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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 2 October 2015

Dissonances: Let’s fight back

by Caroline Rodgers / October 1, 2015

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If, like me, you’ve been following the news, you’ll have seen the depressing headlines concerning the arts over the last month. Here are some examples:

• June 2015: the sculpture Dialogue avec l’histoire (Dialogue with History) by French artist Jean-Pierre Raynaud was demolished by order of the municipal corporation of Quebec, for “security” reasons. Whether or not we appreciated this controversial piece, the event clearly shows that our elected authorities have no understanding of what the arts are about.

• September 2015: LA LA LA Human Steps, the world-renowned dance troupe founded in Montreal in 1980, had to close after 35 years because of insurmountable financial difficulties. These were partly the result of the federal government’s abolition of touring budgets in 2009. Since that year, the troupe had survived thanks to private support.

• In September 2015, a news item that went unnoticed: The Japanese ministry of education sent a directive to the country’s universities, asking them to abolish or reduce their social and human science programs and replace them with subjects “more useful to society’s needs.” The decision was denounced as anti-intellectual by just one university principal.

We needn’t think the Japanese case is unique: all over the world, the humanities and the arts are under threat. Here in Canada, our elected representatives want to subordinate education to the needs of the market. In a global war against thought, technocrats and politicians dream of creating not citizens but workers and consumers, little docile robots, uncritical and soulless. They’d like us to be isolated individuals never questioning authority or wondering about the future of society. Music counters such isolation and indifference, inviting people to get together to sing, play and listen to each other. It is a powerful antidote.

But the disciples of utilitarianism know the price of everything and the value of nothing. For them, disciplines or individuals are assessed according to their profitability. This logic means that those who are deemed “useful” wear themselves out at work, pay their taxes, ask no questions, and consume the “cultural products” hammered into them by the media. You cannot really expect a worker permanently close to burnout to go to concerts.

Anything conducive to thought or that diverges from the beaten path of commercial art is deemed “non-profitable”, even subversive. Artists, philosophers, ethnologists or any other social scientists are deemed “useless”. Trash-radio DJs and rabble-rousing columnists disdainfully call them “ologists”, if not “parasites”.

Against such a hostile background, it isn’t surprising that the arts and culture are not an issue in the current federal election campaign. La Scena Musicale, however, considered it important to make its own modest contribution by organizing a public debate on the question. It took place on September 21 at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, and was attended by candidates from four parties. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the Conservative party was conspicuously absent.

Here at our little magazine — also struggling with some adversity — we believe that the arts should be the heart of everyday life. We also believe that musicians and stakeholders in the arts should have a greater say in city affairs. And for that, we mustn’t wait for the authorities to threaten, as they did last year, to close the music conservatories. That episode showed that the arts scene was capable of mobilizing, and that those in power had to retreat in the face of resistance, instead of the usual inertia of citizens overwhelmed by everyday events.

To wrap up, I’d like to borrow a quotation from a fictional character, none other than brave Sam Gamgee, one of the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. It may seem odd, but it does encapsulate the idea behind this column: “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo ... and it’s worth fighting for.”

We’ve had to struggle for the arts for a long time now. We all know that. But in these dark times, it’s easy to forget just how important it is to keep on resisting. It’s easy to give up. But we must come to grips with the debates raging around us. Let’s speak up whenever we can to defend what we believe in.

Let’s fight back.
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