Stephen Harper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Monday, 5 October 2009 — 7:16pm | Canadiana, Music

You didn’t seriously expect me to let this pass without comment?

Were this a political blog, I would have little to add to the obvious analysis that every national publication promptly shoved out the door. Nobody knows what to do with this, yet everybody knows what to do with this because there isn’t that much to debate. Say, wasn’t that rather good? Aren’t the lyrics ironic in light of Conservative policy? Didn’t the Prime Minister previously criticize this sort of arts gala as too removed from public concern? Is this a gift-horse for the artsy-fartsy elites or a populist slap in the face? And isn’t Michael Ignatieff ever in trouble when all he has to his name is a tour of duty as a BBC culture personality in the 1980s (which carries a lot of weight with me, as you can probably guess)? Colour me bored. The one refreshing piece of journalism in all this is this human-interest story in The Globe and Mail about how Laureen Harper arranged the gig—and I call it refreshing not least because it’s, you know, The Globe and Mail.

We can ask ourselves if this was an “honest” move or a shrewd grab for political advantage (as if the two were mutually exclusive!) until we are blue in the face. But this is not a political blog, and what Mr Harper’s performance says about politics is a good deal less interesting to me than what it says about music.

I have little reason to doubt that Harper selected “With a Little Help from My Friends” for relatively pedestrian reasons: because he liked it, it was within his ability, and people would recognize it. Nevertheless, it behooves us to recognize that his performance is emblematic of a particular vision of the arts. It is not a Conservative vision, although it may well be a conservative one. It is a vision of the arts as directed towards the final purpose of entertaining us, making us happy, and leaving it at that; as a need that we meet when all other needs are met. It is the doctrine, peculiar to the stable middle class, that the arts are something we teach our kids and do at home when we need to cool off from our day jobs. It is the modern distillation of the young lady in the Victorian parlour who dabbles in the pianoforte because that is what ladies do.

Let me be very clear that I do not find this vision all that objectionable—merely a tad myopic. It is a good thing that musical and artistic literacy is abundant in our schools, homes, and communities. It is a very good thing that we have a Prime Minister who is competent in a musical instrument. I came out of the RCM examination system myself, and toward it I bear no ill will. But I wish to make the point that Harper’s surprise performance at the National Arts Centre gala says very little about the place of the arts in this country to those who are concerned about it. It invokes a wholly different conception of what the arts are about.

A suitable comparison is to the state of football, or soccer, in Canada and the United States—the two developed countries where professional football is so conspicuously absent that foreign visitors are right to wonder if they are still on the planet Earth. In North America, football is a widespread institution of child development, but there is no professional culture for the talent to develop and grow. I grew up in the same city as Owen Hargreaves; I would know.

In both cases, music and football, there is widespread public engagement with the activity as recreation, but little public support for mastery and deep exploration. And that is the danger of the vision of the arts as an epiphenomenon that we only keep around for fun—as something that it is nice to have, but not in the first instance essential to our way of life. It risks stagnation. It drives us to cover and copy while delivering little new to imitate and offering few incentives to study the classics in depth.

I, for one, do not believe the end-state of the arts is merely to please and entertain. Neither, I suspect, would anyone else who takes the craft of ideas seriously. My appraisal, boldly stated, is this: the arts are a decentralized research programme into the workings of the human mind—of human beings as both creator and audience. Our creative activity, the order we assemble from chaos, gives us invaluable insight into how we think and who we are.

(Here I have to pay lip service to a third competing vision of the arts: that they have a duty to be socially, politically, or culturally subversive and are therefore by nature left-wing. I believe this to be a very limited vision, destructive to the diversity of our creative output, that came into being in the twentieth century as right-wing policies hostile to the more-than-recreational arts shoved them into an ideological pigeonhole. Looking at the past few decades, it is remarkable how little democratic regimes have produced in the way of monumental, statist art.)

In all fairness, we should acknowledge that Harper’s performance, no matter his policies or his sense of pitch, was hardly antithetical to the conception of the arts as something more than that which makes us smile. And the reason for this was less the act of sharing a stage with Yo-Yo Ma than it was his selection of music. He could hardly have made a more perfect choice, given the longstanding credibility of the Beatles as serious (if not classically refined) musicians who earned their global popularity with memorable contributions to melody, harmony, rhythm, production, and the structure of popular song.

And to further confuse the matter, let us not forget that “With a Little Help from My Friends” hails from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—an album organized around the concept of four accomplished professionals putting on the costume of an amateur band. What, exactly, is Mr Harper putting on? Us, perhaps? Beats me, but at least he’s having fun.

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One rejoinder to “Stephen Harper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

  1. What you are talking about is the “sweetness” of the much-maligned phrase “sweetness and light”; but it is generally forgotten that by “light” Matthew Arnold meant enlightenment — which is precisely what’s missing from art-as-mere-entertainment.

    Though sometimes the sweetness sneaks in the light despite the author’s denials. It’s said that a certain Hollywood agent had the greatest admiration for Shakespeare, for when Shakespeare had made enough money he quit.

    Monday, 5 October 2009 at 9:17pm

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