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A more dangerous vulture.

Culture Vultures. These two words used to refer, in a snidely insulting way, to people who descended on "artsy" events - plays, ballet performances, art openings - in a flurry of black dresses and cologne. The term could also describe people who rushed from one museum or art gallery to another, glaring intently at works defined by other people as "important." The culture vulture was a vulture because he or she did not take the time to find out what about art or cultural activity was really meaningful or important to him or herself. Instead, the culture vulture followed the lead of others, picking bits and pieces from whatever body of work was identified as worthwhile. Culture vultures were usually thought of as rich and shallow. They were not nasty or threatening, just silly.

Now, though, there are culture vultures of a different sort among us. They are in provincial and federal governments, and their particular brand of scavenging is no joke. The culture vultures of days gone by were funny and harmless in their desperate wish to be seen in the right cultural places. Classic vultures often may not have understood or even have liked the performance, poem, or painting that they raved over. It was the atmosphere of romance and mystery, of creative capital, that drew the vultures. The person who gushed insincerely over whatever work of art was being launched amid canapes and white wine wanted something from the artist, not the art.

Though there is a grimness of purpose to these new vultures that the clear old artsy birds never had, both groups seem strangely drawn to cultural institutions and the arts. The new breed of culture vultures, however, does not believe in artist worship. This is not a bad thing, since mystification of art and the people who make it is certainly not what we need. The trouble is, the government vultures have gone to the other extreme, tearing into funding for arts and culture with a passion that suggests an intense dislike and distrust of artists and all they produce.

It's hard to tell if this dislike is born of a suspicion about things like rhyme, colour, and movement that do not conform to the laws of supply and demand. It could also be that some governments are getting their own back after being sneered at by a poet, caricatured by an artist, or lampooned in a song. Maybe we are now governed by people who really believe that everything that does not have definite market value, like finger-painting, has no place in the nouveau-riche economy. In a world of performance indicators, sonnets haven't got a hope in hell.

Scavengers, by definition, do not kill their own prey. They wait until something else - attrition, Free Trade, previous government policy - has weakened the creature beyond recovery. And long before the National Film Board or Coach House Press or some other organization actually stops breathing, you can see the vultures circling in the air, waiting. When the time is right, they land, moving in on the carcass of what used to be the CBC or the Quebec Community Network, or French-language broadcasting in Manitoba to pick off whatever chunks of flesh might still be used to feed their endless corporate tax deferments, or their national unity offices.

While it may be tempting to long for the days when vintage culture vultures filled theatre lobbies with air-kisses and weak handshakes, that's not the antidote to this new anti-cultural viciousness. Instead we need to speak about what a real popular culture - in Raymond Williams' sense of the word "popular" as made by the people for themselves - looks, sounds, and feels like. Otherwise the vultures will continue to circle and land on what we have fashioned for ourselves. And vultures can mean only one thing: death is near.

Brenda Austin-Smith lives, teaches and writes in Lennoxville, Quebec
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Title Annotation:Canadian cultural policy
Author:Austin-Smith, Brenda
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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