Punk album flew under responsibility radar

  • June 1, 2011

The case of a punk rock band giving back its government grant following a public outcry shines light again on the world of government funding for the arts and revives the issue of where to draw the line.

Vancouver’s Living with Lions recently released an album called Holy S**t, complete with graphics that included a resurrection figure appearing to be created from excrement. Before the album was recalled, the last line of the band’s acknowledgements read, “We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage,” the standard acknowledgement for all organizations receiving Heritage funding, and not something taxpayers expect to see on such vulgar packaging.

Through Canadian Heritage, our taxes fund all kinds of projects, many of them beneficial or at least non-controversial. In this case, funds were directed through the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR), which provides loans and grants to promote and foster Canadian talent. In its statement about the Living with Lions CD, FACTOR noted that “the record in question was packaged with graphics and liner notes that some may consider offensive. This material had not been submitted to FACTOR prior to its release. We have communicated to the record label that there has been a negative reaction from some members of the public regarding the content.”

Heritage Minister James Moore initially called the album “disappointing,” but later said, “It’s one thing for art to be edgy, it’s another thing for art to be deliberately attacking a group of Canadians based on their faith.” According to published reports, he asked FACTOR to see if there was a way to get any of the money back.

The recording label, Black Box Recordings, has promised to withdraw the album and re-release it without government funding. The band itself said it had not intended to offend, “though we regret it was interpreted that way. Further, we regret the negative attention that this matter has brought to FACTOR.”

What is unusual about this case is not that funds were given with little or no scrutiny of the intended use, but that the money was returned after a public outcry. While the recall is the right thing to do, and the band’s apology may well be sincere, it’s quite possible they are taking this step so that handouts will still be available in the future.

The amount given was not large — $13,248 — yet it is still impossible to justify. For some critics, this incident is proof that governments should get out of the arts’ funding business altogether, but in my view that would be an over-reaction with negative consequences. There are more than 13,000 arts and culture organizations in Canada, and on average about 28 per cent of their revenue comes from government funding. While a small percentage of that goes to work that is offensive or of no merit, much of it goes to jobs and to projects of some lasting value.

Nevertheless, the provision of public funding carries a responsibility. Tax dollars should be used in support of projects that have at least some value to the taxpayer, and this incident points to a serious lack of oversight. Funding decisions will always be open to question and some mistakes are inevitable, but in this case it appears either the application was not scrutinized closely or questions were not asked. Punk rock is known to have more potential for problems than other traditional forms of music. The title alone was a good clue that this was not a good candidate for public funding.

Many people think “the market” should be the only determinant for what succeeds, but retail sales and box office receipts indicate that there’s a healthy market for content that many find objectionable. That is even more reason for good stewardship in the provision of public funds to the world of arts and culture. If the applicant is going for the lowest common denominator (s)he can probably find it without the taxpayer’s help.

The opening of a new Parliament is a good time to review the guidelines for arts funding and their responsible administration.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

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