I participated recently in a planning session for the Nova Scotia Culture Sector Strategy held in Sydney at Silicon Island. According to the literature, “the objective of the Nova Scotia Culture Sector Strategy is cultural development with an economic focus…based on the input of people involved in the culture sector.”
Cultural development with an economic focus…hmmm, better be careful here not to get into “cultural clear-cutting”. How do we develop culture with an economic focus? What is culture anyway? I think we need to approach this with a clear understanding of the difference between cultural identity and cultural expression. The former is who you are based on where you’re from, your background, your surroundings, etc. the latter is what you do with it or because of it. You can’t develop cultural identity with an economic focus. Cultural identity is what defines who we are, as Cape Bretoners, as Canadians, Nova Scotians, as Irish, Mi’kmaq, French, Italian or Ukrainian, but it goes beyond geographical and ethnic descriptions. It’s how we get along with our neighbours, how we see the world, and how the world sees us, what we do for fun, how we make a living. You can’t really approach cultural identity economically because, to oversimplify, if part of one’s cultural identity is economic hardship, throwing money at them is going to change their cultural identity.
Cultural expression is what we can throw money at to develop, but the danger here is losing its purity. If the local fiddlers got together at Archie Angus Neil’s house every Saturday night to exchange tunes because it was fun and entertaining and affordable, what happens once you start guaranteeing a paid gig for each of them somewhere down the road in a neighboring community or where ever? They no longer gather and that which has been responsible for their very existence is gone. Now maybe they can quit their day jobs and play music all the time but is that necessarily a good thing? No longer does Buddy MacMaster work for the railway, learning tunes and playing on his breaks, now he’s a professional musician. While it may be nice to get paid to play, that’s not why he did it in the first place. The cultural identity has been tampered with.
If part of Cape Bretoners’ cultural identity is that they express themselves through artistic endeavour to relieve stress and tension after a hard day’s work, paying them for their artistic endeavour will allow them to quit working and concentrate on artistic endeavour full-time. As a result, the artwork will change because the inspiration to create it, the stress and tension from work, has been changed. Unless the public can somehow be convinced that this artwork is worthy just because it was made by a Cape Bretoner, it all falls apart.
A sustainable industry has got to be about more than just paying for itself. If this culture thing is to be a renewable resource there’s got to be some attention paid to the transmission of culture and cultural identity. It’s ridiculous to pay Grandpa to tell stories and play his fiddle after dinner. But what about teaching Gaelic in the school system? And here’s where it starts to get messy. What about Mi’kmaq and French and Ukrainian . . . do we pick the three most popular ethnicities to concentrate on, or the three most marketable? Do we charge admission to Grandpa’s after dinner reverie so that he will continue this tradition?
“Culture with an economic focus,” argues Ken Chisholm, “is economics with culture as the commodity. What we end up with are two cultures – the one we create for ourselves and the one we package for sale; one is alive and changing, the other has to be, for the marketplace, a fixed commodity.”
Taking Ken’s fears into account, I think that it can work and believe that the emerging ‘culture industry’ does need to make economics an important part of its focus. How that will come to be, however, remains to be seen.