The Death and Rebirth of Art as an Agent of Cultural Change
Maple Spring in Canada — Vive La Revolution?
Since that famous essay by Barthes, we have been killing off our artists.
Let me explain.
Once upon a time, we used to think it was fashionable for an artist to inject their political, religious and other convictions into their art. At least in the world of prose and poetry, the Keepers of the Canon in the Ivory Towers of Literature have decidedly taken on a very anti-moralizing approach to what is considered as “art”. While they give Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the traditional thumbs up, his best buddy and Inkling C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was not so lucky — they are considered religious propaganda.
Of course those in the ivory towers should pay careful attention to what’s going on in the world of digital publishing, as anyone with basic access to statistics from Amazon or other self-publishing sites will see clearly that what people like and are willing to pay for is often fundamentally different from what people with letters after their name think art is.
And that’s what it all really boils down to: they may try to kill our artists because they don’t like their message, but the message will endure anyway.
Let’s compare this to what’s going on in Quebec, Canada. Let’s try to understand why democracy is being threatened by the same “ivory tower” ideas that threaten many artistic works.
Can art influence politics at all? If it does, should art influence politics? Can democracy and art (particularly music) coexist and create change?
Since May Day, hundreds of people have been arrested in downtown Montreal. The first rally, organized by an anti-capitalist group associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests from September last year, attracted a couple of thousand people, but got ugly when some people reportedly began throwing stones and molotov cocktails at police cars.
But if you were living in Montreal, you wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary. In fact, it would have been just another day in the life of the most vibrant European capital of North America. See, for the one hundred days, daily protests, occasional skirmishes with law enforcement, helicopter patrols and an extended student strike over tuition fee hikes have all been keeping residents and workers in downtown Montreal in post-apocalyptic zombie survival mode.
Because according to some, it is not just about student tuition hikes. Right now democracy is under fire.
And night after night, things got more tense until the government finally responded by passing a new law, the infamous Bill 78, which puts serious restrictions on civil liberties. As if the government knew what it was doing, the bill is set to expire in July 2013, long before any legal challenges raised in the Supreme Court would ever see the light.
Let’s look at some of those provisions which restrict civil liberties:
- a ban on pickets or strike supporters on the grounds or within 50 meters of any university or college
- a requirement for any student unions or organizations to make their members comply with the law or be held responsible
- any demonstration of over 50 people must be declared to the police beforehand including the location and route of the demonstration, otherwise it will be regarded as illegal
There are stiff punishments for those who break the law:
- $1,000-$5,000 for individuals in fines
- $7,000-$35,000 for student leaders
- $25,000-$125,000 per day for organizations (including universities, colleges and student unions)
- second offenses double the fines
- specifies a date when education employees must return to work and prohibits teachers from striking longer than specified in the law
- suspends winter semester classes at some 25 universities and colleges across Quebec, to be completed in August or September (or even during the summer)
Feelings are mixed in Montreal.
“The student protests (…) are closer to the Wall Street protests and anarchy movements.” Says Nam Nguyen, a 32-year old graduate student in psychology at the Universite de Montreal (who are part of the group on strike). “There is a united voice of dissent even without leadership, showing true solidarity.” On the other hand, he admits that without leadership, they are much harder to control and that can partially explain the violence.
Joseph Hackett, a high-school history teacher by profession who now teaches education at McGill University, is highly critical. He says that “naturally [the students] want the fee increase cancelled, but as with any rise to power, they cannot help but become political.” He further explains that because of this, not only are their demands unreasonable, but he wonders why they waited until after the time had passed to do something about the 2011 budget. Because of this, he suspects political motives and personal gain behind the scenes. “Other demands only serve to cloud the issue, I doubt there is consensus on any of them. They may or may not be reasonable, but the way to accomplish them are through the political channels.”
1. A $140 million reduction in spending on research in Quebec universities.
2. A ban on universities advertising commercially.
3. Freezes on the salaries and new hiring of university administrators.
4. An immediate stop to construction of new campuses and the expansion of buildings.
5. Introducing a unique tax on banking and financial institutions of 0.14%, which will increase by the same over the next five years.
CLASSE states that these are the steps that need to be taken in order to get Quebec towards free university tuition.
One can clearly see how the representatives of student interests want to accomplish so much more than just stopping increases to student tuition costs. It’s clear that through their criticisms of research funding choices, commercial advertising, university administration and financial institutions they are well and truly entrenched in the values of the Occupy Wall Street movements around the world.
Ilona Dougherty, Executive Director at Apathy is Boring (AIB) , a non-partisan NGO dedicated to using art and technology to reach out to young people and encourage them to be more present in politics agrees. “[The protests] are a fascinating moment in Quebec and the province has a long history of getting out in the streets; but in the last number of weeks, this has increased and it will be interesting to see how that pans out in the next short while.” Ms. Dougherty also suggests that what is going on in Quebec right now is well and truly part of the global increasing solidarity towards the economic crisis, revolutions in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movements. “Challenges in the economy have put things into perspective for individual people about what that means in their lives.” The National Post called it “this season’s Occupy movement, a chance to truly shake up the system” in an article last month.
Certainly, the organization she heads would suggest that art can and does have a responsibility to take part in political dialogue. Just by looking at some of the featured artists on AIB’s website, you can tell that art and music is about politics as well — whether you’re being explicit or implicit.
So what is this movement about in Quebec? My take on the issue is that things have come to the tipping point where people have had enough. They’re sick and tired of all the little by-laws, regulations, constant reminders day in and day out that while we may be living in a democracy, the challenges to democracy are constant. We need to be eternally vigilant and eradicate ideas that challenge our freedoms.
One can only take a look at the situation with busking and street performing in Canada’s cities. Up until very recently, in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, anyone could busk anywhere they wanted. In the last decade though, most cities have passed various forms of legislation that prohibit this unless you get a license and go through an audition process. Some people would argue that the intention is a noble one — get bad quality musicians off the streets and only let the good ones play. But I challenge that notion, on the basis of the fundamental principles of freedom. Who’s to say what’s “good” art or “bad” art? In Montreal, street performers must pay $120 per year for the privilege and they have to go through a process whereby they are judged by a panel of (let me be polite here) “non-experts”.
To highlight the absurdity of this situation, let me link the case of Rafael Montero, an amazingly skilled juggler and street performer who has worked with Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon and the Cirque du Soleil. Several years ago he was refused a permit to perform because the panel were not impressed by his performance. Through a legal technicality, he was able to get the permit anyway and bypass their judgement because he was a dormant member of a performer’s union through a contract with Radio-Canada TV. But the point still stands. In the City of Montreal, while it’s not necessary to get a permit to play in the subway stations (as it’s a private business with its own rules), a potential musician still needs to sign up on a list early in the morning to secure a spot for the day. An organization touting itself as the Montreal Metro Musicians’ Coalition holds auditions just as the City of Montreal does and licenses what they consider “good” musicians.
This does not mean that an independent musician cannot sign up on the sheet early in the morning like everyone else, but one can imagine how intimidating it would be to be the only guy without a “card” at 5.30 in the morning. In the City of Vancouver, they’ve gone so far as to say outright that bagpipes and bongos are not appropriate music for busking. I wonder what William Wallace would have had to say about that? Or how about this, a regular rapper on Granville Street in Vancouver had his license revoked after the city received several complaints about “noise levels”. One can certainly argue that it was because he was using an amplification system to be heard, but in all seriousness, any honest person who appreciates rap as art will acknowledge that it’s about the words and the words need to be heard.
Here we have another “ivory tower”, telling us not that we cannot express ourselves, but that our expression is not welcome. We have self-appointed judges telling us what is culture and what is not culture. People who don’t like one type of music have freedom shackled with restrictions. People who don’t like a political opinion or a Youtube video report it and have it removed by claiming a copyright violation or something irrelevant. Instead of tolerating other viewpoints and cultures, we try to force them to assimilate to our own.
And what do we end up with? Molotov cocktails and tear gas; when people can’t see eye to eye any more.
We are constantly being told that we must give up freedom after freedom for a variety of reasons. All of the reasons put forth have so far been suggested that they are for rational reasons. But here’s the problem… Those reasons are not really rational, they are part of the half of our human psyche that is more focused on the emotions. We don’t agree with legislation against wearing burkhas in France and hoodies in England because there is any rational reason to do so; we agree because of fear of terrorism. We don’t censor pornography in general because of a rational reason; it’s because some pornography is child pornography and somehow one causes the other. We don’t disagree with legalizing marijuana because we think people should not be free to do what they want with their bodies, but because we think it’s a “gateway drug”. We could continue for a long time in this vein.
Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers once said: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
That could very well be what is going on. Certain lines of thought argue that as a society, we are letting all of our grievances out. We feel that we are part of a group whose voice is not heard enough. We feel that our democratic vote means nothing — that elections are one thing and what actually takes place is another. Certainly, most reasonable people you ask directly about what Thomas Paine was referring to would agree that just because someone has a different opinion to you, does not mean we have a right to silence it. That in fact we should be defending their right to express it.
So is that what is going on in Quebec? Is that why there are grassroots movements all across North America and around the world? Is that why there were the G-20 riots in Toronto? Is that why there was the Prague Spring, the Arab Spring and now the “Maple Spring”?
Mr. Hackett disagrees: “This was not the ‘Quebec Spring’.” He states in a digression that speaks volumes. “The students are groups of collectives, not a union.” He goes on to suggest that the government has tried to compromise on numerous occasions with the protesters. He is referring of course to the government’s full package of student tuition hikes, which also came with some positive changes. For instance, the current ceiling for family income at which a student can apply for bursaries and grants is $28,500. The tuition hikes would also increase this to $35,000, which the government raised even further to $45,000 following the unrest. Premier Jean Charest has also stated that the negotiations took so long because the students “turned them away.”
A non-scientific poll that reflects the opinions of readers of CTV Montreal also fully supports the government and over two-thirds of participants think that Premier Charest has handled the situation well. What is also interesting is that only about one-third of Quebec’s students have been participating in the rallies, strikes and protests. On the one hand, while the Universite de Montreal, Quebec’s major French-speaking university has the most departments on strike, McGill University apparently has the least.
Increasingly, as with other protests against globalism, such as the 2010 Toronto G-20 summit protests and the September 2011 Occupy Wall Street riots in many North American cities, elements that nobody is happy with have shown up. Anonymous black ski masks, the vandalism, the burning police cars and the unnecessary manifestations of violence, which every rational person must condemn.
Ms. Dougherty agrees. “We draw a line between the use of peaceful protest and illegal means.” While she believes that even though the key to democracy is voting and the vote is the time when young people need to stand up and make their voice heard by electing officials they believe in, voting is still not the be all and end all of democracy. “It’s also about peaceful protests and exercising your right to freedom of speech. Citizens need to be listened to both in the context of elections and in between elections.”
“It’s easy to get complacent.” She continues. “It’s easy to believe that democracy does not need to be continually looked at and adapted to our needs as a society. There is a need for renewal and to constantly improve and encourage the next generation to make democracy better. Democracy has more strengths than weaknesses, but the weaknesses are there and we need to keep improving on them.”
Mr. Hackett is a voice against violence as well: “Those who were guilty of destruction of public property and clashes with the police represent the fringe element of all societies, the Macbeths within all of us. The soccer hooligans in the UK are the most glaring example of this fringe group. These people see demonstrations as a means to their end of just causing trouble for the sake of doing it and not getting caught.”
His words ring particularly true to me as well. You see, Mr. Hackett was once my history teacher. He is an old soul. A hippie who came to Quebec to teach French in the 1960s, when his friends were being shipped off to Vietnam to be blown to tiny bits for nothing in particular at all. You can read his blog, Jersey’s Journal, here.
Violence never solves anything. It’s only through acknowledging that both sides exist and that through a Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis can we agree to live together peacefully. But this means everyone has to compromise something — for the sake of peace and harmony, is this a lot to ask?
It will be interesting to see how these student protests and strikes pan out over the next few weeks, or months, or however long it takes to resolve the situation. I’m certain that because of the way we do things up here in Canada, “Peace, order and good government” will prevail. And a dash of logic and common sense, with just enough human compassion and understanding to make things work. And we can all leave the night-sticks and ski masks at home.
Now let’s come full circle.
If postmodernism and Barthes argued for the “death of the author” and well and truly killed the right for the creator of art to express art, then this is what really happened.
We were denied our human heritage.
And this is what is happening now; we’re using art to take it back.
Every human has in them both a capacity for reason and a capacity for emotion. There is both logic and feeling. One can understand music in terms of mathematics — or the muses; and it makes sense both ways. By telling a creator that they are not allowed to put their feelings and opinions into their music, we are endorsing a direct affront on freedom. Thankfully in this day and age, with Youtube and the Internet, artists are simply able to go around the ivory towers that try to keep them off the streets and carve their own niche.
The sun sets over the Montreal Stadium. “Big Owe” and I contemplate the Cuban flags and the fishing poles with jelly donuts taunting police officers I saw earlier.