FULL DISCLOSURE: Colleen Brown vs. Ezra Levant heats up arts funding debate

Well, this is awkward. I’m at a fancy dinner party for the Royal Newlyweds and I’ve got Ezra Levant sitting to the left of me and and Colleen Brown to the right. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Ezra is a Sun TV commentator who criticizes government arts funding. Colleen is a local recording artist who wouldn’t be where she is without the roughly $50,000 in government arts funding she’s received since 2002 (her estimate), nor, one suspects, have enough media clout for people to notice that she’s picked a fight with Ezra Levant.

I’ve decided to make a break for it after the soup.

Let me explain. FULL DISCLOSURE: I get paid to write concert reviews for the Edmonton Sun, which is owned by Sun Media, which runs Sun TV, which I’ve never watched, nor listened to the music of Colleen Brown, nor met Ezra Levant.

That said, here’s a recent video of Ezra and Sun TV’s media critic Katheryn Marshall talking about subsidized housing for artists in Edmonton:

Colleen sees this and SHE LOSES IT! She snaps! So she writes an open letter on Facebook to Ezra Levant and Sun TV claiming the entire segment was biased and factually inaccurate. Read her whole rant here. It’s been spreading like wildfire amongst area artists, judging from the large number of comments and “likes.” There’s even a link to a blog post called “Seven Things you can do to Stick it to Sun News,” including a call to boycott advertisers, which is disturbing because it’s exactly the same tactic that Jerry Falwell used to kill the National Lampoon magazine.

Brown stands behind every word she wrote. She explains, “I’m not trying to become a poster child for arts funding, or for standing up to the bully. I’m just trying to make art. But I feel like artists are being attacked. I feel like my position in society is being attacked.”

She agrees there’s a debate about arts funding to be had, but that many people on both sides of the issue get so angry about it they can’t even think straight.

I remember interviewing some British rock band, I believe they were called “Dodgy,” whose irascible singer claimed that Brit rock bands were better than Canadian ones because “you’re all on the dole,” referring to both the Canadian Content laws and extensive systems of artistic grants. He wasn’t too fond of the BBC, either, as I recall.

There is a lot to be said for the famous punk rock DIY attitude. It stands for “do it yourself,” not “do it with government assistance.” Consider the case of Living With Lions getting in trouble by titling its FACTOR-funded album “Holy Shit.” Under pressure, the band recalled the CDs and returned the 13 grand – in the process reaping far more than $13,000 worth of publicity.

On the other hand, good art is, well, good. Can we all at least agree on that?

Patronage of the arts – via king, church, corporation or liberal government – is an ancient tradition, because once civilized humans got the agriculture thing down pat, there was more free time and people quickly realized that making art and appreciating art can make everyone feel good, which can lead to procreation, which perpetuates the species. How many times have you had sex after attending some particularly inspiring piece of theatre or musical concert or even reading some steamy poem by William Blake? You can’t put a price on that, nor can one financially quantify “nourishment of the soul.”

Still, if you’re having trouble feeding your kids, funding art – or even making art – is not going to be your first priority. That’s why it’s nice to have a Pope to pay people like Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, whose benefit to humanity cannot be measured in dollars. OK, maybe tourist dollars.

Just as there are “hidden” costs to the $1 burger at McDonald’s (obesity, the decline of family farms, the downfall of civilization as we know it, etc., etc.), there are many hidden profits from the arts aside from tourism or successful coffee shops in proximity to art galleries. One study has shown that people are less likely to litter in a place that’s kept clean, less likely to vandalize nice areas, less likely to commit crime in a crime free district. The better the art, public or not, the nicer the place and the richer society becomes as a whole. But like any issue, when you really break it down, the answer to the arts funding conundrum is not as easy as it first seems, and in the end rather boring: There has to be a “balance.” Ugh. Hate that word. It takes vigilance, constant debate, research, getting the facts straight, which – let’s face it – is a lot of work.

Brown brings up the analogy of arts and culture being the “heart and guts” of society while the military and construction industry are the muscle and bones, or something like that. She adds, “If you neglect one part of the system, everything is going to fail. I think artists have that tough job. The arts play an important role in this whole system.”

There’s a weird angle to this story: Is all this mad hullabaloo just a series of cries for attention? Are liberal arts funding proponents being baited by right wing pundits? Are the pissed off artists merely playing into their hands? The Daily Show with Jon Stewart spends at least half the average show making fun of Fox News – so does that just boost Fox’s ratings? Does ridicule actually accomplish anything? Are we asking too many questions and not giving enough answers?

Let’s just review the elements of the fight: Ezra wants the attention, Brown’s career can only benefit from the stand she’s taken, that blogger gets some buzz and – FULL DISCLOSURE – I’m only writing this piece because I want to attract attention, too, to stir the pot, to rack up those page views … precious, precious page views.

God help us all.


BONUS FULL DISCLOSURES! Colleen Brown was once on the cover of the Edmonton Sun. And there was no such fancy dinner attended by Ezra Levant, Colleen Brown and the Royal Newlyweds. If there was, I wasn’t invited – MR