Don’t Blame the Artists
I was pleased by Will Pearson’s response to my article, but feel compelled to address any implication that artists may be culpable for gentrification. Blaming artists for this problem is a narrative we need to refute and whose origins we should question.
The idea of a free market in real estate is an illusion. Our economic and political systems favour developers and investors, and increasingly exploit our essential need for shelter, as well as public and work space.
But historically and presently artists find ways to work around systems. What society abandons and allows to decay, artists step in to improve and revive—aesthetically, physically, socially, spiritually, intellectually, psychologically, not to mention economically. They can’t help it. It’s what they do, regardless of any potential for personal economic return. Their pursuit of quality of life invariably enriches the wider community in countless ways.
For profit, developers globally exploit artists’ capacity for reimagining, without rewarding, and usually displacing, the artists themselves, alongside other low income residents.
Artists are almost exclusively low income people throughout their entire lives, though their creativity may obscure this fact.
Furthermore, in my experience, they are the very model of an inclusive community—embracing, engaging, supporting and co-existing amicably with folks from virtually all economic sectors, generations, abilities, genders, and races.
That a gallery like Evans Contemporary can resurrect a neglected, greasy, rodent infested space into a stunning contemporary gallery in a rural city and galvanize a dynamic grassroots art scene along with it, without outside financial support or expectation of financial gain, may mystify some, but it directly contradicts the goals of gentrification.
In these times of urgency we need all hands on deck and Pearson is right to ask: how can artists collectively, without financial or political leverage, resist? Our innate individuality coupled with the equivalent of two jobs makes artists reluctant to assume political leadership.
We can do more than cleverly criticize and stoically accept our fate. We can continually impress upon the public and political spheres that the value of culture cannot be measured by economic tools, yet is fundamental to every aspect of our lives. We can fight cuts to cultural institutions and demand fair compensation for our labour. We can refuse to enable an economy that is based solely on financial growth and use our creativity to devise and illustrate alternatives. We can join our voices in a chorus of creative citizens who deserve and expect to be heard, and whose rightful place at the table is yet to be realized.
David Tough makes some good points in your current issue regarding the Ontario government’s basic income pilot project. Yes, raising current social assistance rates is urgently needed. Yet there’s no reason why we cannot push for both higher rates and a decent basic income program.
The tone of the letter is very defeatist. this pilot project is only a start, but it provides a first step towards guaranteeing people a decent income, in a world where full employment is more unattainable than ever. it is unfortunate that only 4,000 people will benefit from the pilot, but their incomes will be higher than before—almost $17,000 for a single person, plus another $6,000 if that person has a disability, much higher than social assistance levels. We need to say to the government that we need a greatly expanded basic income program, and a society as wealthy as ours can afford that.
I too am a socialist and for the last 15 years have been involved in anti-poverty education and advocacy work. David says that people in poverty “have no champion in politics.” This is the heart of the issue: poor people themselves are generally not organized politically, and not enough people active in politics are willing to stand with them. The growing basic income movement offers the potential to change that, just as years of pushing for a decent minimum wage is finally paying off in Ontario. We have to keep up the struggle and push for an adequate basic income as a way to fairly share the wealth in our society, not lose hope.
Thinking back to the remote past when I attended university I only remember one instructor with any clarity. This was a diminutive elderly man who had written a book about his experiences living within a Native community on the West Coast. He spoke of that time with animation but otherwise not infrequently lapsed into slumber.
Being young and omniscient we thought he had passed his best-before date and often used his class as a time out. None of us were aware of residential schools or land claims. We had not learned of the Native commitment to take from the Earth in moderation leaving ample resources for the next seven generations. We knew little about the 7 Grandfather Teachings which Native people aspire to live up to—certainly we knew nothing about Humility.
In his lament over the devastating impact of white civilization on the lives of people who had allowed him to share in their society and culture his talks were often punctuated by animated outbursts of “You stupid stupid white man.” This particularly amused us as in the multicultural classroom he, with his pale skin and snowy thatch of hair, was clearly the whitest of us all.
We had no time machine to look ahead to the devastation of the Tar Sands and no awareness of the growing tragedy of the “true north strong and free” where impoverished families struggle to survive after displacement from their land, slaughter of wildlife, clearing of forests and pollution of air, lakes and streams.
In a mere 1 1/2 centuries we have raped the resources, poisoned the waterways,imposed genocidal institutionalization, and broken promises of restitution and justice. We occupy one of the richest countries in the world yet allow the rightful owners to live in Third World conditions leading to disease, premature death and often outbreaks of suicide among the young who have lost hope and the will to go on.
July 1 commemorates white ascendancy into nationhood. I wonder if it should be a time of celebration or mourning as I sit here enjoying the spoils of decades of brutality, exploitation and genocide, living on land stolen while its rightful owners live and die in deprivation. As the descendant of settlers who could not have survived their first brutal winter in this harsh environment without Native friendship and support I am a direct beneficiary of this unconscionable injustice.
Till these unconscionable crimes are acknowledged and some form of meaningful restitution is achieved there will be little cause to celebrate on this or any future July 1st.
The words of our venerable professor repeat in my head, “You stupid stupid white man.” In hindsight this was probably the most profound and relevant teaching of my un-illustrious years of academic enlightenment.