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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

State of the Arts

Max Wyman makes his case

Marlo Alexandra Burks

The Compassionate Imagination: How the Arts Are Central to a Functioning Democracy

Max Wyman

Cormorant Books

232 pages, softcover and ebook

My nearly two decades in Canada have made me fairly familiar with our national penchant for self-deprecation. Still, when I recently began preparation for my citizenship test, I was disheartened by the official study guide’s thin “Arts and Culture” section and flummoxed by its gaps. Our writers? Neither Margaret Atwood nor Alice Munro is among the “men and women of letters” mentioned in the sixty-odd pages of Discover Canada, though Louis Hémon and Charles G. D. Roberts are. And our musicians? R. Murray Schafer must be there, I thought. Nathaniel Dett, too. Surely, Leonard Cohen. Alas, no. Prophets in their own country, I suppose.

By coincidence, the Vancouver writer Max Wyman’s The Compassionate Imagination was published around the same time that I received my test dates from Ottawa. As I read my citizenship study guide in tandem with the veteran commentator’s seventh book on the arts in Canada, I was struck by his diagnosis of my disappointment. Wyman — also an immigrant — observes in his first full chapter “how perfunctory Canada’s own acknowledgement” of its cultural accomplishments has been, “as if there’s something shameful and un-Canadian about what art does.” Moreover, he points to a deeply ingrained view that “culture is a dispensable frill.” To be taken seriously at the national level, arts and culture have to be shown to serve economic and social aims (as was made clear at the National Culture Summit in May 2022, Wyman argues). It’s hard to overcome such a mentality, and the author himself stresses art’s contributions to civic pride, sense of place, diversity and inclusion, and even reduced demand on the health care system.

Wyman goes on to marshal an array of familiar arguments in defence of art: It can “jar us out of complacency and stale thinking,” he argues. It can bring us “into contact with values and standards that are timeless,” among them “­justice, decency, balance, everything that is fine and true about the human condition.” And it can inspire compassion and show us “the humanity in the Other.” Wyman’s rich humanistic education and his faith that art has a capacity to heal mental and social ailments underpin his call for a new Canadian Cultural Contract: a sort of policy initiative (though it’s never defined as such) intended to give the “visionary ferment” of our “diverse creative community a place at the decision-making table as we seek solutions to the stark challenges of our time.”

But if readers are expecting a logical argument for “how the arts are central to a functioning democracy,” as Wyman’s subtitle has it, they will be disappointed, for a few reasons. First, the book gives little space to the “how” and instead relies heavily on general exhortations like “the ethical individual should always act from a position of goodness and compassion.” Even if readers agree with the sentiment, Wyman doesn’t show us how such behaviour can be assured or what it actually looks like. General tenets tend to break down at the level of the particular, and it may well be impossible to agree on what constitutes acts of “­goodness” and “compassion” in a specific political context.

Second, Wyman frequently argues by assertion and analogy. He maintains that artists have skills that would be useful in policy development — especially the ability to think in a non-linear fashion and imagine other points of view. These capacities are not the sole purview of creatives, of course, nor do they necessarily transfer seamlessly to policy debates. Even if art can awaken compassion and engage the imagination, that’s no guarantee audience members or artists will act in support of democratic principles. There are plenty of gifted creators whose powers of imagination did not translate into goodness and compassion (consider the “Wagner problem”), just as countless great artworks were produced under authoritarian regimes and even in celebration of those regimes (Virgil’s Aeneid, for example, or Shakespeare’s Henry V). The Compassionate Imagination deals with none of this.

Third, when Wyman does offer quantitative evidence, it’s highly selective. He cites studies that suggest art is an effective deterrent against substance abuse in young people, for instance, but he ignores other studies that show art students are more likely to have such problems. (Toronto’s Rosedale Heights, many teenagers will tell you, is known as “the arts and drugs school.”) Wyman also points to the so called Mozart Effect and research that indicates the composer’s music “improved students’ ability to solve math problems.” Yet lots of other scholars have found no correlation. Then there’s Wyman’s reference to “the notion that the rational functions of the brain — the aspects controlled by the left hemisphere — have been allowed to crowd out the intuitive, leading us to prioritize economic growth over human fulfillment.” Neuroscientists caution that lateralization of brain function isn’t fully understood; to make sociological claims about hemispheric dominance seems rash.

If Wyman had engaged more with challenges to his arguments, The Compassionate Imagination would have come closer to fulfilling its subtitle’s promise. Still, the book is worth reading because it does something rather special: it celebrates Canadian arts and offers ideas to promote their continued cultivation. Wyman’s command of this country’s dance scene, for one, is impressive, and his enthusiasm for the variety and calibre of projects is infectious. Moreover, if we do presume the arts should occupy a more central position in our country’s future, Wyman has some very good, very practical ideas for how to achieve that goal. In particular, his recommendation that we “rebalance the scales of our education systems, affirming the role of the humanities alongside the sciences in educating the whole person,” seems eminently achievable and could help instill in young Canadians the faculties of appreciation and discernment. And his proposed Canadian Cultural Credit — a fund to ensure people can purchase books, tickets, and instruments and can generally “become involved with creative activity in the community”— could challenge the view that art is somehow un Canadian. Wyman emphasizes how access should itself be democratized by celebrating both professional excellence and amateur activity.

For now, ours remains very much the kind of country Robertson Davies depicted satirically in What’s Bred in the Bone (the other book I was reading while studying for my citizenship test). In that novel, when a bunch of politicians learn that millions of dollars have been promised for the “acquirement of pictures — pictures, for God’s sake — they burst into flames of indignation” and the Minister of the Crown must confess that, despite her love of art, “there were times when even she had to regard art as a frill.”

The Compassionate Imagination was a finalist for the 2023 Balsillie Prize for Public Policy, which surely helped sales. If all those copies can somehow shift the debate, ours will be a better country for it. But the study guide for the Canadian citizenship test would have to be updated.

Marlo Alexandra Burks is the author of Aesthetic Dilemmas and a former editor with the magazine.

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