So… What Does Your Government Do With Culture?

So often, asking people about culture is like asking a fish “How’s the water?” (The answer you’ll get is “What’s water?”) but it’s still useful to ask the question and, sometimes, you get interesting answers.

This time I’m wondering about ways your country’s government promoted the enrichment of culture and I think the best way to jog people’s memories is to give a bunch of examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Everyone’s at least heard of government grant programs in the abstract (and Canada does have those. They’ve been instrumental in the creation of indie games I love, like Guacamelee, and shows like Mayday, a long-running docudrama series nominated for many awards which, unlike so many American ones, remembers that air crash investigations are detective stories first and human drama second)

Can you think of any “thanks to” credits for other government agencies or programs that show up in the credits of your favourite shows or on the websites of your favourite games?

…but, still, that’s kind of an obvious way to do it. What about stuff that’s less overtly “government promoting culture”?

Next down the progression of obviousness, there’s public broadcasting. Like the U.K., Canada has a public broadcaster (the CBC). It does produce excellent content of its own, such as the radio programs Quirks & Quarks and Because News (also available as podcasts), and it has adapted well to the Internet era (in addition to podcasts and the like, they also do print articles now), but it was actually ahead of its time. For quite a while before YouTube came around, you used to be able to watch complete archives of shows like Royal Canadian Air Farce on the CBC website in RealVideo format.

The U.K. actually has more than one public broadcaster. For everyone who knows about the BBC, how many of you know that Channel 4 (of Time Team fame) is also government-owned?

… but encountering your public broadcaster while channel-surfing is still too obvious. Let’s go deeper.

For example, since 1961, the CBC has been part of a partnership with House of Anansi Press and the University of Toronto to produce the Massey Lectures. If you like TED Talks, check them out. (I especially recommend Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose To Live Inside from 1985. It’s an amazing talk about human psychology that’s more relevant than ever, you can listen to it online for free, and, to my embarrassment, I didn’t know about it until the print version was assigned to me as reading in university.)

Can you think of anything your government contributes resources to along these lines? Recurring cultural events?

…how about PSAs that go beyond just being practical and help to spread culture? When I was a child, I don’t remember CBC television having commercials… though it’s possible they just had a reduced supply of them. The important thing is, their shows were formatted to leave room for a normal number of commercials. …so how did they fill that time?

Some other channels, such as the Family Channel (a kids channel which used to be commercial-free), filled the time with random pop music videos, but CBC did something a little more appropriate… they filled the time with shorts provided by other government-backed cultural enterprises like the National Film Board of Canada, and Canadian Heritage Minutes. Anyone who grew up in Canada is likely to fondly remember these things, so I’d say it was hugely effective.

Like so many kids, I forgot most of what I learned in history class, but I still remember about the amusing origin of the name Canada, the Halifax explosion, and the origin of Winnie the Pooh.

Likewise, what kid would know about Wade Hemsworth’s music if not for classic animated shorts like The Log Driver’s Waltz and The Blackfly Song produced by The National Film Board of Canada? (Not to mention the classic cartoon version of The Cat Came Back?)

Can you think of anything this engaging that your government actively produced or did they stick to purely functional pieces like Duck and Cover? (I’ll also accept stuff that isn’t distinctive to your local culture, but demonstrates that PSAs can be entertainment in their own right, such as Australia’s Dumb Ways to Die.)

Anyway, now we get to the stuff you take most for granted.

When I was a kid and I occasionally saw American money, I’d think “Huh. American money is ugly.” Much later, my father brought home a bunch of European coins. To my surprise, it turns out that it’s not that American money is ugly… it’s that Canadian money is uncommonly artistic. Of all the money I saw, the only other country with comparably beautiful coinage was Ireland. Don’t believe me? Scroll down to the pictures on these pages. (Note: I linked to pre-Euro Irish currency because that’s what I saw.)

The U.S., the U.K., Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany… every other coin I saw had some boring piece of patriotic imagery or maybe a coat of arms, while Canadian and Irish coins were beautiful expressions of the culture of the nation in question. (Don’t believe me? Here’s the Canadian 50 dollar bill from 2004… that imagery commemorating The Famous Five wasn’t a special commemorative bill. That was the normal fifty.)

It makes it look as if all those cultures have deep insecurities, so they’re “compensating for something” with their patriotic imagery. It’s such a given that I love my country that, for most of my life, I never understood the point of putting up a Canadian flag on a non-government property. Why plaster the same patriotic imagery everywhere like graffiti when you can instead be expressing yourself, either by creating your own art or by displaying other people’s art which speaks to your sense of aesthetics.

…but enough of that tangent. Another example would be the Canadian flag. No tiny details like on Mexico’s flag, but still with more artistry recognizable to the common person than all those flags made of coloured rectangles and/or stars. (I’m not singling the U.S. out here. Look at France, the U.K., Russia, and countless other countries.)

It just seems like counties get boring when the topic of government art comes around. The only other flags that readily come to mind as having that kind of elegance are the Japanese and South Korean flags and the fern iconography that showed up in the New Zealand flag referendums.

…or, for that matter, look at the elegance of the T-130 wordmark [2] used on official Canadian government documents and signage, such as equally elegant T-605 primary identification signs.)

If you’re going to see something in so many places, why is it such a rare idea for government decision makers to grasp that it should be as aesthetically satisfying as possible?

It took me years to notice these things, so I’m really curious to see examples where Canada is the boring one and I’m just taking it for granted that thing X and thing Y are boring. (Does anyone have a really interesting national anthem? Canada’s seems to be just as boring as the American and Australian ones.)

CC BY-SA 4.0 So… What Does Your Government Do With Culture? by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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