Strange Bedfellows: The State and the Arts in Canada


207 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88894-456-X





Reviewed by Alexander Craig

Alexander Craig is a freelance journalist in Lennoxville, Quebec.


When we hear or read about the arts, their financial needs and the role of governments, we hear a great deal about the need for an “arm’s length” relationship. The many people involved in such a relationship could find few better spokesmen than George Woodcock. His book is a first-class treatment of the issue.

Its appropriate title indicates the complex nature of the problem — the bed in question has to be not just broad but peculiar and ornate, to accommodate the complexity as well as the necessary bizarre mixture of closeness and distance of the two groups at either end of the arm’s length.

The case is well put in addition to being well written, as readers might expect from one of Canada’s pre-eminent men of letters. He offers good succinct summaries of the manifold problems involved.

The author’s mild hostility to Trudeau, Pelletier, and some of the other Quebec “centralizers” who have dominated much of the last generation of Canadian politics can be traced to his anarchist philosophical leanings rather than his B.C. base, one supposes. In his second sentence, indeed, he talks of the “state in its negative tax-collecting aspect,” but he doesn’t let himself get carried away. Instead, he surveys the history of the short and honorable tradition of the Canada Council’s support for the arts. He reluctantly concludes that the inevitable bureaucratic ossification has been reinforced by strong tendencies for governments, of all shapes and at all levels, to seek credit and thus intervene in what is becoming increasingly known as the “cultural industries.”

How can things be improved? How can the arts become less dependent on political interference, and yet offer a decent, respectable, and respected profession for as many people as possible? Woodcock almost throws up his hands in despair at what can be expected from the private sector, and so we have to go back to public, political action. He makes a strong case for the Public Lending Right, whereby libraries recompense authors. He calls for tax incentives to assist both the creative and the performing arts communities.

Woodcock cites with great approval an interesting unpublished paper by Mel Hurtig in 1984 calling for Canadian publishers to broaden their horizons beyond exclusively Canadian concerns. (This citation is on page 184 — Hurtig is one of the very few people to have escaped the otherwise useful index.)

Woodcock’s book is useful and interesting in many ways. It is also provocative: Woodcock has no time for the “cultural-industry approach, with its inevitable homogenizing tendencies.” He’s also properly suspicious of terms such as “alienation, the great contemporary crybaby word available to any group that cares to lay a claim to special attention.”

We live in a time in which “often the arts, as distinct from the artist, seem to be flourishing financially.” In addition to drawing our attention so skillfully to such basic, and in the long run fatal, incongruities, Woodcock spells out in detail his ideas for improving the situation. In his final chapter, for instance, he suggests “ways and means of assisting the artists without trespassing on their imaginative freedom, without drawing them too far under the shadow of the state, and without having them rely so far on the public purse that they may be seen in the general community as parasites rather than benefactors.” Strange Bedfellows is a restlessly relentless work of civilized and constructive criticism.


Woodcock, George, “Strange Bedfellows: The State and the Arts in Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,