Documentarian Kevin McMahon
Documentarian Kevin McMahon

Authentic Culture Is A Gift To the Future

For the four decades I’ve worked in Canadian culture, the clumsy answer has always been that government initiatives have “a dual mandate”: to make jobs and make art. It’s easy to argue that, as motivations, those are opposites. Nevertheless, everyone in the system has been forced to measure both their needs and success in terms of money. Every arts advocate learned long ago to appeal for public support by highlighting the spin-off benefits of each subsidy or donation. It’s not just about us, they say, its about the lady who rents cars to the production or the guy who sells hot dogs outside the theatre. Canadian creators have gamely argued that our industry is just as worthy of government subsidy as the makers of jet planes or crude oil, because we all fabricate jobs. It’s an argument born of the neo-conservative era, when everything was measured in dollars. I don’t fault creators for making it. I used numbers myself earlier, to demonstrate the doc community’s commercial prowess. We do this because we feel we must. But it’s a rhetorical trap.

The economic argument sees profit as the ultimate validation for creation. That’s sensible in Hollywood, which makes money by nature and art by accident. Everywhere else in the Western world where that argument is used, I suspect that it’s fallacious. I doubt Western governments have reaped tax dollars commensurate with what they have poured into cultural creation. I can’t prove that and wouldn’t bother to try because it’s not what’s important. What really matters is that justifying cultural subsidy – or content regulation – as economic development ignores the much more important spiritual, intellectual, emotional, political, social and civic functions of art. I’ve argued that creators need help in making a living, which is true. But it does us no good to seek that by lying about our true motivation or the real measure of our success.

What’s ironic is that the architects of the neo-conservative era did just the opposite, using culture to achieve their economic goals. It’s now widely understood that the “culture wars” of the past few decades, with their vicious stoking of the flames of fear and hatred between communities, have mainly been an attention-deflection tactic. It is by these means that The One Per Cent have puppet-mastered the discourse and turned so many people, who have so much less, against their own self-interest. 


-- Excerpted from 'An open letter to Heritage Mélanie Joly' by documentarian Kevin McMahon, Point of View magazines, The headline we have used is a nod to Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. His precise words read:  "Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future."


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