Day of Absence 2010: Third Response – Investment

If the Day of Absence is really about tourist’s pleasure, if this iswhat we really care about, let us at least be honest about it. Isincerely believe that we should deal with our own cultural hungerbefore we worry about how to provide better shows for our visitors.Confusing the two will eventually bring us right back to the sameemptiness, no matter how much money we throw at the problem.

Ward Minnis, "Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents", p. 7

Now I'm not really sure where the idea comes from that Day of Absence is about the tourists' pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my own vagueness about the idea, which Ward has very succinctly dissected and served up, but I'm not so sure about it. I'm not so sure because the tourists are rarely in the back of my mind when I think about Bahamian art and culture. I happen to be of the view that we need to create for ourselves, and that visitors will appreciate what we create for ourselves far more than they appreciate what we make for them. For one thing, we know ourselves a little better. Whenever we think we know what the tourist wants, we generally end up holding the wrong end of the stick.

But perhaps it comes from the implication, which is probably clearly present in my original articles and responses, that Bahamian taxes ought to be invested in Bahamian cultural production. In the original exchange a year ago, some of my readers, one or two in particular, protested that implication, crying out that it should the onus should not be upon the government to support culture, that we pay too many taxes already, and we should not expect the government to pay more. My initial response, a year ago, was that I wasn't asking for more money to be collected from Bahamians to be spent on culture; I was asking for a reallocation of the money that is already being collected. But in responding that way, I made it seem as though I agreed with the idea that it isn't part of the government's responsibility to support indigenous cultural development. I may have been ambivalent then; I was certainly not interested in waiting for our government to move. However, a year has passed, and that ambivalence has passed.

Of course our governments should support our culture. Cultural expression is as fundamental to human existence as anything else that our government does support. I might even argue that it is more so; the collective creative production of any group of people is what lays the bedrock, in concrete terms, for the identity of that group. As an anthropologist who teaches sociology, I teach students that humans are social animals, that humans have culture, and that the process of cultural production is as fundamental to a society as the process of reproduction is to the continuation of the race. That we seem to think that culture (of which "the arts", I would argue, is a sub-set) is an optional investment demonstrates to my mind how deracinated we are as a collective, how unserious we are about our unity as a people, and how little we seek true nation-building.

For it is a lie that big (should I say real?) countries (the USA is generally pulled out of the hat at this point) don't invest in their cultures. I cannot think of a single important civilization that does not have what we would categorize as vast investment in cultural production.

Let's just take the USA as an example, since it is often hailed (can't always fathom why) as being the proper model for economic and social development.

I often hear the argument that because the USA doesn't have government investment in culture, we ought not to have it either. There's no need really to strip away the absurdity in this statement -- no need to do the standard parental "if your friends jumped off the bridge would you jump too" schtick. What I'd prefer to do is to poke holes in the assertion itself; for anyone who truly looks at the USA with unprejudiced eyes will realize that the statement is profoundly untrue.

The point about the USA that we often overlook is that it is a country that positively brims over with government. There is the federal government, to begin with, which is located in Washington and headed up by the President and the Senate and Congress, and which is governed by the philosophies laid out in the American Constitution. And it's true to say that at this level, there's relatively little apparent investment in culture. (We can get away with believing that if we never go to Washington D. C., but that's another story -- what Americans have invested in their monuments, their libraries, their museums, their galleries, their theatres, and their symbols of power would power the Bahamas for many budget years.) We can get away with saying it because the USA doesn't have any minister or ministry of culture -- no federal agency that sets cultural policy, pays bureaucrats to do cultural things, or make collective cultural decisions -- other than the National Endowment for the Arts, that is.

But if we stop there we miss the point.

What people who have convinced themselves that the USA does not invest taxpayers' money in culture fail to mention is that the smaller and more localized American government structures become, the more investment in culture there is. It is most apparent at the municipal level, where every city has a library, a theatre, a gallery, and cultural companies of every kind, and where businesses, taxpayers and bureaucrats alike invest millions into cultural activity. Where high schools can boast better theatres than exist anywhere in The Bahamas -- anywhere, not excepting our local plantations (hotel resorts), and where individual artists make their living off of cultural grants of every description. But counties make their own investments, and no state exists that doesn't have its own local state-sponsored cultural cluster. Nowhere else in the world, except here (and perhaps in our sister slave-fragment societies), is culture expected to flourish in a vacuum, nor does it. On the contrary; in many places, the strength of a locale's culture is often used to measure the strength of the place itself.

In The Bahamas, though, we do not protest investment in tourism, which usually means investment in inviting other people from other countries to come and set up things -- hotels, shows, cruises, film series, what have you -- here. We do not think twice about the need for new roads or new stadiums or new schools, though new hospitals and prisons seem to be as remote from our possible reality as the first state theatre, concert hall, or school for the performing arts. We are a people who invest in our front room, where the strangers sit, while we languish in poverty in the rest of the house, and we are a people who choose to defend this habit.

I do not believe that it is optional that our governments invest in the creative output of their people. I do not believe that we are whole as a nation when we still, after all these years, have no national library, no national theatre, no national school for the arts, no national concert hall, no national performance arena. I do not believe we are truly independent without such things, for we have not provide ourselves with the space or the ability to create, to celebrate, our own indigenous, vibrant and ever-changing realities. I do not believe that roads are more important. I no longer believe that schools are -- for what can schools teach our children without Bahamian cultural production? I no longer believe that hotels or harbours or airports are worth the continued starvation of the Bahamian spirit; I'm not sure if I ever did. The Day of Absence, and the call for some thought to be given to an investment in Bahamian art and culture, is not about tourism at all. It is about finding, and reminding us of, ourselves.