganzas foster solutions to bridge the gap between people who can afford the big tickets and those who can only attend the free stuff?

Here at home we have municipalities completing their cultural plans and I am hoping that included are ideas toward closing these kinds of gaps. Great art must be available to all, not just American Express Gold Card Members.

Yet, the arts must persevere regardless of whose in charge or who’s paying the bills; Rivera was funded principally by those quintessential capitalists the Rockefellers. But we need to consider what side of history we want our work to end up on.

Art always matters but it can push the society it comes from to greatness when it makes a decision about what it wants to say. There are many examples of this but someone I keep seeing mentioned over and over, especially now, is the British writer George Orwell. By innovating journalism through taking up the actual work he was writing about (coal mining for instance), his work has become a touchstone for a different age but with some similar hopes. We all want to realize our potential with dignity but this only happens when we have a society that believes this and is able to pay for it.

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State of the Arts, The Haliburton Highlander, June 21, 2012

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Victoria Ward

Pride and Prejudiced

My lawn is a sea of yellow this time of year. Dandelions return more brilliant and multitudinous each time we mow, they seem to find their cutting as a challenge to get more resilient. I like them and don’t see them as weeds so until they seed and become balding, screechy versions of themselves, we let them grow. We don’t use pesticides because we drink from the ground and regardless of what you believe; pesticides end up in ground water.

Unfortunately dandelions are a kind of metaphor for how being alternative in this world plays out. Most people think they are a sign of someone who doesn’t take care of their lawn, but I think that being judgmental about someone else’s lawn can become a kind of mild fascism.

Thinking someone else’s lawn isn’t up to par, or blight on your neighbourhood, or just plain wrong isn’t unlike thinking someone else’s lifestyle is inappropriate. One could argue that lawns are seen by others while lifestyle choices can be hidden.  Really? How does one hide their life partners exactly?

This is a very round about way of talking about homosexuality. Many of my dearest friends in the world are gay, and I am sorry to lump all of you into the category of ‘gay’ but it’s the shortest route I could take to make my point. I could not imagine not having these people in my life, in fact, in many respects they have helped my life become a more joyous place to be. So, of course I was thrilled that President Barak Obama eloquently said that he believes in same sex marriage.

Gay people have long been an enormous economic driver of the arts around the world. They are what hip marketers call ‘the pink dollar’; lots of disposable income and openness to the alternative realm that is the arts. Every arts organization on the planet either has either a gay person running it, sitting on its board or championing it throughout their community. Frankly, I don’t think we would have the civilization we do without the contribution from the gay community.

Ok, so I’m queer friendly. That can’t be a surprise. I do think however we have seen the openness to our gay friends in our society also inspire an unfortunate back lash. This can be seen very clearly in the actions of the Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the Republicans south of the border, the Church of England and many misguided people who think that homosexuality somehow threatens the family.

Out of all my friends I have known for decades now, some of the most successful and domesticated couples are my gay friends. I know one couple that has been together faithfully for twenty-five years and attends church every week. How this threatens the status quo and the family is beyond me.

What so many people don’t realize is how much time and money the gay community has contributed to our culture. Walk into an art friendly gay person’s home and it is stacked with art. These are people who put their money into art, all the time. I know it’s a cliché but it is actually true, many, many gay people love the arts and are happy to pay for it.

It isn’t a coincidence: writer Christopher Reed and his recent opus Art and Homosexuality states that “modern culture conjoined the kinds of individualism represented by the “artist” and the “homosexual” so that these were seen as closely interrelated types: outsiders, sensitive to aesthetics, who gravitated to cities and shocked conventional sensibilities by acting on their unconventional impulses.”

I began my professional art career because of a gay man, Sky Gilbert. Sky ran Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.  For a long time it was the only gay theatre company inNorth America. Sky came to see a performance of mine when I was just fresh out of art school. Over the next several years Sky mentored me, told me I could write, helped me choose projects and encouraged my engagement in politics and the media. His help was invaluable and I honour him every time someone asks how I got into this art thing.

If you take a small stroll through the history of western art you will stumble upon countless episodes of questioning sexual identity. From Socrates to Da Vinci to Warhol, sexuality is but a mercurial marker; it’s a part of us and can be defining or not. Art and its geniuses came into being regardless of it, even though there was probably great individual struggle.

Today we can be very proud of a culture that is inclusive of this section of humanity. Although my dandelions aren’t the greatest of analogies, and I apologize to those who would rather I used posies or roses; we are beginning to look at them differently, not just a weed but plant that makes great tea, has healing properties and a makes a great salad fixing. Let them continue to thrive without stigma and injury.