Alberta Minister of Culture Discovers He Can't Censor! - Complications Ensue
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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Alberta Minister of Culture discovered to his surprise that he has no way of denying funds to films whose political opinions he disagrees with. He was miffed to find out he'd signed off on an Oscar-nominated documentary showing some of the environmental problems with the exploitation of Alberta's vast oil sands (pollution, toxic waste, etc.). Now he's looking to change the laws.

Canada has pretty strong government support for culture, combined with a strong attitude that politicians shouldn't try to dictate culture. I don't know what the situation is like in other Western countries. But I'd be surprised to see the Texas Ministry of Culture getting in a twist about a documentary they supported because there is no Texas Ministry of Culture. (Google "Texas" and "Ministry" and you get an entirely different kind of ministry.) I'm not sure there's any governmental support for culture in Texas.

On the face of it, it does seem odd to ask a provincial government to support a documentary criticizing what's going on in the province. In a democratic society, we believe criticism is good. If something's wrong at the tar sands, Albertans ought to have a chance to know about it.

It's interesting that the very same Conservatives who object to government telling the oil industry what to do, want to tell the culture industry what to do. I don't think it's a good idea for government to be in the business of picking which movies to support, any more than you want government tell oil companies where to drill or which drill bits to use. Government has a role in saying where not to drill, and what you can't put on television before kids go to bed.

I definitely don't think government should pick which stories to tell. Let's let the audience weigh in on that. I'm a little more on the fence on the question of whether government should have to fund, say, a Michael Moore-style propaganda piece, or, let's say, a wingnut documentary about how immigrants are ruining our sacred national identity.

What do y'all think?

Labels: ,

14 Comments:

Having yesterday involved myself in a flame war about censorship and free speech, I'm feeling a bit singed right now, and I'm a little less coherent than I like to be so this will be a bit rambly...

...but I'll say that it actually seems strange that the Minister can't pull funds from the documentary. It's one thing to censor; it's wholly another to deny support.

In terms of funding the arts, film or otherwise, I'm up in the air about it. I used to think it was just terrible that people got their panties in a bunch over NEA funding, but Serrano and Mapplethorpe really aren't that great anyway. As long as they're allowed to produce whatever art they want to produce and show it to the world without fear of reprisals, I'm not positive we need to publicly fund them. Maybe public sponsorship for the arts should have died with the decline of the Aristocracy. It seems public arts funding does only two things anymore: prop up quaint symphonies that split their time between music hundreds of years old and music written for the latest comic book movie; pay for art so bad that no one else ever would.

I'm being a crank this morning, clearly.

By Blogger R.A. Porter, at 11:33 AM  

R.A. Porter,

This is where the differences between our countries is most apparent. Canada has a long history of government funded arts. The CBC is one of our most important television and radios stations, and it's entirely publicly funded. In a country with such a smaller population that the US, there is not nearly as much private money going around, so publicly funded arts is not only necessary, but desired by most Canadians. It's something that is at the heart of Canadian culture.

While arts in Canada is publicly funded, it's extremely dangerous to let the government into the process. Governments have political agendas which should not affect the arts. It is true that it is not outright censorship to deny funding because a film's subject is contrary to government policy, it's a very slippery slope. Perhaps instead of denying funding just to those who criticize the oil sands, they only fund those who show the oil sands in a good light. This is government funded propaganda.

Let's say one filmmaker tries to get funding for a film about a gay couple getting married in Alberta, and another filmmaker applies for funding for his film about a very religious, straight couple who are getting married. The Minister of Culture doesn't like gay marriage so denies funding for the film about the gay wedding, but not the straight wedding. Keep in mind that gay marriage is legal in Canada. That's why the government needs to stay out of the process.

By Blogger Tim W., at 12:22 PM  

@Tim, thanks for the reminder of why Canadian arts funding probably is more important than US funding. I'm thinking too parochially about it.

By Blogger R.A. Porter, at 12:29 PM  

I think it's simply a matter of the "investor" (whether it be a government entity or otherwise)trying to follow "The Golden Rule."

He who has the gold makes the rules.

By Blogger Cunningham, at 12:32 PM  

Yeah. Always a problem when a government minister thinks it's HIS money.

It's actually OUR money.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:30 PM  

Alex, I know you're being facetious about Texas not supporting the arts, but just FYI, the budget for the Texas Commission on the Arts (a state agency) includes about $5 million in grants and direct support for FY 2009. (Piddling, yes.)

There are also quasi-public organizations like Humanities Texas, which gets federal funding from the National Endowment from the Humanities but isn't part of the Texas state government system.

One way in which large U.S. corporations, based in Texas or not, soothe their guilt about their various sweatshops and highly polluting activities is by funding public broadcasting (National Public Radio, WGBH, etc.).

So the U.S. has ways and ways of getting money into arts, and none of them is particularly efficient. However, there are lots of options.

You're right, too, that Texans tend not to get in a twist about much. They don't care much what other people think.

Generally (in whatever country), it seems that politicians can influence bureaucratic processes, no matter how unbiased a process is supposed to be. So we all have to hope that artists who serve on juries are like Texans and don't care much what politicians think.

By Blogger Marion, at 5:06 PM  

Careful Alex. When you start thinking "It's OUR money" you are in serious danger of becoming a conservitive. The next step is to start thinking maybe the people should keep their money and spend it how they want instead of sending it to the government and hoping for the best. Surely that way lies madness...

Seriously, government sponsored art is a tragic disservice to both the artist and the public. When the government sponsors works of art it implies they cannot be supported by the public, which implies that the art is worthless, so the program just becomes welfare for artists. Welfare should be for all citizens who have needs they cannot currently meet themselves. Artists should not be any more special in the eyes of the government then any other group.

Besides, having the government pay for your art is like having your mom buy all the tickets to your play. Technically it's a sell out performance, but you still feel like a failure since you made art only a mother could love.

It was argued that since Canada is small and poor the government needs to support the arts. In the same argument it was stated that Canadians strongly desire public funded art. It seems to me that if the public wants art funded let them fund it themselves, that way their limited funds will go to the right place. Maybe the government could set up a clearing house with public input as to how the money is spent. People could earmark their donations for specific projects such as gay marrige celebrations, environmental investigation, cop shows, Firefly the second season. Funds would be released when a threshhold was reached. If after X years not enough was raised people could reassign their money. 100+ million dollar movies are made regularly with the expectation that a bunch of average people will pony up 8 bucks once.

I would love to throw a few bucks in a jar in the hopes of a project I like getting made. I can't imagine the U.S. government doing a good job of running such a project, but perhaps Canada has a more a financially responsible government.

By Blogger Dan Judd, at 5:25 PM  

Bear in mind Canada supports all its industries. Forestry, steel, cars, fishing, etc. Why should culture get less support than forestry?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:48 PM  

The point of publicly funding the arts is not to create art, but to create artists. My sister is a case for government funding. When she was younger, she applied for and received a Canada Council Grant that sustained her until she was able make a living as a writer on her own. She went on to win awards and eventually wrote a best selling novel and has just finished her second novel. She's made the arts that much stronger in Canada. I don't even know what she received the grant for, but the result is that Canada gets another promising writer.

Besides, do we really want a culture of art driven by commercialism? We'd be a nation of Thomas Kinkades and Steven Kings. In other words, we'd be a mini-US. In other words, if we want to sustain a unique Canadian identity, then we need to continue publicly funding the arts.

By Blogger Tim W., at 7:24 PM  

Whether or not someone is for or against public funding in Canada, the practical reality at the moment is that by denying public funding here you are likely to be cutting enough of the revenue source from any large project that it will die on the table. Unless they take it to private investors - and more likely than not they'd have to find those investors in the US. So denying public funds for political reasons is a rough equivalent of censoring in Canada (even if one could potentially get funding elsewhere).

I know some people who want to find ways to supplement Canadian public arts funding, by setting up private arts funding. If the government doesn't seem to want to fund the arts like it once did, there has to be a work-around. But that's another issue for another day.

I personally think there needs to be some moderation in what gets publicly funded; a blatantly racist film doesn't deserve public funding because racism is not in the public interest. *But* I'd rather the public fund films that I disagree with than deny funds to films that I do agree with.

By Blogger Rich Baldwin, at 3:53 PM  

Not funding in not censorship, period. Resources are always limited, choices have to be made, buying a Big Mac is not censoring a Whopper. Censorship occurs when something is not allowed in spite of the censored's ability to produce it. People who don't get funding for a pet project always like to complain about how mean/racist/homophobic/xenocentric blah blah blah the non-funders are. The term censorship is used to put pressure on the non-funders and generate pity and outrage among the public. Tantrums work, watch parents in a mall if you need examples.

This is exactly why I don't like the government funding any industry, the whiners always get more than the producers. Alex points out that all industries are supported in Canada, so I would have to agree that the arts shouldn't get any less than manufacturing, farming etc. If I were a citizen in such a system I would still like to be given lists for ALL the supported industries where I could check off which ones I wanted to get funding. If it is the peoples money, let the people decide.

The Canadian government practices censorship quite regularly. Art (books, movies, music, radio, TV) from the US is blocked at the border even though it desired
by Canadian citizens. Is that their right? Absolutely, a nation gets to control what comes across its borders. It is still censorship. I bet that most of those that cry censorship for non-funding are very happy to have less competition from the US. They justify it saying that it is important to keep a uniquely Canadian viewpoint in the arts. Again apparently the people of Canada like that approach so fine, but it does seem like a dangerous habit for a government to have.

By Blogger Dan Judd, at 3:36 PM  

Dan,

All governments, including the US, practice some form of censorship. Many times, it's not controversial because it's things like child pornography. And there are various forms of censorship. The backlash against those Americans who criticized Bush during his popular years was a form of censorship. It doesn't have to be the government doing it to be censorship. Americans didn't want dissenting opinions. That's censorship.

As for the arts, governments have funded the arts since the beginning of history. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians funded the arts. The Vatican certainly did their part. Many of the great artists over the years have been funded, at one time or another, by governments.

In Canada, as I already stated, there is little private money for the arts, so it is important for the government to do their part. A government official turning down funding for a film, for example, because they disagree with the films viewpoint IS censorship. It's not overt censorship, as in banning the film, but it's censorship, especially when there is no valid reason (such as pornography, or hate-inciting) other than the film has a different viewpoint than the official on a certain subject. If that is part of the criteria for getting funding, that the Heritage Minister share the same viewpoint as the film, it's censorship, plain and simple. The fact that the producer can try and find the money elsewhere is not the point. If the Heritage Minister was going to privately fund the film and the decided not to because he didn't like what the film was saying, that's his prerogative. If he's saying denying money on behalf of the government, because he doesn't like the subject of the film, then it's censorship.

I don't think most Americans can fully understand the need to protect one's own cultural identity, especially when one resides directly beside a country that could easily overwhelm it by sheer population alone. It's why many view the US as an Imperial nation, not militarily, but culturally. One has to protect oneself from being taken over.

And sorry for being blunt, but allowing the people to decide where the money goes is a horrible, stupid idea. The general public has no understanding of why certain industries should get funding and others shouldn't. That's why we vote for elected officials. I, personally, don't have a degree in economics or sociology, or many of the other fields that one would need to be an expert in to understand the consequences of funding or not funding certain industries or programs. That's the type of democracy we practice. If people got to vote for where the money went, then most people would only vote for it going to where it will benefit them directly. A true democracy must protect the rights of the minority. If the country was run in the way you would like it, the rights of the minority would be trampled because the majority would look out for themselves.

By Blogger Tim W., at 4:19 AM  

Tim, by your definition if an official can fund 1 film and has 10 applicants no matter what choice is made there will be 9 acts of censorship. I think the word you want is discrimination. Not the scary ugly discrimination that hates sex and skin color, but the kind that says today I will eat beans, tomorrow I will eat rice.

As to all old governments funded arts so we should too. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Vatican have all sponsored torture, wars of conquest, slavery and pederasty. I am sure you are not suggesting we follow in those footsteps as well. To the nuance impaired, I am not comparing art funding to child molestation.

In our modern world I believe the government should fund very little, pretty much just roads, cops, and military, let the people spend their money as they see fit. Others, apparently a large amount of Canadians, believe most industries should be funded and that only an appointed or elected elite can make good financial decisions. I do agree that if you are going to sponsor everybody else you should sponsor the arts. After all, a worker building a government car no one wants is not any better that and actor in government film no one watches.

If it is stupid believe that the general public can make good decisions about money, isn't it equally stupid to believe that they can make good decisions about electing officials. Your line of reasoning leads toward only allowing certain people, those with degrees in economics or sociology etc, to run for office or perhaps even vote. I agree the masses make boneheaded decisions, but so do individuals. How does the ability to win an election or gain an appointment show wisdom or intelligence. Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama all won elections I bet you think at least 2 of the people in that list are idiots. So do I, my picks may be different that yours thus making my point that much more valid. My suggestion is to let each citizen check a box for progams they support, not in a winner take all election method but in a per capita method. IE every check means 10 bucks to the project, the minority will get less money, but it will get some. The current system appears to be more all or nothing.

By Blogger Dan Judd, at 5:07 PM  

Dan,

"Tim, by your definition if an official can fund 1 film and has 10 applicants no matter what choice is made there will be 9 acts of censorship. I think the word you want is discrimination. Not the scary ugly discrimination that hates sex and skin color, but the kind that says today I will eat beans, tomorrow I will eat rice."

Actually, this is not my definition, and I think you know that. The Minister of Culture, mentioned in Alex's post, is not in any position to say which films get funding and which don't. And the Minister wanted to stop the film, not the applicant. Stopping the applicant because of a bias is discrimination. Wanting to stop the film because he disagrees with the viewpoint is censorship. Censorship is the act, not the result. And censorship has a much broader meaning that simply a government suppressing ideas or materials. The Minister was trying to censor the film simply because he didn't like it's message, not because it did not adhere to certain criteria.

And it's very easy for an American to talk about the government not funding the arts, because there is enough money around that the American arts don't need funding. Without government funding, there would be no Canadian film industry. But, as an American, what do you care?

Many years ago, there were very strict regulations put in place about how much Canadian music had to be on the radio. Can-Con (Canadian content). Back then, if it wasn't Bryan Adams or Ann Murray, you never heard of them. Today, there are numerous Canadian musical acts that are successful not only nationally, but internationally. It was Can-Con that drove this. The Canadian music industry is no longer the joke it was 25 years ago. That's why I say that the government does not fund art, but artists. GOvernment funding creates better artists.

WHile I don't really think the general public tends to make good decisions in regards to electing officials, it's obviously much different from making decisions about actual funding etc. This is a ridiculous argument. You don't need to know all the nuances of the economy to be able to elect someone who you feel would do a good job understanding it. There's a vast difference between balancing one's chequebook and understanding the minutia of, say, NAFTA.

And, yes, I think that we should implement the slavery, torture and other heinous acts. That's exactly what I was saying.

By Blogger Tim W., at 8:50 PM  

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