Why bother? A response to a question

For the last few months, I’ve been helping to organize a project as a tribute to Chris Reimer, a friend of mine who passed away in 2012. It’s officially taking place through the not-for-profit where I work, the Quickdraw Animation Society, but most of the organizing has happened outside of office hours, and with help from Chris’s family and friends, all volunteering to help make it happen.

It’s not a big project, but I’ve definitely been pushing it out and trying to get some attention—mostly because I want to make sure that anyone who’d be interested in taking part has a chance to find out about it. And I guess that any time you put something out into the world, you invite criticism. Even when you believe that what you’re doing is good, or at the very least harmless. Doing anything invites criticism.

I received an email the other day about it. Keep in mind, Quickdraw is a not-for-profit, a charity, and we do receive government funding. That’s another thing that opens you up to criticism. People worry about how their tax money is spent, and it’s understandable to question whether it’s being wasted. Some people think arts funding is a waste of resources. Some people think a lot of things are wastes of resources.

The email asked two things: Why would I waste time and energy paying tribute to a musician that no one has heard of, and how do I justify the fact that taxpayer dollars are going towards that tribute. The first question stings, not because I agree in any way that it’s a waste of time, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about nearly every project I take on. It’s belittling. It tells me that things I care about don’t matter, because they don’t matter to the person asking the question. So I move on.

The second question is a complicated one. I think about a broader version of it all the time: Why do not-for-profits receive funding? What makes art special enough to separate it from the market that is supposed to control everything else? Well, outside of education, mostly. And health care. Infrastructure. Public services. Subsidies for major industries. I’m digressing.

I justify it to myself in a lot of ways. Right now, Quickdraw is running a program that’s providing training and, eventually, job placement for aboriginal youth, using animation to teach a variety of skills. We’ve run the program a number of times, and some of the participants have even gone on to careers in animation. We’ve helped produce and showcase new Canadian art, which is the Canada Council’s mandate. We educate kids. We provide resources for anyone who wants to learn about animation. I’ve only been involved for somewhere under a year, but I can honestly say, the place has done some pretty impressive things. If I were put on the spot, I’d have very little difficulty justifying what Quickdraw does.

But it’s the first part of the question that I feel like I have to respond to, and I feel like if I respond directly, it’ll just be anger. I should point out, the person who wrote me used their real name, which I can at least respect. Asking a question like that anonymously would seem like trolling. Standing behind it may seem callous, but at least it’s honest.

It’s the presupposition in the question, the implicit statement that “your dead friend is worthless because I haven’t heard of him,” that I don’t know at all how to respond to. If he were a celebrity, would the modest resources we’re putting into the tribute be justified? If I had to guess, I doubt that’d make a difference. He wasn’t, though; just an artist, someone who made an impact on a local community, and did find a following internationally—Women’s two albums and constant touring made them a fixture in indie rock magazines and blogs, and the Dodos, the San Francisco duo that Chris joined as touring guitar player, are hardly unknown—but didn’t break through into a broader culture.

He was on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon once. That seemed exciting.

The question is still there, though. Why. Why put time and energy into a tribute to someone who only one in a hundred people might recognize? Especially when the format of the tribute—an independent animated short—isn’t likely to boost his profile outside the same cultural circles where he’s already known. Why bother?

Is caring enough of a justification? The project exists because I heard a song, felt a loss, and thought of a way to turn that feeling towards something productive. I ran the idea by some people. They agreed it was worth pursuing. I thought it might help some others deal with similar feelings in some small way. And, I’m genuinely curious how it’ll turn out. I like seeing what other people create. Seeing what other people create is how I spend a sizable portion of my time.

Is community a justification? I don’t consider myself an artist, but I consider myself part of the arts community. It’s not a particularly big community in Calgary, and I’ve had many conversations about the worry that it’s insular, that it’s self-serving, that it can be too unconcerned with being approachable and accessible. At the same time, I love this community. There are people here who are making work that has profoundly affected who I am. There are people here who are incredibly warm and giving, who have the same concerns, who want nothing more than to do something meaningful, or beautiful. If members of that community want to recognize one of their own, is that insular? Maybe. But it’s also part of being a community. If we don’t care about the people making art in this city, who will?

Creativity alone might be enough of a justification. Part of our mandate is the production of new Canadian media art. Take Chris out of the picture, and you have a project that asks people to collaboratively interpret a song visually. Take a dozen or two talented artists from around the world and ask them to make something interesting, based on the work of a Canadian artist. Show it to anyone who cares to see it. Maybe they’ll like it, and maybe they won’t. It seems at least as valid as any other art. Does that mean it deserves funding? That’s the complex question again. But right now, the system’s set up in a way that suggests most people think it does. That might not last.

Again, I’m trying to look at this divorced from the emotional part of the question—mostly. Why bother. Why do you do what you do. Why do you get to do what you do, at my expense. It’s about taxes, and policy, and spending priorities. The second question, justifying tax dollars, inspires the first, why should I care about some dead artist I’ve never heard of. It justifies telling a complete stranger that they’re wrong for doing something in the memory of a friend. The insult is either a twist of the knife or pure thoughtlessness, but it isn’t the point. Really, it’s about money.

That doesn’t make it a bad question. Why do you do what you do? Why does it matter? What does it cost? What does it contribute? Is it justified? Can you make it more valuable, or less costly, by whatever definition? Those aren’t just questions for artists. They’re worth asking of anyone. Ask yourself. Maybe be a bit more tactful about it, though.

Right now, my answers are simple. I’ll put in the energy because I believe in it. The small amount of tax dollars that are spent on it are justified because it’s well within the guidelines for how those tax dollars have been allocated. The more flowery answer: it’s justified because it will help some people deal with a loss, expose others to a talented artist, and will hopefully be worth watching on its own merits aside from that. In my mind, that’s reason enough.

One Response to “Why bother? A response to a question”
  1. oxyyc says:

    It was nice to hear Chris Reimer’s music while I read, thanks for writing about this Peter. Resonates with me even though I didn’t know Chris, but I believe in community and you’ve summed it up beautifully.

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