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The Globe and Mail

Art is not sacred – the abuse of power must end

R.M. Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist based in Toronto.

When allegations against Toronto theatre star Albert Schultz were made public, not one of my hundreds of friends in theatre or the arts reacted with shock. An important distinction: The lack of astonishment did not stem from bad feelings toward, or ideas about, Mr. Schultz.

Rather, the allegations were met with shrugs because, once again, a powerful man running a well-funded cultural institution was alleged to have abused his position for sexual kicks. As one friend put it on social media, "I wondered who would be first [in Canada]."

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(A couple of necessary provisos: I've only met Mr. Schultz once, at a theatre/arts function. I do not know the man at all. Second, I used to write plays that got staged and published. Now I write books. I'm not a theatre person any more.)

But this I know: If you work in the arts in Canada, whatever the discipline, you have seen some truly appalling behaviour. Indeed, the allegations against Mr. Schultz detail what could arguably be regarded as normalized, even institutional, problems.

For people who do not work in the arts, stories such as those coming out of Hollywood or now Toronto might seem baffling. What's wrong with these artsy guys? Well, lots. And while we must always be aware that predatory and abusive people thrive in all kinds of industries, the arts are a particularly fertile field for abusers.

The arts are full of very enthusiastic, well-meaning people, people who treat their profession as something akin to a liturgical calling. One of Mr. Schultz's accusers said she felt the "sanctity" of the theatre had been violated. That's a word you don't hear often in, say, accountancy.

Arts professionals voluntarily accept the conceit that their labour is imbued with a higher, grander purpose than that of other professions. It's not a job, it's a cause. And that flawed altruism, that high-mindedness, breeds vulnerabilities and lapses in professionalism. The work, no, the vocation, of art making is always more important than the workers. And no one wants to set the church on fire.

Add in classic Canadian boosterism, the pressure to make cultural products that are good for nation building, art that buttresses our always fraught national identity, and then you've drawn a Venn diagram with one circle marked "Art" (always in capital A), the other marked "Cultural Insecurity" and the overlapping bit marked "Shut up or you'll ruin everything."

I have witnessed physical assault, chronic bullying, fiscal fraud and theft, outrageous tantrums (yes, my own, too), shouting, pushing, degrading language and no end of sexual innuendo.

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For instance, in the nineties, every cute male theatre actor in Toronto knew that if he accepted an invitation to a certain prominent male theatre critic's dinner parties, he would always get good notices after. Nothing was ever done about this. The critic's job was never at risk.

A wealthy collector once expressed interest in my work. That interest came with nudge-wink invitations to his summer home. I declined, and he left me a blistering message telling me that I was "trash from nowhere" who needed "to learn how the world works." The collector moved on to other artists, offering them sales and expensive trips abroad. I felt stupid for not playing along. That's how the world works, indeed.

When I was an art critic for The Globe and Mail, I was regularly offered artwork in exchange for press, which shocked me the first dozen times, and young male artists openly flirted with me. I am no saint, but opportunistic sex is just pity sex with an agenda. I am not shaming/blaming those young men. They were obviously pushed by their dealers.

What I have not seen over the years are any consequences for the abusers. Their actions were dismissed as being part of the cost of working with "artistic temperaments." And anybody who complained was regarded as the arts-world version of a party pooper or was dismissed as an unseasoned amateur. Complainers were, at best, innocents; at worst, idiots.

The arts in Canada are long overdue for some deep self-examination. Why does the fact that one makes art for a living mean that one ought to expect abuse? No other workplaces or professions operate under such grandiose fantasies nor do they foster anywhere near as much messianic behaviour in their leaders.

Art is not sacred. And even if it was, nothing deserving of reverence comes at such prices.

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