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Blog » John Holden: Culture and Politics

Posted on 1/27/2008 by Amy Fung

John Holden breezed through last week and shared his model understanding of Culture and its relation to Politics.

According to Holden, there are three value systems of Culture, the first being an Intrinsic Value. Intrinsic Culture often eludes quantification and cannot be measured for statistics; it is created in and for itself and therefore has the specter of elitism and consequently alienates the majority of public audiences.

The second is Instrumental Value. The "using" of culture to regenerate an area, an economy, and to recover a loss. Richard Florida is its best salesman. 118 Avenue is Edmonton’s best example. In an other city, the area may be just described as "in transition"; but because of city council’s emphasis on pushing art and artists into the neighborhood in hopes of pushing drugs and prostitution out (to where remains to be seen), 118 Avenue is slowly becoming the shadow spokesmodel of its own Revitalization Plan.

The third is Institutional Value. This is culture's interaction with the community at large, such as the day to day operations of libraries, museums, and other public institutions where the public can visit and engage with culture. This is Culture with a capital Mandate, and culture created under this value often loses sight of its own purpose in fulfilling policies.

In short, Holden mirrors his model after the economic model of public, private and state operated corporations. For a healthy and vibrant economy, a balance must be struck between the three. There cannot be sole focus on any one facet, as that will debilitate future growth. It is a delicatly intertwined system, and if applied to Edmonton's culture scene, what we find is a very ill imbalance of culture.

Culture has been poorly funded by institutionally sanctioned grants, creating art that must follow "project" guidelines and work towards meeting and achieving preordained and systematized guidelines. Holden's personal example was that the non profit arts organization he chaired could only receive a certain grant if they made the project, a musical performance, relevant to youth crossing guards. This and its many variations happens all too often under local, provincial and even national funding models, limiting artistic direction and challenging the integrity of artists as independent professionals. The result is that the quality and vision of culture declines to fit itself into funding models and rhetoric, and the works produced can be dull and uninteresting for everyone from artists to audiences, but satisfies clinical political and institutional checklists.

Privately funded culture keeps most of our buildings, festival, and organizations afloat. Sponsorships have become so natural that we must call it the Syncrude NextFest and people automatically think TransAlta owns and operates the ArtsBarns. Companies become dollar dispensers and are no more connected to the community and the arts then they were before the stamp of their logo; and artists must spend their time jumping through more administrative hoops than working on their work. Because creating art is work, and currently, making art and sustaining your art are strained as two separate occupations--each requiring full time hours and two separate skill sets. But culture is seen as a frill, with a cool factor for those who may invest a minimum, and the industry is not taken seriously as a business endeavor by businesses themselves.

Instrumental and institutionally sanctioned culture often loses sight of the quality of art generated, conflating spurts of unprocessed creativity as a work of art if they meet and satisfy a guideline. The intrinsic value of culture, of art, is this: That it allows us as flawed and inexperienced human beings to experience the world through a lens slightly different different from our own. That Art challenges our beliefs and questions our understanding of the world, and makes us look at things from another perspective, with hopes of making us understand something greater than ourselves. This is also the value of science (only science can be measured). A quality work of art that fulfills all of Holden's value systems can only be created under limitless circumstances, where artists can be trusted to create without project barriers and suffocating guidelines. Art is not democratic. Its end result may be for the people, but its process should not have to suffer under a dozen different hands.

One audience question asked Holden what he thought about graffiti. Smartly sidestepping the question but ultimately answering it, he replied that he has experienced uncomfortable graffiti (those that are thoughtless and unprocessed like crude defamations), but that he has also experienced the witty and challenging works of Banksy right by his office in London, and that it was brilliant. And he is absolutely right. Graffiti canbe brilliant, but in Edmonton, it has become such a politicized issue of private space that the question was asked not even about the artistic value of graffiti, but more likely about the legality of public art on private buildings. There may be a lot of poorly made graffiti in the city, but there is also a lot of poorly executed public and privately sanctioned culture. It is not just about throwing money into funding (which has just happened) and it is not just about throwing tax breaks at businesses (which has also just happened), and acknowledging the importance of culture in our society from leaders (ditto), it is about breaking down those barriers that view graffiti as harmful to a city (how can public art made out of free will and time be harmful?) and to begin valuing culture as so much more than a charitable hand out, a decoration, a quantifiable block of expression, and to begin understanding that culture is an investment of a community's well-being and long term identity.



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