La Scena Musicale

Monday, March 9, 2009

Michael Ignatieff: An open letter

Dear Michael Ignatieff

As a former colleague of yours on the BBC's Late Show in the 1990s, I want to draw your attention to a Canadian phenomenon which, though you are not yet prime minister, can be significantly remedied by your intervention. There may even be some votes in it.

You can guess what I'm referring to. It's the top-down dumbing down of arts and culture.

Canada is a country that punches creatively above its weight. Its diversity of authors -from Margaret Attwood and Carol Shields to Josef Skvorecky, Mordecai Richler and Ying Chen - are read the world over. Its musicians are widely heard and its theatrical style is distinctive. Like Britain, Canada has nurtured a national cultural renaissance by means of an enlightened state broadcaster and modest amounts of public subsidy.

Those gentle boosters are now in jeopardy. CBC Radio has converted its classical station to pick 'n' mix, and its classical presentation to low populism, demolishing cultural confidence.

To cite one current example. CBC is asking listeners to choose 49 Canadian songs to send to President Obama. Michael, could you ever imagine such cultural cringe at the BBC?

Another instance: the Canada Council for the Arts is scrapping subsidy for controlled-circulation literary and music magazines. I can't figure out the bureaucratic reasoning from afar and I should declare a tiny interest: my weekly column appears without fee on a website linked to one Canadian publication. These magazines nurture the grass roots of art. Scythe them down, and not much will grow tomorrow.

What can you do as leader of the opposition? Easy. The squeaky bums in broadcasting and arts councils (we have the same types over here) respond very swiftly to comments from an opposition leader shortly before an election. The bums don't want to lose their seats.

One speech, Michael, that's all it would take. One speech urging Canada to smarten up and stop dumbing down would put more heart into the arts and more arts in the world than a pack of Medicis. One word from you, and the bureaucrats will go upmarket.

Think about it. With a positive signal to Canada's creative furnace, your Liberals would stand for innovation and enlightenment, as distinct from the numbskull Conservatives. To borrow Isaiah Berlin's famous metaphor, you would be the fox and they the hedgehog - tomorrow's roadkill.

Forgive this intrusion from abroad. I have no right to interfere in Canadian affairs, except to wish the best for its arts. My justification is John Donne's: no man is an island. Canada's arts are important. If they shrink, the world suffers. They help to define what you and I would call civilisation. Get behind them, Michael, before the election.

With best wishes

Norman Lebrecht 


  • Not yet PM, but he will be.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 9, 2009 2:05 PM  

  • I appreciate your good intentions with this letter, but in the world of practical politics, this has to be just about the worst advice for Michael Ignatieff.

    He should not in any circumstances be seen to side with "high" culture at the expense of popular culture. While such a move might play in Quebec, it plays right into Harper's attempt to play to the Tim Horton's crowd. And Iggy has to be wary of being seen as an espresso sipping elite.

    By OpenID partisan_non_partisan, At March 9, 2009 8:10 PM  

  • If the Canadian "arts" community were to stop engaging in their incestuous navel-gazing and actually, oh I don't know, focus on something Canadians might want to patronize, then maybe we can get away from the incessant wave of crap for which Canada's arts community is justly famous.

    The real Canadian arts community are the ones going out there and getting stuff done without government grants because they have a passion for their work--not because they want to belong to the nomenklatura or promulgate terrible projects in the misguided belief that they're being "edgy" and "hip."

    Print media is dying. Switch to the web if you want to have a place for literary and music communities and start building those communities rather than sucking out tax dollars to finance the latest project no-one wants to see.

    Why is it the BBC is able to produce programming that is envied and copied the world over and Canada is not? Could it be that Canada's artistic community is not punching above its weight and--for the last 40 years--has not been punching at all?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 9, 2009 8:51 PM  

  • boing007

    Print media is dying. Switch to the web if you want to have a place for literary and music communities and start building those communities rather than sucking out tax dollars to finance the latest project no one wants to see.

    The tax dollars being sucked out to finance the arts are a pittance compared to the amount of money being spent to promote the Canadian Armed Forces and more useless defense spending.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 10, 2009 10:44 AM  

  • Pop music is like bubble gum, it soon loses its flavour. A Schubert symphony will stay with you for the rest of your life.

    By Anonymous boing007, At March 10, 2009 10:51 AM  

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