Mass Storytelling

paulo da costa



Sunday morning in my neighbourhood.

Cars pull into parking lots and doors slam shut. This domino of bangs echoes a timeless, proverbial Big Bang of life-changing events. The amiable people exchange smiles and jovial greetings as they stroll with purpose to their varied gatherings of devotion. In high-ceilinged buildings they will soon congregate and listen to stories of creation, parables of morality, illustrations on righteous conduct. They will sing hymns of worship and pray recurrent supplications for health, wealth and peace.

On the radio, after having rescued the greedy, bankrupt bankers and the automobile barons, another politician extols the value of the goods economy and the economy of good value, while emphasizing the necessity to channel public funds in support of the real economy. I understand the allure of buildings, highways, bridges, automobiles in day-to-day existence. The benefit of such hard-set, long-lasting molecules in constant sight requires no budgetary convincing from politicians. Considering that, in modern nations, CEOs are the ghost writers of the political discourse, the government minister preaches his economic homily on behalf of resource economy executives while justifying another round of cuts to the arts sector, ending “wasteful subsidies for intellectual and artistic privilege.” Artists’ contributions are subjective, often immaterial, rarely understood. Under his realistic government policies no more fat will pad the cushy life of artistic creation. Were I not in Canada, I might have thought I had travelled back in time to Maos China or the Khmer Rouges Cambodia where denigrating and persecuting artists became a fashionable form of target practice. Wait, I was in Canada, with a view of a red maple flag snapping loudly outside the elementary school located across my front door.

Ideology is a charging beast with chopped ears and easy words of advice. A raging bull of self-righteousness on a mission does not listen, sees no red in flags or in flapping capotes hiding the deadly muletas of matadores. For a moment, I consider contacting the radio studio to remind this minister that unlike in politics, the fat of material success remains a rare jackpot in art, and more often than not, wealth arises to those who profit from the posthumous commerce of an artist’s fame. Shock more than meditation has trained me to pause and watch the thirty-second train of useless thoughts running over political airtime cliffs; cynicism has taught me that shouting words make little difference to those in power, except on occasion, to break the spell of those hypnotized by the charming promises of the powerful. Instead, I laugh, preserve my precious creative time and decide to speak up on the page, that forum located outside the firing squad of the thirty-second sound byte of incomplete thought. The minister will press his words on the wounded art sector: “A relic from fatter times, art must prove its worth in the market place, stand up for itself and sell.” In my own mental radio show I tell the minister, “Your flavour of political philosophy has not stopped ministers from handing out indirect subsidies to certain private enterprises, from dispensing concessions, research grants or start-up subsidies to a selected few or to grant bottled water companies licences to sell us what was already ours.” An exception to his ideology of “each standing for itself” applies to most industries in this country. Subsidized stumpage fees for forestry, gas and exploration grants and credits, financial bailouts to big industry. In a minister’s mind the money offered to industry represents an investment while money offered to writers represents a handout, a subsistence grant akin to a social program for artists. Hey, who said logic is necessary in the political circus? In the politics of demagogy the art of convincing takes precedence; or generating sufficient background noise to distract, to cover up badly told stories and faulty logic, allows politicians and ministers to get away with indirect murder and a fatter bank account. No Sherlock Holmes mystery in this plot.

Government ministers used to be assigned a portfolio close to their heart. Often artists themselves, with insight into the value of the cultural sector, defended the existence and promotion of culture, suggested policy that safeguarded culture from other clashing interests vying for a share of the cabinet cake. A minister used to be an advocate of his or her cultural portfolio; they used to be a visionary shepherd of the arts. Are ministers now selected for their antagonism to the arts sector? Having their interests and affiliations positioned outside culture, they have become allied to competing interests. Ministers arrive as wolves arrive in a flock?in sheeps skins, soft steps and honeyed words. They arrive to slaughter and pillage.

A minstrel is not a minister, although a minstrel can sometimes be as entertaining, and on the one-dimensional glass screen, the minstrel and the minister become indistinguishable to those who cannot spell. The lean axe has been scraping an artist’s bone or chopping their neck from the beginning of time. I have never smelled, nor do I long to smell, the fat of feasts or desserts politicians and industrialists feast on weekly under our tax payer’s tab or the deductible loophole of a business meeting; which is to say you and I are subsidizing it either way.

In older times, too, minstrels and storytellers performed for their dinner, but not before everyone else had eaten and been entertained during their meal. Artists are not served first. This remains true in any restaurant that serves food and offers complimentary live music, including political banquets with dignitaries. No, the dignitaries are not the artists. From the beginning of luxurious times, the artists were not considered part of the aristocratic classes of generals and priests, offered chests of gold, country estates or secluded islands as a reward for their services. A certain storyteller of fame was forced to generate a thousand and one nights of stories in order to preserve her neck. I pretend to tell stories to voice the truth; this minister pretends to speak the truth while telling me stories.

The minister holds not the sole responsibility as our candy man, pusher of words and seller of illusions. Remember, it takes two to tango and be taken for a spin. The minister voices everything many want to hear. I would be to blame if I bought it. I am in the line of work of telling the minister and everyone else what they do not want to hear, in contrast to these opportunistic storytellers in the political theatre who spin stories to preserve power, accumulate privilege and reap handsome rewards. Ask a cabinet speech writer who works for the plump actors of parliament and writes what they are ordered to write. I fail to remember a story or parable where, in the span of hundred and one days, a minister or a chief executive must deliver an affordable solar-powered vehicle for the masses in order to preserve their head.


essay excerpt ©2005paulodacosta


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