Pellerin: Ottawa’s cultural policy needs to shock and challenge us

Opinion by Brigitte Pellerin

Image by ArtTower: Title: Statues, Woman, Bronze

The City of Ottawa wants to know what culture means to us. I have things to say, and they’re not about hockey.

Look, I know everyone is excited by the big news in the sportspuck world, what with the Stanley Cup and — oh yeah, someone other than Ryan Reynolds buying the Senators. I know, living in North America, that people conflate entertainment with culture rather too easily. But they are not the same. The former is included in the latter like gooey cheese in a scalding calzone. But it’s far from the most important ingredient.

Entertainment amuses, delights and sometimes frustrates you, especially when your team stinks. It’s typically expensive but when done well, it allows you to forget about your problems for a few hours. It very much has its place, like cheese. But culture is much bigger than even the best pizza pocket.

From long before the Lascaux cave paintings , culture has sought to give meaning to the human condition. You know, that thing without which we’re reduced to automatons content to earn enough money to go shopping.

Culture makes us even better than sentient. It makes us sapient — yes, as in homo sapiens. We like to think this thirst for knowledge and wisdom is what sets us apart from other life forms. Culture (and education) is how we get there.

The City of Ottawa’s Cultural Funding Framework, which is used to determine how cultural funding and awards programs are administered, is 20 years old. It’s time for a little dusting off, and we are being asked for our thoughts .

One thing I like very much about the current Framework, that I hope will remain, is the priority assessors give to applications from Anishinabe Algonquin Nation, First Nations, Inuit, Métis, IBPOC (Indigenous, Black, people of colour), people with visible and invisible disabilities, non-ambulatory persons, D/deaf people, refugees / immigrants / newcomers, 2SLGBTQIA, people living in poverty, rural residents, francophones, older adults, women+ and youth.

As the city notes in its press release, a lot has changed in this town since 2002. For one thing, we are more conscious of our diversity now than we were then. And of the need to use culture and the arts to help advance reconciliation.

Ottawa is very good at celebrating happy things, such as ribs and tulips. Festivals are fun, don’t get me wrong. But while they do a good job of highlighting particular cultures, they’re a little too easy on us. They don’t force us to confront anything, except maybe heartburn. I love Polish sausage as much as the next carnivore, but there’s ain’t much sapience in that casing.

We have amazing art and artists in our town. Where we fall short is in promoting the kind of art that is, by intent, shocking and challenging. Art that is so compelling that people can’t walk by without stopping to think, reflect and maybe even change their mind about something.

Banksy is, as far as I’m concerned, the gold standard in that field. Nobody is indifferent to their art. The Maman sculpture in front of the National Gallery is pretty good too. But unless I’m missing something (and do please let me know if I am), we don’t have very much of that kind of art in Ottawa. We tend to default to the bland and the safe. Art that comforts, not confronts. We need to flip that equation in favour of stuff that grabs you by the belly button and makes you gasp.

The current priorities of the Cultural Funding Framework are fine and good. My ask is that we make more of an effort to prioritize art and culture that change people’s hearts and minds, or at least force them to think in ways they’re not used to.

That is what our cultural policy should aim to do. Yank us towards the sapience that makes us the best bipeds we can be.

Brigitte Pellerin (they/them) is an Ottawa writer.

Source: Ottawa Citizen