Christine Collins: Who Holds the Brush? Considering the Impacts of State-Controlled Cultural Production on National Identity

Propaganda comes in many forms. National calls of “Deutschland über alles” and “Make America Great Again” blatantly send messages that go beyond gathering a country together, but rather mobilizing to defeat all those who may challenge a region’s supremacy. While taking a more nuanced tone, state-controlled cultural policy and cultural production similarly impact citizen values and international outlook. 

In 1938, a campaign of cultural reclamation known as bonifica della cultura was launched in Italy with the purpose of promoting Italian values by banning outside influences. The Propaganda Service Directorate bolstered their staff with photographers, filmmakers, artists and architects whose goal was to put greater state control in Italian cultural life. At the same time, the Press Directorate hired writers, critics, and journalists to censor their colleagues. The result, according to Ben-Ghiat, was the “efficient policing of cultural production” that gave state access to the otherwise non-political areas of creative life. 

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was established in 1936 to combat the growing influence of America media, as US based networks began to expand north. Although under non-fascist rule, the Government of Canada’s motives for creating a state-run media strike a similar cord to that of Mussolini’s Italy: protect the state from outside influencers that do not fit the characteristics of our national identity. But who decides what is or is not Canadian? 

While Canada may not use the same strategies of continental cultural domination as the Axis alliance in the early 20thcentury, can state-run media have similar impacts on influencing national values and ideas? 

Spanning from sea to sea to sea, I think most Canadians agree there is a need for a publicly funded media agency to connect those who may otherwise be isolated. But at what cost? Are Canadians willing to sacrifice foreign coverage by private sector organizations in order to make room for the CBC? 

Beyond media, Ben-Ghiat acknowledges that democracies and dictatorships alike are interested in promoting their national heritage. In modern day Canada, this takes the form of various grants and prizes in Canadian art, literature, and even academic research that shed light on our history or answer questions deemed important by a selection committee. On the surface, these public foundations work to highlight a collective history and promote Canadian identity. However, former Italian Academy official Carlo Formichi considers the result rather dangerous, deemed “artistic nationalism that goes hand in hand with political nationalism, and is certainly no less consequential.” 

If we can agree the purpose of art is to stimulate feelings, thoughts and discussion beyond aesthetic appeal, can we argue the Government of Canada chooses to support those artists that serve their broader political goals? At what point does a state-run media cross the line into state propaganda? 

3 Replies to “Christine Collins: Who Holds the Brush? Considering the Impacts of State-Controlled Cultural Production on National Identity”

  1. Who Holds the Brush?

    I agree that when a nation is much smaller in an arena of larger nations that wield power and influence, there is a definite need to protect the media and culture. You mention Canada’s case, I think the CBC is a completely necessary institution that serves to promote Canadian media and culture. Without organizations such as the CBC, Canadian media and culture would be completely usurped and swallowed by the behemoth of the US to the south. To answer your last question, I think the point of departure for state run media turning into state run propaganda is seen when the state completely bans foreign media, spreads misinformation on it, and outright implies that the media and culture of the nation is superior, that is where the line is crossed. That is what happened in Italy in 1938. In smaller democracies, the major difference is that fact that outside culture is allowed in countries like Canada and it is allowed to thrive as well. However because it is a smaller democracy, the state has the duty to defend Canadian media and culture so that it is not totally usurped by bigger foreign media, and that is why the government of Canada should have the right to promote and defend Canadian media.

  2. The CBC is quite an interesting case. As a crown corporation, it exists as a bizarre hybrid entity, not fully political and not fully privatized. As you’ve suggested, the question of what degree Canadians are comfortable with is directly at play when looking at the CBC. Further, the mention of state-controlled cultural production is really interesting in the Canadian context. Between Canadian content regulations on public networks, to the funding of Canadian arts content across the nation, it is particularly interesting in seeing how these policies affect Canadian identity. Perhaps on the most basic level, there is this continued attempt to distinguish Canadian content from American, and in doing so ensure Canadians believe their culture is at least partly distinct from America’s culture. But were that to pivot towards an attempt at suggesting a nationalistic message about Canada, it would be interesting to see how Canadians may react to crown corporations and regulations surrounding Canadian content.

  3. It is interesting to consider the role of the CBC in Canada through this lens! I would agree with the above comments. I think if it were not for the CBC and the Canadian Content policy instated by the CRTC, there would be cause for concern that Canadian media would be eclipsed by that of the United States. However, we have to ask, what is distinct Canadian media and content? How do we qualify this? Canada’s fight for a national identity has been ongoing, elusive, and always in competition with the United States. Moreover, Canada’s fight for a united national identity has often been at the cost of Indigenous peoples as Canada tries to ignore the fact that it is a Settler-Colonial State.

    To answer the question of the role of grants and prizes in the arts and culture sector in Canada, I would say that it has meant different things at different times. In the past arts and culture grants and prizes have been used to consolidate or form a deeply problematic cannon of “Classic” Can-Lit that favours Canada as a close descendant of England. However, Indigenous peoples and the dissenting public alike have and continue to work hard to make Canada answer for its colonial legacy changing the political, arts, and culture scene in the process. Indigenous artists are finally beginning to receive long awaited recognition and are changing the Can-Lit cannon in the process. In this sense, grants and prizes are essential in working to address reconciliation. I would also add that under the Harper years, several grants for the heritage and arts and culture section were seriously lacking or even nonexistent. As someone who identifies with the arts and culture community, this was great to think about through the perspective of the work we have been doing in class!!!

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