DECEMBER 10, 1999

Art is essential for our cultural well-being

“Art is not merely a decorative enhancement of our lives, but a sign of our desire to live in the world fully and honestly.”

By Jan Zwicky

The following is excerpted from Dr. Jan Zwicky’s (philosophy) remarks when she accepted her Governor General’s Award for Poetry on Nov. 16.

While it is crucial that public funds be administered responsibly, from this it does not follow that every taxpayer in the country has personally to approve the allocation of each dollar. What follows is that we, as a community, must agree that art is a good thing, and that we must have some measure of trust that the individuals


who are apportioning funds have our best interests at heart, however fallible any particular decision may be.

It is notable that evidence of bad judgement in the area of military expenditure produces the odd sign and shake of the head but no demand that each and every military project be explained to the disgruntled. Even more interesting is the fact that tax-supported subsidies to hugely wealthy transnational corporations rarely raise an eyebrow, even when those subsidies are used to deplete permanently our resource base or to underwrite industries we know create harmful pollution.

Why should this be so? Why are we often more critical of state support for the arts than of state support for corporate projects we know are bad for us?

The easy answer is that we have to keep the corporations happy or our country won’t survive. Art, on the other hand, is just a luxury, and we need to be scrupulous about how we dispose of our disposable income. There is certainly reason to take this answer seriously, but I think there may be another less obvious answer that in some ways pulls against this easy one. One of the reasons I think we are sometimes critical of support for the arts is that art — lyric art in particular — can make us uncomfortably aware that economically expedient answers may not always be true.

Art can challenge us in this way because, as Plato understood, it connects us as thinking beings to our bodies and emotions, and so forces us to acknowledge truths that are not easily represented in an economic calculus. Lyric art is intimate — when it is good it is always, whatever its medium, a struggle to achieve an integrity of spirit, body, and mind. When we engage with it, we are forced to reflect on the degree of our own integrity, and in so doing, we may be led to see that we must change our lives. It is thus possible that we are more critical of support for the arts, not just to the degree that we believe we must keep the corporations happy, but also to the degree that we do not wish to question this belief.

In Canada, we are extremely lucky to live in a polity that attempts genuinely to pursue ideals of justice, liberty and economic fairness. We do not need to fear the awakening of integrity that art encourages. And while we must indeed ensure responsibility in our support for the arts, what this means is that we must always bear in mind the importance of art for our cultural well-being. Art is not merely a decorative enhancement of our lives, but a sign of our desire to live in the world fully and honestly.

My thanks, then, to all Canadians — for their support of this award and for their support of the arts in general. The meaning of that support extends far beyond honour to an individual or individual work. It is, I believe, a symptom of our moral and political health. It signals our willingness to question the universal validity of rationalizations that appeal only to the bottom line, and celebrates our interest in the flourishing of individual conscience.

Views expressed on this page are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of The Ring or the University of Victoria. The Ring welcomes your views on the above article, or any other issue of interest to the UVic community. Submissions for Viewpoint or Letters to the Editor can be sent to the editor, UVic communications services, Sedgewick C149, fax 721-8955, or e-mail:

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