Thursday, April 01, 2004

The responsibility of artists

Today, the Independent Filmmakers Cooperative of Ottawa (IFCO) denied Ken Takahashi's grant application for his film Last Night with Jesse. The grounds for this verdict - fear of the film's running afoul of proposed law Bill C-12 and its lack of an artistic merit defence - while troubling, are not the subject of this entry.

What concerns me is City Councillor Jan Harder's position on the matter. Her self-proclaimed threat to pull the city's contribution to arts funding (about one third of the total amount) was particularly distasteful, and unprofessional. (Unfortunately, I heard the sound bite on CBC Radio One, and haven't been able to find it in print.)

Takahashi's position echoes my thoughts on the role of artists:
I think it's important for artists to push the envelope, to challenge the status quo. And the city council getting involved and dictating what forms of art should be concentrated on - I think that's a bad thing to do and a dangerous precedent. If art is going to be dictated by the government, then we've lost an important voice, and I'm very concerned about that.

I feel strongly that challenging the status quo - with or without taxpayer dollars - is key to preserving the liberties that make this country great, in much the same way as Sherman Kent urged intelligence analysts to avoid analytic or cognitive biases:
[Kent] urged special caution when a whole team of ana­lysts immediately agrees on an interpretation of yester­day’s devel­opment or a prediction about tomorrow’s. Especially regarding Viet­nam, he also cautioned against a “been-to” bias; field exposure can be valuable, but a quick trip doesn’t necessarily provide revealed truths. One path he recom­mended for coping with cognitive bias was to make working assump­tions explicit and to challenge them vigorously.

Just the fact that there's such an outcry against this film should give us pause. Will it send the message that aberrant sexual behaviour against children is acceptable as Ottawa resident A. Charles King suggests? The film is in pre-production, folks! It isn't saying anything yet!

In forcing us to reconsider our knee-jerk reactions, artists have a big responsibility. By acknowledging the importance of this role - in the form of arts funding - citizens are really "electing" artists and their approving bodies, trusting in their judgment. By insisting that city council have a say in how arts funding is granted, Jan Harder is implying that she too is an artist who knows how the status quo must be challenged (and how it must not, in this case). I don't know about you, but the films that really challenged what I thought I knew often horrified me, certainly coming out of left field. Would you trust the average joe on the street to judge the merits of that sort of art as it sits in the mind of an artist, an unrealized vision?

It reminds me of Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau's thoughts on democracy:
Nor do I believe that elected representatives should abdicate their responsibility by being nothing but the mouthpieces for their constituencies. In its extreme form this ceases to be representative democracy and becomes direct democracy. Though it may look more democratic, it's really tantamount to saying that policies and laws must be decided by the people themselves... It's a misunderstanding of parliamentary democracy, and it cannot be made to work in large societies, because small groups meeting to deal with very important problems from their regional or local point of view cannot have in mind the legalistic, administrative, constitutional functions of government that are the fabric society must have to function in an orderly way.

Similarly, I feel that Jan Harder's, or any other city councillor's, point of view inappropriately biases her judgment of how the status quo should be challenged. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about the IFCO, which is why I'm glad that their denial was based on legal grounds. (Whether that law is right and just is another, equally important, matter.) This responsibility rests with the artists, in my mind, and it is the grandeur of their calling.