Peaceful Weapons: The Power of the Arts

The recent federal election campaign was fought around a number of issues. These included everything from the middle class, refugees, corporate tax rates and national security to the economy, greenhouse gases, marijuana and the clothing choices of visible minorities.

But one thing that was absent from almost all candidates’ debates, at the local as much as at the national level, was sustained discussion about the arts. It’s true that the platforms of all of the major parties had proposals to preserve, expand or, in various ways, change the relationship between the arts and the federal government. And yet, with historical predictability, the arts failed to establish themselves as a significant issue for most voters. Broad public opinion applauds the arts as ‘representing humanity at its best.’ But, really, do the arts actually matter to us?

A frequent way of saying “Yes” to that question is to point to the arts as drivers of local, provincial and national economies. The arts—and there is indeed plenty of solid evidence to support this—inject large amounts of cash into the Canadian economy as a whole. Studies repeatedly tell us, for example, that attendance at professional arts events outnumbers attendance at professional sports events. Small wonder, then, that defenders so often justify requests for government and corporate support by arguing that the arts directly and indirectly bolster the economy. The arts, in other words, make sense in a tangibly and, above all, measurably practical way.

True though this claim is, it’s also a bit of a canard. If the arts can be said to have an overarching raison d’être it is much more likely to have to do with human expression, achievement and development than with the happy sound of cash registers. Creating or enjoying art, in any of its many and diverse media, makes us better, more socially aware and more empathetic people. It helps us to reach out across ethnic, age, class and gender lines and thus build stronger communities. Though sometimes portrayed—falsely—as a frivolous playground for self-obsessed elite groups who have more money than sense, the arts would be much less central than they are to human existence if they did not speak directly to even the most marginalized groups. These are groups that are often defined, by themselves and by others, as being on the edges of the social contract. For groups such as these, the arts can be a lifeline that helps them not only to preserve identity, but also to occupy a vital role within the larger social matrix.

It was this firm belief about the individual and social value of the arts that resulted in Carleton University and the Michaëlle Jean Foundation joining forces in 2013 to hold the first Power of the Arts National Forum, and to stage that event again in 2014 and 2015. Power of the Arts surveys how individuals, community groups, businesses, and various levels of government can and do marshal the arts to make Canada a place where everyone matters equally and where everyone can use the arts both to express themselves and to connect themselves to others. The 2015 National Forum was held at Carleton University from Nov. 6 to 8. During those three days, representatives from across the country discussed best practices and grappled with the challenges of solidifying a national network of those who use the arts on a daily basis as peaceful weapons of mass construction to improve lives and strengthen communities.

Brian Foss was co-chair of the Power of the Arts 2015 National Forum

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