Sheila Heti and the Myth of Support: Artists, Audiences, and Class from Stratford to Toronto

It’s getting harder to be a creative in this country, but it’s also becoming more difficult to be a paying audience member. In a recent post on Back to the World, Sheila Heti argues that it’s time for “a New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times,” one that will recognize the major support creators in this country get from fellow artists. I would add that when we’re thinking about support for culture in Canada today, we should heed the predicament of audiences, too.

Heti takes issue with the Globe and Mail‘s description of her international literary success as unsupported in Canada. “We live in a place,” she writes,

where the official rewards aren’t so grand, but that means something else happens: Artists slide between mediums, they work on each others’ projects, and new forms emerge. I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show. We put hours into each others’ art, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the only rewards we can count on are the rewards of creating, the pleasures of doing it together, and the satisfaction of being in each other’s audience.

This ethic is essential to the experience of so many Canadian creatives. It’s made The Toronto Review of Books itself possible. But beyond artists’ own communities of peers, other audiences also lack recognition for the support they offer Canadian creators in these belt-tightening times.

The Stratford Festival’s Shakespeare Slam last Tuesday night featured a debate between Torquil Campbell and Adam Gopnik about whether Shakespeare was a “Pop Artist.” The discussion slid off topic and settled on the future of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The men hailed the new twenty-dollar round-trip bus between Toronto and Stratford as possibly the best innovation the festival has seen in a while, which it is. But that bus is not only going to be introducing new people to Shakespeare, as Gopnik seemed to imply. It’s also going to allow well-versed aesthetes without cash for cars to attend, too.

I hope that following Heti’s call for a more realistic “myth” about what Canadian support for the arts means in 2013 will also help us to better understand and appreciate the people who pay attention to the arts in Canada, whether or not they can afford to pay. Our audiences are struggling alongside our artists, and all the varieties of support they nevertheless offer deserve acknowledgement. Sometimes just showing up is a massive effort of support. Sometimes class defines how we think about what a cultural “supporter” looks like in this country. And it shouldn’t.