ALISON REDFORD IS GONE. NOW WHAT FOR THE CALGARY ARTS COMMUNITY?
Many in the arts community felt the sting of Alison Redford's resignation as Premier and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta recently. How could they not? Redford was the candidate that many artists and arts workers threw their weight behind in the 2011 PC leadership race—some going so far as to buy memberships in the party to see her elected—and Redford was the person who made voting strategically for the PC's in the 2012 provincial election palatable. By all accounts, the leadership of Redford was going to resurrect the progressive edge of the party last seen under the stewardship of Peter Lougheed; or better yet, Redford was to do for Alberta what Mayor Nehed Nenshi had done (and continues to do) for Calgary: liberalize the city, demystify the red neck mythology that haunts us all, and unabashedly endorse the arts and cultural industry as an economic engine.
The stick in the eye of the arts community then, is that the backstabbing old-boys of the PC party ran their darling Premier and star political figure out of town. My different social networks were full of artists and "progressives" bemoaning the loss of Alison Redford. A general state of shock and dismay would be a fair analysis. Mayor Nenshi even told reporters and Calgarians that Redford was a nice person. He said that party politics no longer works, because it chews up good people and spits them out. Nenshi is probably right, but his comments allude to a troubling political fad that has its roots in an emerging political process: post-ideological candidates. Nenshi, and my colleagues who worked to have him elected, stress that it is candidates with good ideas, not party affiliations that ought to be supported—good ideas, it is argued, can come from any point on the political spectrum (if a political spectrum even exists under this rubric!). Of course, it is only at the municipal level in Alberta that a candidate can claim a party-free political position and successfully be elected—it is pure economics. The alternative, at least in the mean time, is for post-ideological candidates to borrow the mechanisms of a political party and to seek election. Or in Redford’s case, secure a victory by acting like a nouveau Red Tory to gain support from a coalition of progressives who would, and did, round her up to a post-ideological candidate.
The arts community loves this new political process. Post-ideological candidates tend to be well educated, socially progressive, tolerant, and urban (anybody remember Green Party candidate Chris Turner’s bid for Calgary Centre in the 2012 federal by-election? I do, I voted for him). Like artists, post-ideological candidates are free agents willing to create coalitions among disparate groups to achieve their goals. Collaboration, cross-disciplinary practices, and improvisation are the foundation for problem solving in the new political arena. If partisanship is the problem, then individuality is the antidote. Post-ideological candidates are entrepreneurial in spirit (just like us), promoting the dawn of a new age of unique political expression that will empower even further civic engagement and the emergence of a new political class. But folks, post-ideology is the ideology! It is a script written by the gurus of the “knowledge” or “creative” economy, and post-ideological candidates and their followers are its main actors. The future of politics, through this lens, is wholly grounded in the spirit of creative capitalism; and like post-ideological candidates, this new “politics” gains legitimacy by leading all of us to believe we are radically unique in our individual creative proto-libertarian collectivity. If Calgary artists are dangerous, as Patrick Finn claimed in his 2012 missive about the arts, then we are as equally as gullible (1).
What do we see in these candidates? Many in the arts—and by affiliation, the community in general—align themselves with post-ideological candidates, because artists and arts workers can imagine a different and far more progressive future. A future that post-ideological candidates appear to articulate: community, democracy, equality, creativity, etc. But one lesson to be learned from the community’s support of Redford is that meaning, not language is what is important. We might use the same words to describe our vision for the future, but I don’t believe that artists mean the same thing. Post-ideological candidates, despite their free flowing ideas, are deeply rooted in a creative industry/creative cities doctrine which is itself the manifestation of neoliberal, unfettered capitalism that seeks to flatten the political sphere into a homogenous pulp. Of course partisanship and political positions like “left” and “right” are out dated according to post-ideological candidates: creativity is the great equalizer and oppositional positions are merely entrepreneurial spirit in action. Or more to the point, capitalism has successfully co-opted the language of opposition and sanitized it, making it the favoured verse of post-ideological candidates and politicians.
I suppose I am making many an assumption here about Calgary’s artists and arts workers, none more than we are a particular type of progressive bunch. Essentializing in this way is certainly problematic, but I imagine the arts community as being collectively grounded in socially and spatially democratic practices (why not, if the opposite assumption is that artists are gleeful members of the creative class?). If social democracy is our moral compass, then what the hell is going on here? Why has the arts community willfully worked with candidates and politicians that, when properly scrutinized, fail to hit the socially progressive mark we imagine a future society is built upon? Simply put, power.
Artists, as creative cities huckster Richard Florida described during the 2008 US American Presidential election, are part of “todays ascending economic and political force”. We have become part of a new (elite) political class that post-ideological politicians and political parties must not only recognize, but make the foundation of their support. Without the endorsement of the creative class there is no winning strategy. In short, because of artist’s economic relevance and political affiliations, we finally have a seat at the table…and it feels really good (and tastes good too…so many free lunches!) Put another way, artists have made the very dangerous assumption that the system promulgated by the creative economy actually works for us. And why wouldn’t we? Since the late-nineties artists, arts workers, arts development agencies, politicians, educational institutions, and land developers have touted the great economic importance of the arts and the ability of the arts to strengthen a city’s social fabric (read: downtown core). This is a well rehearsed script that the arts community has internalized and performed throughout the past fifteen years. Have we been duped by our own delusions of grandeur?
If the arts community has gained anything in the past decade from cozying up to politicians, post-ideological candidates, corporations, and developers, it is the illusion of power. We have absolutely failed to recognize that we are up to our necks in the creative cities ideology (look at Calgary Arts Development’s new arts plan for instance…apparently it came from us) (2). By supporting post-ideological candidates we have inadvertently eschewed real social progress in exchange for a weird sense of (creative) class elitism. In the process of being "pulled up" the social and political ladder (without any of the economic benefits, of course!) we have forgotten that we are cultural workers. And here finally is my point: if artists truly want to be dangerous then I suggest we stop voting strategically, we properly scrutinize the candidates we are supporting by holding them up to a socially democratic moral lens, and we strive to strengthen true oppositional forces that could benefit from our creative contributions.
Supporting Alison Redford in her leadership bid and voting PC because the Party, led by Redford, was the lesser of two evils was not courageous. It was a pronouncement by the arts industry that despite twenty-years of making the welfare-state a PC punching bag, that “the arts are doing pretty good”. The strategy was less about keeping the Wildrose out of power, than it was to protect our own perceived “gains”. In our rise as a “creative class” that supports post-ideological candidates we have failed to recognize that we may actually be participating in a class conflict and processes of social inequality or spatial injustice, contrary to our politics (like that time I co-managed the Seafood Market Studio in East Village, remember that!). We need to put our politics on the table to be scrutinized and called into question. In this process, we need ask what our politics means and what we need to be doing differently and with whom we should be working with.
A final question to ask then, is how can cultural workers assist in the making of a new socially democratic civic body in the neoliberal reality? Let me propose this possible future: we tell post-ideological candidates “no” at the risk of our own misguided elitist positions of “power” and instead turn towards the real actors of social democratic force: workers unions, the civil service, teachers, etc. and forge coalitions. Indeed, it is these “boring” vestiges of the welfare-state and their work-a-day members that have maintained actual power while the arts community preoccupied itself with entrepreneurial self-expression (let me remind you that it was workers unions, the civil service, and education that Redford viewed as dangerous and sought to “silence,” not artists) (3). Instead of writing these groups off as being antiquated, perhaps the real potential for a contemporary oppositional power exists in our long-term collaborative efforts. Such a turn to the “traditional left” would certainly mean an identity crisis for the Calgary arts community as we untangle ourselves from the creative industry ideology and shed the privileges that we think we have accrued throughout the past decade. A strong oppositional influence created by collaborative, conceptual, and creative partnerships, I believe will yield many of the same results we would like to see in our society today without the injustices predicated by neoliberalism’s social and spatial policies. I encourage my colleagues in the arts community to think creatively about how we can work with other socially democratic groups to refashion old, or bring new ways of working, into the world.