Politics: Artistic License

Harper Ma Piano NAC 20091003

photo: Globe and Mail (

Only because it makes me shake my head and sigh in both frustration and astonishment do I relish the opportunity to speak about how Stephen Harper sung and poked at the piano at the National Arts Centre gala last week. Again, here we have Canadians and national media marvelling at a carefully orchestrated (no pun intended) PR tactic. Amazingly, it works.

What are we, a herd of sheep? Politicians think so. And we know that. Yet it continues.

Last week, Stephen Harper took an opportunity to sit behind a piano at Canada’s NAC gala to play and sing a Beetles’ tune. Frankly, I don’t care that he did well, or “invited us into his personality” or whatever. It’s all a sham anyway; it’s all calculated and planned, and considered, and surely debated about before he gets up there and does it. “Would it reflect positively?” “What would it mean in the polls?” “What if he sings poorly?” I’m sorry to be so blunt, but those of you that think this was spontaneous, or even last-minute, without the collaborative thoughts of his aides, are fools.

I’m not sure what upsets me more about this: the fact that he has the gaul to sing for an enthusiastic arts crowd and stand in front of artists who are forced to smile, applaud and share space with him despite the fact that this is the same PM who’s cut more than $45 million in arts funding just in the last year (and called arts supporters “elitists”); or the fact that the audience, who are largely enormous benefactors of the arts industry or are otherwise engaged in the arts community, would actually give him a standing ovation?

Thus, my frustration is mired in either the arrogant and conniving false imagery the Prime Minister is perpetrating, or the ignorant and abstinent idiocy of the crowd. Bravo to those who did not stand or applaud for him. Shame on him and his staff for playing the orchestra and crowd like puppets for their own political gain.

It’s a self-perpetuating vicious circle that we exist within: Canadians aren’t involved nor care about politics, thus our politicians play us for fools. Our politicians play us for fools because we aren’t involved nor care about politics. Meanwhile, whichever party can muster up enough support to earn a minority can take over parliament, blame the opposition for a lack of progress, and quietly pass legislation that impacts us greatly over the long term. Sometimes the disconnect between the Canadian public and politics gives me the most acute of frustrations – very nearly a feeling of hopelessness. COME ON PEOPLE.

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  1. I am torn. I absolutely agree. But because of my day job, there is also a part of me that sees this as an opportunity for the value of the arts to be recognized and appreciated by mainstream society. The symbolic value of a story like this in the news translates to many as “Hm, that sounds interesting. I’ve never thought of myself as an arts person, but that might be fun.” Or, “I’ve heard about the National Arts Centre. I should really check that out.” Or, “The Prime Minister is participating in this event. The arts are important to Canada.” So, when it comes to advancing public perception of the value of the arts to Canadian society, it’s not a terrible thing for the PM to play a tune and get people excited about that. Also, there’s a tiny piece of him that must be changed for the better by the experience – performing on stage, taking a moment to step outside his normal realm into a space of performance, of being on stage in front of an audience, of being a musician alongside other musicians. Perhaps that will enable slightly more conscious decision making about the government’s cultural policies in the future.

    HOWEVER, there is an election coming sometime. Maybe not right away, but surely soon. And why didn’t the Conservatives win a majority last time? The major gaffe from Steve-o about the arts being elitist, not something that “normal” Canadians appreciate, was a lightning rod in Quebec and for arts-friendly voters everywhere. No doubt about it that this is a PR move. Well orchestrated and surely driven by political motives.

    The giveaway for me is the belly. You’ve probably noticed that real arts lovers, real artists, don’t go around flaunting the paunch. Smacks of an overweight politician trying to score a quick win.


  2. Quick win indeed. And it seems he has won. The press is all too enthusiastic for an easy story.


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