Simon Brault: Cultural crusader “No culture, no future”

By Mark Medley
Simon Brault is one of Canada’s more ardent cultural warriors: the CEO of the National Theatre School, the Vice-Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, the president of Culture Montréal, and a member of the Canada Prizes’ advisory panel, Brault has fought on the side of arts and culture for over three decades. He continues the good fight in his new book, No Culture, No Future, an impassioned manifesto that argues for the importance of the arts in society. Besides highlighting its economic value, he explores the reasons why culture is of vital importance. Brault also preaches a culture of inclusivity: that instead of erecting barriers between high art and mainstream art, between the elite and the mainstream, we tear them down.

“I’m not a scholar,” he says. “I did not want to write a book that nobody will understand, or even read.”

Brault sat down with the National Post’s Mark Medley on Tuesday to talk about the book, recently translated into English, and which launches tonight at Massey College in Toronto.

Q: You write that you’re not fond of definitions, but I want to know what you believe culture to be?

A: Danny Laferrière says that culture is that what is left when everything else disappears. I like that definition. Culture is really what defines us as human beings … There are many definitions of what it is, but I think – and I said somewhere in the book – that every time someone wants to protect “culture” we always know what “culture” means. We always know that we’re not talking about The Rolling Stones, or about the mainstream culture. We don’t have to qualify [it], we don’t have to say that it’s high culture. When it’s in danger, when you feel that you need to protect it, you already know. Everybody can figured out what it is and what culture is not.

Q: What kind of reception did the book receive when it was published in Quebec last September?

A: I’m really pleased and proud of it, because I think it’s had an impact. I attend public meetings and I hear politicians quoting the book. At the federal level, (Heritage Minister) James Moore is quoting it; sometimes it’s not exactly right, but the intention is good.

Q: Having an impact in Montreal is one thing, but how do you hope the book resonates in cities like Winnipeg or Calgary?

A: I’ve been invited to Winnipeg, and next week I’m going to Calgary to make a big speech. I think everywhere in Canada … you have an artistic community, you have local politicians – some of them really want to become champions of the arts, for good or not so good reasons, but they feel there’s something in it – and you have an arts and culture audience in all the cities. But these people have difficulty talking to each other. And I realized that before writing the book. That has been my career: being a connector between the Francophones, the Anglophones, the arts and the business world. And I realized, when I went to Winnipeg – or when I go to Calgary, I’m sure it will be that same –  it brings all these people in the [same] room, and instead of whining, complaining, protesting, criticizing each other, I try to come with a vision that’s [for] the common good.

Q: One thing that struck me reading this book is that you focus on urban centres; how does this apply to those living in small towns or rural areas?

A: I think the re-invention of culture, and the re-invention of Canada, will come from the major cities, because this is where you see the more profound, fast, impacts of globalization. You don’t see that in small towns. But, as I say at the end of the book, it’s not because … I think it’s not important what’s happening [in small cities], but that in fact what I am arguing is that we should try to reproduce the kind of organic networking that exists in small cities in the major cities. That in fact, we can find a lot of inspiration in those cities.

Q: No Culture, No Future. Do you think that’s an exaggeration?

A: I don’t think I would have written the book without a sense of urgency … I know it’s very direct, but you don’t need 30 minutes to describe the subject (laughs).

Q: I wanted to discuss the “non-audience,” as you call them in the book. This idea that culture attracts a specific segment of the population: the elites, or the intellectuals. How do we convince those people who aren’t culturally engaged – who don’t read books, who don’t go to the theatre, who don’t visit museums – that this is a serious matter?

A: We need to understand that almost everybody in this world, if not everybody, is culturally engaged. Even if they don’t know it. They like some song, they like some artist, they like some picture, they like some TV program – everybody has a connection with culture. It is, most of the time, the mainstream, commercial culture, but that’s the case, and it was not the case 60 years ago. Sixty years ago you had people who had absolutely no contact with anything cultural, and an elite who had privileged access to all that, confirming its power in the society. Today, we live in a different world, and everybody knows what artist means, or culture means … even in the most remote part, their children are watching the cartoons of Walt Disney, and they hear classical music … And I think one thing that is irking the most in the cultural community right now is the disdain for all that. Because even when people don’t want to admit it, they feel like they are privileged. And what I’m arguing in the book is that elite culture, a century ago, or even 50 years ago, [represented] privilege and [was] a sign of power, and a sense of intelligence, and a way to differentiate yourself from the rest of society. That elite culture is the one that is now being marginalized … If we don’t pay attention to it it will just disappear. But the elite itself is not strong enough in the society to protect it. So they have two choices: they abandon it or they die with it, or they really take the responsibly of trying to share it: share that culture with the rest of the population, and try to understand what makes any individual relate to art.

Q: It’s interesting. Art lovers might end up killing what they love.

A: Exactly. You appreciate something, and then you think you’re [smart] because you appreciate it, and if you share it, it will less precious. Which is, I think, completely crazy and dangerous.

Q: You write that we treat artists poorly in two ways. What are they?

A: The way we pay their work is unacceptable, but the lack of recognition of their contributions to society is probably worse. I’m always struck by the fact that every time we do a survey – let’s say the Canada Council – and we ask them ‘What do you want?’ It’s almost equal: some of them say recognition, and better pay.

Q: In terms of compensation, how do you answer critics who say artist will get paid if they’re successful, and we shouldn’t be handing out grants to those who can’t cut it?

A: It’s easy to see that’s untrue, and I’ll give you a very simple example: My own daughter-in-law works in theatre, she’s a theatre designer. When she works in theatre she earns, to do a set in a medium-sized theatre in Montreal, $4,000. When she goes to the Cirque du Soleil – she’s the same artist, and she does the props – she can buy a house after three months of work. And it’s the same artist. I think it has to do with the discipline, it has to do with the market, it has to do with the possibility of reaching a very large audience – it has nothing to do with the validity or the value of the creative content itself. It has completely to do with the economics of culture.  And Cirque du Soleil is paying every year something like $30 million in residuals to artists. I know a lot of those artists because they are theatre people. They are wealthy now. But they were good before they were hired by the Cirque. The Cirque hired them precisely because they were great. But it was impossible for them to make a living, not because of their artistry, but because of the system in which they work. And in fact if the Cirque is the Cirque today, it’s because that sector existed, because you don’t become a major creator like that of set design and visuals and all that without practising your craft, your art. Again, I’m not arguing that we should pour money everywhere, to have more artists. I think the market exists, it’s strong, it can pay the artists and it should pay them. And we also need a subsidized sector, and this subsidized sector should be ruled by the criteria of excellence, because there’s no other criteria. Everybody has the right to be an artist, but nobody has the right to live from his art.

Q: How do you hope the Canada Prizes help culture in this country?

A: It’s really too early to tell. Obviously I think that prizes in a society are important, because they play a symbolic role. They indicate to the population that what this person did is great. This is good art. This is something remarkable. So if the Canada Prizes can play that role, good. I hope they will.

Q: What kind of discussion do you hope this book sparks?

A: Especially in English Canada, I hope it will spark the debate about the limitations of the utilitarian arguments around culture. Again, I think they are useful, but I think it’s really important to go back to things that are more profound, because I think that human beings … relate more to emotion, sentiment, beauty than economic arguments. I think that economic arguments are made for political decision-makers, for bureaucrats. They need them, that’s their job, actually, to craft them. We’ve spent 10 years repeating them, they should know them by now. I think now we need to go back to the fundamentals of what is the human experience. And I really hope that cultural participation will be seen and valued also by the professional artists, and not dismissed. I don’t think art, or excellence, is making any progress by bashing what the rest of the world loves.

No Culture, No Future, by Simon Brault, translated by Jonathan Kaplansky, is published by Cormorant Books [$21].