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Book review: Max Wyman weighs in on cultural policy

Wyman is a champion of the contention that art is a profoundly humanizing and pro-democratic enterprise

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

Max Wyman  |  Cormorant Books

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$19.95  |  234pp.

max wyman

The ominous statement: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver,” is often misattributed to Adolf Hitler’s minion Hermann Goering. Be that as it may, the line is often invoked as evidence of a fundamental contradiction between art and autocracy, proof that the many dictators past and present who attacked art and artists are on to something.

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True art, in this argument, schools the human heart for democratic solidarity and compassion by promoting empathy and by this humanizing impact undercuts the claims and power of the autocrat. The world’s current crop of wannabe dictators support this contention with their obsessive enthusiasms for various forms of book burning and banning.

Max Wyman does not invoke the pseudo-Goering quote in his latest book, but he is clearly a champion of the contention that art is a profoundly humanizing and pro-democratic enterprise. After a long and distinguished career in Canada’s cultural trenches, Wyman knows whereof he speaks. In his seventh book about the arts in Canada, Wyman, who wrote arts and culture commentary for the Vancouver Sun and Province as well as CBC Radio for decades, argues that Canada needs to revamp the arts funding Canada Council and other government bodies into a single overarching body, The Canadian Foundation for Culture. Beyond journalism, Wyman served as a board member for the Canada Council for the Arts, mayor of Lion’s Bay and president of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

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In Wyman’s bold proposal, the new body would not only underwrite professional arts performances, festivals and publications, but would also provide modest funding for every Canadian to encourage active engagement by arts amateurs, reviving and dignifying arts practice by those who love art but do not make a living from it.

This is all eloquently argued, and Wyman supports his proposals with persuasive anecdotes and with telling citations from social science research. Some will be tempted to argue that Wyman’s praise for the humanizing effects of art and arts practice is too sweeping, perhaps citing evil but art-loving figures like Nero and Goering. Some will decry Wyman’s book as a call for another layer of bureaucracy in Ottawa. While not entirely empty, such criticisms are not strong enough to overpower this bold and important book.

Highly recommended.

Wyman, who launched and edited the Vancouver Sun’s Review of Books in 1996, was Sandborn’s editor there for several years.

Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected]

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