This is my Olympics post – but it’s not about sports. It’s about the arts.

Cariboo region farmers Janet Allen and Murray Boal want the BC government to restore arts funding to pre-election levels. Both farmers are angry that the BC government claimed that culture was the “second pillar” of its bid for the 2010 Olympics, and now has slashed arts funding by up to 90% over the next two years. (Link to original text and photo by Bill Horne is here. Bill lives in Wells, BC, which has been badly hit by the cuts to cultural funding. His entire series of excellent photos is here.)

People who criticize the Olympics are increasingly being called whiners. I don’t hold with that. Undermining reasonable opposition by calling it whining, negativity or sour grapes (or limelight-stealing) is unsportsmanlike at best, dirty tactics at worst. If other cities are to avoid some of the terrible problems Vancouver and British Columbia or past cities have suffered in hosting the Olympics, and if we want to raise international standards of policy and ethics, then we actually have to stop waving the flag for a minute and talk seriously about what we are doing. And whether the flag-wavers like it or not, we have to do it while we still have the world’s ear. I wish the athletes good luck – not just our Canadian athletes, but all the athletes from all the participating nations. It will be exciting to watch them compete, and I welcome them to Vancouver. And we all sincerely mourn the Georgian luge competitor’s terrible death. Nevertheless I need to point out now, while people are still listening, that these Olympics are inflicting lasting damage on the province where my family has lived for four generations and where all British Columbians have to keep on living once this invasion has retreated. I’m not a reflexive downer. I love and support many things. The Olympics just isn’t one of them, and for many reasons, not least of which is that my own arts sector was demolished by the government on the eve of the Games, after being used to win the bid for them. And this is not a unique Olympics occurrence.

It’s hardly necessary to point out that the Olympics aren’t really so much about athletes anymore, nor about amateur sport – two things I support. At this point the Olympics aren’t even really about internationalism, either, or even nationalism. The Olympics are a corporate tidal wave that barges into your town and lays waste to its social fabric, bringing with it debts upwards of – in our case – $5 billion dollars. Not surprisingly, in the case of Vancouver the promised corporate partnerships, investment and other supposed Olympic benefits simply failed to materialize, while we ended up with a bunch of mega-projects that will later sit empty. Then, a few months before the Games began, after talking about how arts and culture were “the Second Pillar of the Games, the BC government announced abrupt 92% cuts to arts funding. Coincidence?

It’s true that there would likely have been a certain degree of reduction in cultural (and other) funding in BC even without the Olympics, because our extremely unliberal “Liberal” government is inexplicably moving toward an already-discredited George Bush model of economics that includes deregulation and deep cuts to social spending – the very ideas that got us into this global recessionary mess in the first place. Not surprisingly the government has been claiming the cuts are necessary due to the recession ( the Olympics are never mentioned as a cause), but contrary to what you might think, that’s simply not true. No other province in Canada has made cuts like these, despite the fact that they were as recession-hit as BC or more. It’s clear that a certain proportion of these cuts are ideologically-based on the part of a right-wing, no-government government. However, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think that the Olympics aren’t to blame for a big chunk of the 92% arts cuts. The cash flow and debt problem caused by the Olympic Games has made it difficult for this government to maintain even the levels of social spending necessary to guarantee their voter base. To confuse matters the government has used the Olympics as a convenient distraction to shift public scrutiny away from some of its more draconian cuts. BC is of course not be the first or last place where that maneuver has been seen. Hearteningly, though, the attempt to control public opinion is not really working here. Some British Columbians are a bit puffed up with self-congratulatory nationalism over the Games, but many already dread what’s coming in March.

Despite the insult of 90% cuts, artists in British Columbia are trying to put on a good face for the Games, in order not to alienate British Columbians, in order to show visitors their scope, and in the hope that the government will see reason. Why shouldn’t they see reason? Arts funding is after all proven to bring a financial return on investment, so cutting funding is fiscally irresponsible, especially in a recession. BC’s artists have put on one of the best Cultural Olympiads in years, full of truly superb, high-level and often ground-breaking work. It all feels like a swan song, however, because when the Olympics are over, public spending on arts will apparently be cut to zero.

Forestry workers Michel Bernier and Jerry Krouzel are mad about what the BC government has done with gaming funds previously earmarked for the arts. Bernier and Krouzel are currently working on a fuel management and fire protection program near Barkerville Historic Town in BC’s north Cariboo. Both are incensed about the negative impact of the gaming money grab on the hinterland’s culture and economy, because the resource sector provides so much of the province’s revenues. Text and photo by Bill Horne.

It’s not clear how long it will take for BC arts and culture to recuperate from their inevitable demolition if the proposed cuts are confirmed in the upcoming budget. If the cuts stand, which we predict they will, we expect it will take at least a decade to rebuild the arts sector, and for many arts workers that decade will constitute a large chunk of their prime working years. 78,000 arts workers will be affected by this, and most of what they do is, contrary to public opinion, extremely underpaid while at the same time it overwhelmingly serves the public good. All the lost arts infrastructure will be very expensive and labour-intensive to replace. Theatres, arts centres, festivals, etc. are already closing, and the brain drain has already begun. Arts administrators, museum people, designers, writers, artists, youth and community arts workers are already leaving the province or planning their exit to Toronto, Montreal, anywhere they can get a job. This will be a shameful governmental and Olympic legacy.

In London, two years away from its 2012 summer Olympics, the slashing of the arts has already started. Those of us working in the cultural sector in British Columbia feel a sense of dread on behalf of our counterparts in London and Sochi. Luckily artists in London are well organized, but it’s going to be a big fight that they may not win. It is way past time for the IOC to elicit some strict guarantees from bid-winning cities that they won’t cut arts and culture or other important services just before or after their Games. Of course this won’t happen, because the IOC is run like a arbitrary Byzantine court, is a law unto itself, and based on the Vancouver experience the IOC assumes no meaningful responsibility for the cities it invades.

It’s a well-known fact that regions without a healthy arts sector don’t do well economically, and that’s bad enough without the additional loss of a culture of innovation, energy, tolerance and morale, a loss that invariably follows any loss of arts and culture. Proven fact. The madness of this situation is that the arts sector has up until now contributed $5 billion to the BC economy every year, which dwarfs the measly 47 million which it used to receive annually in well-placed government grants. (That 47 million was, by the way, already the lowest level of arts funding in Canada.) Even though the arts sector makes a massive contribution to the economy, it’s a fairly fragile ecology that requires strategic tending to thrive. The cuts to some of the key public-serving programs and organizations are going to cripple that ecology. The provincial budget comes down on March 2, 2010, a couple of days after the Olympics end. The arts sector – not to mention the whole province – is bracing for catastrophic news.

Of course it’s not just arts that have been cut. There have been massive cuts to libraries, education, amateur sports, services for children, homeless shelters, seniors’ care, health, everything. However, the cuts to arts and culture are far more severe than in these other sectors, where cuts range from 10-29%. Those are still huge cuts, but not as severe as 92%.

Why are our elite Olympians heroes, but our best artists are “elitists”? Because sports are validated, yet culture, which plays such an important ongoing role in our communities, never gets mention or validation by our politicians. Ask our now-beloved slam poet Shane Koyczan what he thinks of these cuts.

Train driver John Howarth says “I have the privilege of seeing a lot of BC and Canada through our work. It’s beautiful country, but it’s empty without stories, songs and poems that originate throughout the land.” Photo by Bill Horne; original photo here.

In Canada we have historically given government support for arts and culture because we have a small population, because historically we’ve wanted to make decisions about who we are that aren’t entirely economic, because we want to protect diversity and non-market-constrained thought (probably the only kind of thought worthy of that name), and because we need to protect our identity from the giant economy of scale that looms at our southern border. Furthermore, arts funding is a cheap and lucrative investment for government, so there’s never been a reason not to support the arts. Because of the unique way in which the arts operate, all of that money stays in the local economy, stimulates growth, and as was mentioned above, the government receives it all back in direct income within the year, plus an extra 30% at least and sometimes much, much more. See here. Cutting it is thus impractical as well as self-destructively ideological.

Devlin’s Bench gold miners Rob Dakau and Dave Jorgenson are strongly opposed to recent cuts to BC’s arts budget. “When government ministers try to pit artists against hungry children, that’s a false dichotomy,” says heavy equipment operator Rob Dakau. “It’s not an elite thing. Children in our region benefit from art classes at Island Mountain Arts in Wells. And they learn to think creatively.” (Link to original text and photo by Bill Horne is here.)

Yesterday the little Olympic torch ran right past my house, dwarfed by cops in black and an entourage of garish Coca Cola and banking trucks with loudspeakers and bored unchoreographed 20 year olds in track suits. It’s weird how capitalism at its most extreme always ends up reproducing the aesthetics of old-style communist states with their police-ridden parades and forced celebration. I planned to watch the thing generously – you know, with glowing hearts and everything – but man, they don’t make it easy. Even the schoolkids lining my street didn’t seem very excited – it all felt simulated and flat. The performing Coca Cola frat kids were handing out Canadian flags emblazoned with the coke logo, and I’ve also seen billboards along those lines. Doesn’t that break quite a few federal guidelines regarding the flag, and isn’t it grotesque? And don’t even get me started on the opening ceremonies, though admittedly there were some great moments. Yes, some people are loving it all, and I know that despite their anxiety over our Olympic debt most British Columbians are trying to put on a smile for the games. But it’s pretty hard to stave off the sense of dread about what’s coming, and there’s a lot of bad feeling.

Arts, culture, literature and philosophy are what societies are remembered for. They’re not remembered for corporate interests who benefitted from a 2-week sporting event.

We need to rethink the Olympics, and cities need to stop bidding on the Games until these problems are addressed. No city can bear these costs alone, and the reign of advertising has to stop as does the trampling of free speech and the spending of $ 1 billion of local money on security for a two-week corporate party. The Olympics simply don’t bring the corporate investment/economic spinoff benefits that they promise, and they erode civic life in the name of spectacle and speculation. Ask any town that’s hosted them. Anti-Olympic sentiment doesn’t come out of nowhere; it flows naturally from the ugly Olympic reality. If you want to shoot the messenger, go ahead, but don’t say Vancouver didn’t warn you.

PS If you want to help criticize the arts cuts in a fun way, look at this. As for boosterism and enforced positive thinking that makes no sense, see this:

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” is about the American idea that a positive outlook is itself the solution to problems.

“It had infiltrated the large career-counseling industry that serves the unemployed; the Ivy League, where “positive psychology” has nested in the curriculum; the best-seller list, where “The Secret” has taken up residence; mega-churches run by evangelists; and conferences for motivational speakers. Then the financial crisis hit. “Wham,” she said. “It was so clear to me that it was connected.” The relentlessly optimistic forecasts about subprime mortgages and endless increases in real estate values were the product of the positive-thinking culture. One of the fundamental tenets of the literature, Ms. Ehrenreich said, is to surround yourself with other positive thinkers and “get rid of negative people.” “We’ve been weeding out anybody capable of rational thinking, of realism,” said Ms. Ehrenreich.

Prince George pulp mill worker, Denise Dauvin, loves her tunes and is unhappy about recent cuts to the arts in BC that affect the province’s musicians. Sarah McLachlan is one of my faves,” said Dauvin at the truck dumps, “and she’s right when she says the cuts are a tragedy.” (Link to original text and photo by Bill Horne is here.)

6 comments on "This is my Olympics post – but it’s not about sports. It’s about the arts."

  1. Bill Horne gets the prize for the best contribution to the fight against these economically and socially stupid cuts to arts funding. Such beautiful photographs and they completely disrupt all those stereotypes about rural people, the arts, etc.

    On another note, look at this:
    Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, creator of the Vectorial Elevations searchlight piece, criticizes BC’s arts cuts

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