The sensationalism of the title of this post is intended to demonstrate the kind of difficult questions facing the arts and culture sector today: a question like whether sensationalizing in order to attract audiences compromises core cultural values. Simon Brault’s book No Culture, No Future (Le Facteur C en français) sets out not so much answer this question, or questions like it, as re-frame the whole way we think about the place of culture in society.
Drawing on his extensive experience as CEO of the National Theatre School, spearheading the restoration of the Monument-National in Montréal, founding Les journées de la culture, and as Vice-Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, Brault describes the various impasses the cultural community faces to achieving sustained support: we must, he argues, fundamentally question and then rebuild the relationship between the cultural sector and the public. Brault’s project is a road map to “democratization,” the kind of engagement in which the public does not merely “participate” as consumers but is so deeply connected to culture that it is an indispensable part of life.
For Brault it is not a question of finding better arguments for supporting the arts. He notes that we have ample evidence of the positive economic impact of museums, galleries, theatres, orchestras, festivals, etc., yet the arts and culture are still generally regarded as a luxury, affordable in good times but far from essential. Brault cautions against putting too much store in economic arguments; it is better to hang on to core values even if that necessitates underestimating the economic contribution of the arts and culture because the alternative: “one-dimensional and instrumental thinking that reduces cultural value to calculable economic impact,” risks shearing off the very core values that are the foundation of our best arguments.
Neither is it a question of simply increasing government funding. Brault reminds us that state funding of the arts and culture is purposive, based on philosophical principles and broad social objectives. In Canada there are two approaches, one in Quebec founded on France’s culture pour tous (culture for all), in which state investment in culture is understood as promoting democratic participation, and another in the rest of Canada based on the British system of autonomous arts councils which detaches culture from politics. For Brault, it is not a matter of which approach is better. The bigger issue, he argues, is the multiplication of programs to fund arts and culture among Ministries and departments and agencies at all levels: while this abundance promises greater independence from single-source funding, there is real danger of arbitrary retraction where policy objectives are vague and unaligned (something we are witnessing already as funding regimes threaten to topple like dominoes, starting with recent “clearcutting” of arts programs in B.C.).
Neither is it a question of cultural communities more strenuously or loudly asserting the importance of culture. For Brault this approach is crippled by contradictions and competition within the cultural field(s), the contradiction of cultural “experts” professing to know what’s best for the public and a public largely unconvinced but nevertheless expected to foot the bill, and competition that periodically erupts into skirmishes and fueding, for example between “universalists” who believe in hierarchies that produce “excellence” and “relativists” championing diverse, critical, independent voices. Brault again refuses to choose sides. Rather he focuses on the practical dilemma that despite remarkable growth, increasing diversity and powerful new communications tools, the cultural communities are unable to find a common voice or arguments that are broadly credible outside their own immediate spheres. This leads Brault to what is perhaps the most provocative assertion in the book: that cultural policy cannot be left to the cultural community itself.
Brault balances this assertion with a fair and impassioned plea to address the economic plight of working artists. Clearly creators are the foundation of the arts and Brault is sensitive to the failure of both market and state to build sustaining economic structures. Refus Global, the Kingston Conference of 1941, income disparity, and number of artists (142,000) are all discussed in the book, as are arts organizations.
At the end of the day, however, Brault asks us to look at the problems from a different perspective, to come at them not from the inside out but from the outside in. Great progress has been made, he notes, through international policy agreements like the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression, which establishes culture as a universal right, and which has permitted governments to insulate their distinctive cultural production from the “pure” economic competition of free trade markets. The underlying concept of “culture as an essential dimension of human experience” is a foundation upon which we can begin to build a better integrated, stable and sustainable cultural field.
In Part 3 of the book, Brault puts forward a practical example of the kind of building he envisions, taking us through his experience restoring and re-purposing the Monument-National to the formation of Culture Montréal, a consortium of arts, government and business leaders whose singular mission was to join the words “cultural” and “metropolis” and make them synonymous with “Montréal.” Brault is frank about Culture Montreal’s ultimate failure to create a single new agency that would have been responsible for all cultural activity in Montréal, but undeterred from his conviction that cross-sector cooperation is the way to move culture from the margins to the centre of the public policy stage.
Here again, Brault’s is unafraid to court controversy; his ideas about centralization, working with but not being led by cultural producers alone, and overall emphasis on “leadership” rather than “governance” may rattle the chains of cultural workers rutted in certain ways of doing things, tethered to state funding, suspicious of the private sector and siloed by internal policy and politics. Brault is respectful of these constituencies, which he sees as “legitimate, necessary and [to be] sought after,” but asks again that we approach things differently: the key to moving forward, he argues, is the human factor—developing trust relationships between funders, sponsors, creators, producers, presenters, etc., building a common vision, “to imagine the city differently,” which then makes it possible to get things done.
Brault ends the book in the same tone of modest conviction that runs throughout: fixing the arts and culture will not solve all the problems of the world, but it may be an essential antidote to the overwhelming litany of disasters presented daily by the media. Culture is empowering. Wherever people struggle, there is culture. Song, dance, theatre, music, art give us solace, but more, they concretely improve our lives, allowing us to recover our sense of hope and work together. What we must form, he concludes, is a lasting pact between culture and the public, a common understanding that culture is essential, sustaining.
— Post Scripts —
Simon Brault’s book Le Facteur C was released in French in February and in English in May as No Culture, No Future. I found it somewhat difficult to get a copy of the English version. Amazon and Chapters weren’t stocking it; they said it would take 2-3 weeks to get a copy. My local bookstores, which, in my downtown Toronto “artsy” neighbourhood, you might expect to stock it, didn’t, or had sold the few copies they ordered and then didn’t re-order. I finally found a copy at BookCity, the remainder store, of all places. The publisher of the English version, Cormorant Books, reports that the book has almost sold out of its initial press run, 1000 copies, in 10 weeks, but they are uncertain whether to reprint. By comparison, 4000 copies of the French version were sold in Quebec in 10 months.
This is a book that should be dressing the windows of bookstores coast to coast to coast, that should be a hot topic of debate with copies being traded between friends and colleagues. If it is not, it is proof of the very challenge Brault describes in the book: until the public is truly, madly, deeply engaged with the arts and culture they will continue to be precarious (and, we might add, important books like this are not going to reach everyone they should reach).
Getting public commitment to the arts, the very subject of the book, is also the thing that will limit its reception in English-speaking Canada. In Quebec Brault’s book was a “cause célèbre” for months, with coverage in all the major newspapers. But then Quebec is Brault’s home turf, where he is very well known for his many accomplishments, including Les journées de la culture, a province wide arts festival.
Perhaps I am overstating this. Perhaps all the people that need to read this book already have. But I mention it because in the book trade there is a tendency to think that all books have to sell to the wide market for them to be successful when in reality most books have small but often dedicated audiences. The challenge is how to reach these “niche” audiences when the trend is, as Alberto Manguel lamented in his 2007 Massey Lecture, towards the “industrialization” of literature. Outside of Quebec where culture is a dominant force in public policy, books like Brault’s are too easily lost in the cacophony.
I have a few criticisms of the physical book. The French version is published somewhat austerely like a policy treatise—in trade paperback format with a glossy cover, glossy interior pages and standard single line spaced typography—which it is, and is not. In fact Brault lays out complex policy ideas using accessible language that makes them easy to grasp. Clearly he is hoping for a wide readership. The English design is a little “friendlier:” slightly smaller, almost pocketbook size, with an attractive colour cover, elegant French flaps and easy to read 1 1/2 line spaced text. I especially like the short summary text at the beginning of each of the major sections (in both English and French versions).
There is no index, which is understandable because I know from experience that indexing is an intense, specialized task that is both costly and extends publication dates. However, it serves an author well to indicate succinctly what they feel is important enough to index and it serves readers to be able to quickly see from an index what has been included, and what left out.
I have only one other criticism and it is something of a “pet cause” for me. It’s about translation. Brault’s translator, Jonathan Kaplansky, is clearly a professional, as reflected by his rich vocabulary and stalwart effort to find equivalent English vernacular expressions to match Brault’s accessible writing style. However, if English were his first language, you would never encounter a phrase such as this: “… the daily commitment I’ve carried out for fifteen years to favour cultural democratization and bring the arts to the heart of urban developments.” This sounds pretty much like it’s been run through Babelfish. What he means to say, and it is not easy to capture in English, is something more like: “… my daily work over fifteen years promoting cultural democratization and bringing the arts to the heart of urban development. Is it a big difference? Not for those who are reading through to the ideas. But if the goal is to render a text seamlessly accessible to English-only audiences, then, forgive me for saying so, but francophone authors and publishers have to work harder at it. I understand the challenges; there are few thoroughly bilingual translators. Perhaps the answer is to use two translators or a translation team, a bilingual francophone to translate from French to English and another for whom English is their first language to polish that up to the standards of vernacular English. Would that double translation costs? Perhaps. But it is a cost that must be borne if treasures like Le Facteur C are to be widely read, appreciated and effective.
— drift —
Review in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Interview with Brault in the Nat’l Post.