Saturday, July 27, 2013

Theatre For Thought, July 27, 2013

joel fishbane

A controversial sex show is “shocking” audiences at the Winnipeg Fringe according to a recent report from CBC. Hollywood Hen Pit is an improvisational show concerning the life of an aging Hollywood starlet. Performed by two nude actors (Doug Melnyk and Ian Mozdzen), the show features simulated oral sex and actual enemas, reportedly involving mayonnaise. If the comments page on CBC is to be believed, the really “shocking” part of Hollywood Hen Pit isn’t the content of the show; rather, it’s the idea that tax payer money may in some way be responsible for the show’s existence.

This has become a quintessentially Canadian argument – our arts system is primarily funded by the government through grants and taxpayers naturally begin to complain how their tax dollars are being used. The Department of Canadian Heritage is currently funding projects that “foster greater awareness and understanding among Canadians of the importance of the War of 1812 in our history” – ignoring those of us who think the War of 1812 has no part in our history. Meanwhile, back in 2011, a major controversy sprung up around Toronto’s SummerWork’s Festival when the Toronto Sun wrote a series of editorials criticizing the festival for including a play (Homegrown by Catherine Frid) that, in the Sun’s opinion, glorified terrorism.

The Canadian government is no doubt watching this British experiment

This is not an argument that is going away any time soon. As long as artists rely on government funding, taxpayers will continue to complain about the sort of art that we produce. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: if we expect our government to fund the arts, we cannot be surprised when they start to censor it. 

And lo, to prove my point, we have only to look across the pond where a startling thing is happening in the United Kingdom. While most people were focused on the birth of the royal baby, the British government announced that new policies will require Internet users to “opt-in” if they want access to online pornography – by default, online sex will no longer be available in the U.K. 

The question of what exactly constitutes pornography remains murky. Should a British artist create work that pushes the envelope – something along the lines of Hollywood Hen Pit – they may now find that their work is not readily available online. The British arts system is, of course, the model for our own. British artists rely on government funding and they may now choose to create more conservative work to ensure they both get their money and their websites are not blocked. 

It’s a problem which has the flavour of censorship, even though it’s masked behind a desire to “ensure children are spared the ‘corroding’ influence of pornography.”  If artists start to censor themselves to please some government body, we enter a murky world where freedom of speech doesn’t truly exist.

The Canadian government is no doubt watching this British experiment as closely as the rest of us were watching Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. The Harper regime has made it clear that they’d rather fund art that promotes their own agenda – the funding for projects commemorating the War of 1812 is already the most pressing case in point. Should these new laws prove a success, it won’t be surprising if a similar bill is proposed in the House of Commons.

All this is worrisome from an artistic standpoint, especially given how dedicated Canadian artists are to living off government funding. It may be that Canadian artists will be forced to turn to private means of funding their projects, much like our American neighbours; it may be that it is the only way to ensure that political agendas will never have a say in what sort of art we choose to produce. 

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