Robert Fulford's column about Mike Harris and the arts

(The National Post, July 10, 2001)

It is a truth universally acknowledged among artists in Toronto that Premier Mike Harris has wrecked the cultural life of Ontario. This opinion must baffle newspaper readers elsewhere in Canada. On the one hand, Ontario artists seem to spend their time accepting prizes, signing big contracts, and bragging about their international success; on the other, they claim they are living in dark times, starved by a mean, vicious government.

The consensus in the cultural community is simple: We must live in hope that some day Harris will be defeated so that his successor can bring back the creative policies of the pre-Harris years, when sympathetic governments vigorously encouraged the arts. It happens that this is nonsense, but it is popular nonsense. In some Toronto circles, it is more or less mandatory. Artists holding contrary ideas usually remain silent, to avoid being condemned for heresy.

Certainly David Macfarlane, the novelist and journalist, would consider any deviation from the anti-Harris line to be, at best, eccentric. Macfarlane has become the chief articulator of this belief. He has written several dozen columns in The Globe and Mail lamenting the wretched state of culture under our wretched Premier. Almost every week, Macfarlane states his view of Harris, the same view he held the week before. Readers can only assume that the reason he doesn't state it several times a week is that he writes only in Monday's paper.

For Macfarlane, Harris-hating has become more than an obsession; it's almost a job description. It also calls forth his most florid similes. Last week he wrote that "to live in Ontario and to write about the arts without mentioning the effect Mike Harris has had on the cultural life of this province would be like writing about the war in the Pacific without mentioning Pearl Harbor." He said the government has done its best to starve Ontario's cultural life. In the same piece he wrote, "I've been racking my brains trying to think of something that the Harris government hasn't ruined."

How about theatre, opera, the visual arts, films, television and literature? Harris-haters may find this astonishing or even impossible to believe, but the truth is that culture has actually flourished in the capital of Ontario since Harris came to office in 1995.

The examples are everywhere. The finest theatre company in the history of Toronto, Soulpepper, was founded in 1998, three years after the dark night of Harris neo-conservatism descended on the province. During the last six years, the productions of the Canadian Opera Company have drawn more admiration than at any time since it opened for business in 1950.

In the private art galleries, a new generation has discovered collecting, and art is selling faster than it has in many years. The Art Gallery of Ontario now has a magnificent show, Rubens and His Age, the first Old Masters exhibition in memory that's been organized and chosen by the AGO for its own audience -- a delightful moment in the history of that institution (a provincial government agency that has somehow escaped destruction by Harris).

The Toronto International Film Festival and its sister, the Cinematheque, are so active that their staff has lately expanded to 50. The Canadian Film Centre is doing well as a teacher of cinematic technique; a new feature movie that it backed, James Allodi's The Uncles, turns out to be a touching comedy set in the downtown Italian section of Toronto. As for television production, it's booming. Film trucks line the streets.

And then there's literature. In literature, something truly remarkable has happened. The winning of international prizes by Canadian writers, most of them residents of Harris's bleak Ontario, is only the most visible side, the part we carry on the front pages. The other side, known to all publishers and many readers, is even more surprising: the new position of serious novels in Canadian publishing.

Ten years ago, before the Age of Harris, many commercial publishers avoided or belittled literary fiction, especially first novels. Today, mainstream publishers compete ferociously for promising novelists, above all first novelists; it is not unknown for a university student in a creative writing course to get a book contract. No one has ever seen anything like this transformation. No one ever dreamt of seeing anything like it.

Given this situation, why would people believe the arts are in a melancholy state? John Ibbitson, in a June 23 column in the Globe about the Harris government's successful education policies, described "people whose visceral hatred for Mike Harris personally and Conservatives in general has overwhelmed their capacity for rational analysis." Does that describe David Macfarlane? Does it also describe a majority of the people who talk about culture in Ontario? I think it does.

None of this demonstrates that Mike Harris is our own version of Cosimo de' Medici. For all I know, he's precisely the philistine his enemies say he is. He hasn't made the arts flower -- but then, he couldn't. The state of the economy is partly responsible, along with a few wise non-government decisions (the opera company making Richard Bradshaw artistic director, for example) and some unpredictable courage (such as a troupe of actors starting Soulpepper, which would have been hideously embarrassing if it had gone wrong instead of gloriously right).

My point is that Harris, like former premiers such as Bob Rae and David Peterson, matters far less than we sometimes imagine. We who favour arts funding claim that most artists of all kinds have been subsidized through most of history. True. But that doesn't mean government decisions determine the health of the arts. When Russians were writing the great novels of the 19th century, the czars were not literary patrons. When the Impressionists in Paris were producing the best paintings of the 19th century, the French government played no part.

Canadians spend so much time talking about cultural policy that we think it more important than it is. Government can help, and should, but arts policies and the arts are not the same and often don't run on parallel tracks. Looking clearly at what has happened to the arts in the Age of Harris might help us to think about these questions with less hysteria and more, uh, common sense.

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