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A Future in the Face of Cultural Cuts

Trudy Chapman

another Canadian institution has gone the way of the dodo. To serve the bottom line, Saturday Night magazine was recently closed by the National Post under their new owners CanWest Global. CanWest also did away with the arts, sports and Toronto sections of The Post. This has been a shocking loss of voices on our national landscape.

There has been much rending of cloths and lamenting the loss of this cultural icon among the Canadian artistic community, and rightly so. Whenever a piece of our past is lost, we lose a small piece of ourselves.

At the same time, however, depending on your perspective, the glass could be half full, not half empty. Rather than looking over our shoulders and living in the past, we must take this opportunity to rebuild in different ways that sense of identity and culture that comes from artistic endeavour.

As a mental defense against the recent events in the US, I have started reading The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies. It is oddly comforting to immerse myself into the pretensions of the past, and the values placed on Culture, Taste and Manners. But it has also made me reflect on those as values long since passed over by our current way of life.

Saturday Night magazine was established in 1887 as gossipy summary of current affairs and arts aimed at Toronto's upper crust. Over time, the magazine expanded its mandate to include opinion and other Canadian content.

The magazine was set up during the time when a classical education was valued. Educated people read widely and treasured music and other arts. If you believe Robertson Davies, even come the turn of the century people would fling out quotes from well known philosophers or poets, as much to show off their own intelligence as to make a point. Such was also the case with people in business, who were often part of that high society. Those business people often stepped in to act as patron of an artist. They would sponsor a promising student at university, often one who would not be able to go otherwise. For whatever reason, be it peer pressure or a commitment to their local community, there existed a connection between the business person and the outside world. The wealthy gave of their largess.

Today's business people are cut of a different cloth. This is, in my mind, a transition that has happened over time. People in business today are more likely to toss around stock prices and the name of their newest high tech find than they are likely to quote Shakespeare or hum a bit of Purcell. Just like the passage of good manners and charity, the reading of fine literature and challenging philosophical ideas seems a thing of the past. With this decline in Culture has come a diminishing of philanthropy. This is not meant to take away from those who continue to give, but rather to point out they are fewer in number than before.

All this means that Canadian culture needs to find ways to appeal to a broader cross-section of society. Conrad Black, as much as I did not appreciate his point of view and editorial policy, may well be the last patron of the arts to step up and take on a money losing venture in the name of Culture. Putting aside his quarrel with our Prime Minister, I believe Black tried to balance the arts with the bottom line, and, ultimately, lost; for the arts cease to be recognized as having value. The only ones with a stake in the arts anymore are the artists themselves.

The result is that artists must come up with another way of portraying our rich way of life. As a group, we must find some way of having society and business value us again, so we may regain those patrons who are able to pay the bills, or better, create a way of doing things that pays for itself.

This will require thinking outside the box. E-zines like Cancon are on the leading edge of what can be done. They maintain the diversity of voices, and in time, may even figure out how to make a profit. Digital media businesses can help artists exist and thrive on the Internet, removing costs of galleries and ink at the same time as providing new artistic possibilities.

The loss of our past is very sad. But we must learn why institutions like Saturday Night failed and moved effectively beyond that loss to create a new and vibrant future. Electronic tools are emerging to make that happen. As artists, we need to be able to pick up those tools and forge ahead. Otherwise, we as a culture will disappear. And that would be a bigger shame than the loss of a 114-year-old magazine.

Trudy Chapman is a freelance journalist living and working in Toronto.

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