Monday, December 15, 2008

Blackett Sets the Record Straight

I was really disturbed by the CBC story last week suggesting Alberta's Minister of Culture Lindsay Blackett was considering withholding provincial government funding for certain film projects. The story was spurred by the Oscar short-listed documentary “Downstream” by Leslie Iwerks. I have not seen the documentary but understand it is critical of oil sands development and focuses on the controversy over allegations of high cancer rates in the Fort Chipewyan area.

Full disclosure, I am working with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Fort Chipewyan on legal/policy issues around the timing of Alberta's duty to consult on oil sands leases. I also work with Lions Gate Television on arranging the provincial and city funding of the NBC primetime television series "Fear Itself" that was shot in Edmonton last year.

I was relieved to read the Todd Babiak’s typically thorough and thoughtful Edmonton Journal column on Saturday that clarified the situation considerably. I have spoken and met with Lindsay Blackett on several occasions and cannot imagine that censorship is anywhere in his DNA and it ought not to be in any of our elected representatives.

Blackett has effecitvly diffused the “story” by saying “Nobody is complaining about it. Not in my office, not in caucus, not in cabinet.” He goes on to state “We’re not so thin-skinned that we can’t take a little criticism. I believe in freedom of speech. We love to encourage artistic freedom and we don’t believe in censorship.” That is the Lindsay Blackett I know and that is the right place of government in free speech and artistic freedom too.

I think we need more appreciation for the controversial and criticism that artists uncover and convey in and to our society. I recently wrote an essay entitled “Profiting From the Artist as Prophet” for the City of Edmonton Culture Policy in support of that theme. I argued that “The core genius of the artist is the ability to express unreserved truth.” I believe “That artistic ability is enough to alter our entire culture by changing our orienting stories and our binding societal myths.”

Art and artists can be merely entertainment in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “frolic and juggle” level of the artist. Emerson goes on to say when we experience art and artists at the “genius level” they help us to “realize and add” as they make invaluable contributions to our insight and self-awareness.

As a student of politics and leadership I have observed that political leaders are often limited in their ability to see the truths that an artist can envisage. This is because politicians are inevitably placed in the compromise zone between such truths and societies receptivity to accept them.

Reading the Babiak column one sees that Lindsay Blackett gets this healthy tension about the reality about the nexus of art, culture and politics. Our governments have become the major patrons and benefactors of art and artists. Governments are under increasing pressure for accountability and transparency in the use of taxpayer dollars at the same time. This tends to measure the value of art in terms of quantitative, management and programmatic terms and diminishes and depreciates the benefits artists provide to a vital and vibrant society.

Blackett acknowledges that Alberta’s film funding,”… like democracy is a work in progress.” Alberta has historically been a national leader is making progress of this good work but that all changed in the Klein years. As Alberta seeks to become a knowledge society and economy and an attractor of culture creatives, sustained and substantial public support for arts and culture industries are a lever to make that transformation.

So contrary to implications in recent media reports, censorship is not “on” for Alberta. Government making art and culture funding decisions based on esthetic or ideological considerations is not on either. Taking a more strategic role and having a progressive public policy game play for culture industries needs to be on for Alberta. We need to breathe life and energy into the new Alberta Culture Policy in ways that makes Alberta thrive.

Lindsay Blackett has the right vision and the right stuff to make this happen but he cannot do it alone. Albertans have to get behind him and demand an enlightened public policy that enables, encourages and empowers our cultural creatives.