Tools for ‘the rich soil of life’

The Globe And Mail, Saturday April 14th, 2007

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.

Just so that you know: the parliamentary appropriation this year for the Canada Council for the Arts is $173 million. Next year it will be $182 million. Does that sound like a lot? Let me put it into perspective. A budget of $182 million translates to $5.50 per Canadian per year. Most Canadians I know spend more than that in a week on parking, some in a day on coffee. Sure, the federal government supports the arts in other ways, too, through industry-support grants and the funding of cultural agencies such as the CBC, the National Gallery, the Museum of Civilization, the National Arts Centre, Telefilm Canada, and so on, but these are institutional venues. Only the Canada Council for the Arts sustains our living arts of today and tomorrow where it really counts, at the level of the individual artist. And they’re supposed to do that on $5.50 a year per Canadian.

The moment had come. Question Period was over and we were now going to be officially acknowledged by the House.

The Honourable Bev Oda, Minister for Canadian Heritage, whose seat on the government benches is as far away from the Prime Minister’s as is possible for a member of the cabinet, rose to her feet, acknowledged our presence and began to speak. We stood up, not for ourselves but for the Canada Council. Her speech was short. There was a flutter of applause. Then Minister Oda sat down, our business was over, MPs instantly turned to other things, and we were still standing. That was it. Fifty years of building Canada’s dazzling and varied culture, done with in less than five minutes.

We should have been prepared. How many Members of Parliament do you think showed up at a reception the previous day on Parliament Hill meant to be a grand occasion on which the representatives of Canada’s people would meet the representatives of Canada’s artists? By my count, twenty, twenty-five—out of 306—with only one cabinet minister, the one who absolutely had to be there, Bev Oda. There we fifty stood around, for two hours, waiting. Each one of us was a symbol for one year of the Canada Council’s fifty. I, for example, represented 1991, the year I received a Canada Council B grant that allowed me to write my first novel. I was 27 years old and the money was manna from heaven. I made those $18,000 last a year and a half (and compared to the income tax I have paid since then, an exponential return on Canadian taxpayers’ investment, I assure you). By comparison, the equivalent celebration of a major cultural institution in, say, France would have been a classy, flashy, year-long, exhibition-filled affair, with President Chirac trying to hog as much of the limelight as possible. No need to go into further details. We all know how the Europeans do culture. It’s sexy and important to them. The world visits Europe because it’s so culturally resplendent. Instead, we milled around, drank our drinks and then petered away in small groups.

So we should have been prepared for this perfunctory salute in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, I was surprised. Even embarrassed. Not for myself. I mean for all artists, from Jean-Louis Roux, great man of theatre, electrifying doyen of the fifty celebratory artists, to Tracee Smith, a young aboriginal hip-hop dancer and choreographer, recipient this year of her first Canada Council grant, to unknown emerging artists throughout this country. Do we count for nothing, you philistines, I felt like shouting down at the House. Don’t you know that Canadians love their books and songs and paintings? Do you really think we’re just parasites feeding off our fellow citizens? Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!

But I have no talent for spontaneous prophecy. Besides, guards would have landed upon me like football players and I would have been hustled out, bound for Guantanamo Bay. Instead, I focused on one man.

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website.

Yann Martel is the author of the Man Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi. He lives in Saskatoon.

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My favourite part of this: “there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time.”
I am inspired by Yann Martell’s list and the generosity of spirit that creates a new work of art (this list) from the works of others.

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