"A word after a word after a word is power," Canada's best-loved literary export, the inimitable Margaret Atwood, said recently. This observation appeared not as part of her ever-gushing Twitter feed (followers at press time: 277,229 and counting), but her Web bio as literary mentor in the 2012 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
While we're on the subject of the power of one word after another – and the influence of association in general – I can't help but wonder if I'm the only Atwood fan who finds it a tad disconcerting to see the name of one of our leading public intellectuals and best Nobel Prize hopefuls alongside a luxury brand?
I know that Rolex is just a sponsor, and Atwood is doing good work by signing on to an initiative that describes itself as "an international philanthropic program created to assist extraordinary, rising artists to achieve their full potential … during a year of creative collaboration in a one-to-one mentoring program." The program is well-established, and last year's mentors included respected names such as Anish Kapoor, Peter Sellars and Brian Eno. Furthermore, we're all supposed to believe that corporate sponsorship and cross-branding efforts of this kind are the way of the future, a so-called "win-win" for everyone involved. But Margaret Atwood and Rolex? It just doesn't sit right.
Atwood, as we all know, is now a major international brand in her own right. Her witty, winsome, culturally engaged public persona is one she's cultivated as effectively as Rolex has managed to associate itself with the hairy wrists of bankers everywhere. But in partnering (or at least publically aligning herself) with the luxury watchmaker, I fear she has far less to gain than they do.
Look, I've got nothing against expensive watches. Okay, maybe I find them vaguely troubling. It's not the watches themselves I object to – chunky, showy, oversized status symbols though they are, like Land Rovers driven in the city – it's what they represent that bothers me. In my mind, those wristwatches are inextricably intertwined with a culture of conspicuous consumption that I simultaneously reject and feel guilty for participating in. In my time, I've hung out with a few people (all men, all in finance, all without much in the way of a social conscience) who liked nothing more than to sidle up to the bar and flag down the waitress with a flash of a watch. And while the lychee martinis were delicious (it was the 2000s), the crowd was not. That was the end of my personal sponsorship by Rolex.
I am, however, still into Atwood and the world she represents, which is one of ideas, books, humour, social responsibility and cultural engagement. A world that I happen to believe – perhaps utterly naively – would be better off unsullied by association with luxury items synonymous with high finance.
Over the past several weeks, Atwood has been vocal in her support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Late last month, she added her name to the online petition occupywriters.com along with Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Ann Patchett, Michael Cunningham and over 1,000 other writers. Just this week, she re-tweeted a message urging followers to tell Toronto Mayor Rob Ford what they think of the protester evictions from the city's downtown core. She has also, over the years, expressed her staunch support for government funding for the arts, often in op-ed pieces for this newspaper. She's worked tirelessly to save public libraries and conserve the environment for endangered animal species.
These days, there's little point in arguing against corporate sponsorship for the arts. That battle has been fought and lost (or won, depending on your point of view), and now we have big cultural events at the Four Seasons Centre, the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, Rexall Place and the Bell Centre, just to name a few. A few years back, the Canadian playwright Judith Thompson staged a sold-out show, Body and Soul, which was sponsored by the soap maker Dove. It's no longer controversial for historically countercultural bands to sell their music to TV advertisers. The term "sell-out" feels outdated and so totally nineties. I accept that some private money is necessary to keep the wheels of Culture greased and turning. But must our Peggy be dragged into it?
I don't mind that Atwood is a bit of a Canadian sacred cow – I think, as sacred cows go, she gives good milk. But I would like her to stay just that: sacred.
Last summer, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty warned Canadian arts groups that "we don't actually believe in festivals and cultural institutions assuming that year after year they'll receive government funding." By "we" one can only assume he meant "the Harper government," which, one gets the feeling, would be quite happy to usher in any brand to take over the entire Canadian cultural sector. Corporate sponsorships might seem like the silver bullet to bridge the arts funding gap, but it's wise to remember that where private money is involved, there are invariably strings. At worst, corporate interests invite interference. At minimum worst, they sully the brand of artists in an attempt to polish up their own.
Margaret Atwood in bed with Rolex? Perhaps it was only a matter of time.