Speech at Davos, January 27

Here’s the text of the speech I would have given this evening, if I’d given it — as it was, artists’ speeches were cut due to time constraints.


It’s a great honour to have been chosen by the World Economic Forum for one of this year’s Crystal Awards. As you know, these awards are presented on the basis of artistic achievement, but also for having somehow contributed to the world’s well-being in other ways.

A cautionary note: At my age, those who’ve followed the artistic path are not usually dwelling on their achievements: They’re thinking about how much better they could have made their art, give or take an extra hundred years. Nor are they boasting of success in making the world a better place. Better than what, or when?  They reflect, too, that all arts awards are made subjectively, since there’s no way to measure artistic achievement. It’s not like high-jumping. So I will say simply: Thank you. I’m deeply grateful, and I’m happy to accept this Crystal Award – which could have gone to hundreds of others – on behalf of all artists.

What is the place of the arts at an economic forum? Each of us views the world from a limited vantage point, so it’s natural for those connected with economics to try to work out an economics of art. Is art an object of charity? Is it useful? What does it contribute? Many people have defended its intangible worthiness in an attempt to keep the poor creature alive, as if it were a stray kitten. Others –politicians among them – have done their best to finish it off.

But is it in danger of dying? Unlike the discipline of economics, and indeed unlike money – a lately-come tool we invented to facilitate trading at a distance — art is very old. The anthropologists and neurologists are now telling us how old – it’s as old as humanity. It isn’t a frill – something human societies can choose to indulge or to discard. Art isn’t only what we do, it’s what we are. Our musical and dancing and linguistic abilities appear to be built in to every single one of us, in every society on earth. So it’s not a case of whether or not we’ll have art: it’s a case of what sort of art we will have. Good, or bad? Old, or new? Our own, or somebody else’s? Whatever the choices, any theory of humanity that fails to take account of human art fails indeed.

Like you, I wait with eagerness to see what new sorts of art the younger generations will produce. Whatever astonishing forms or media they invent, they won’t stray far from their age-old themes, which are those of humanity itself: its struggles, its tragedies, its relation to its biological home, its loves and triumphs, and above all, its sense of wonder. I wish for these young artists what I wish for all of us: a cool head in a crisis; a knack for lateral thinking; grace under pressure; and a sackful of good luck. We will need all of them.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

34 responses to “Speech at Davos, January 27

  1. Evan Maloney

    Lovely, and with a bit of dramatic irony at the start. I would have loved to hear the revised beginning given at home to your close friends after a few wines, if there was one, which there probably wasn’t. But how rude to give an award and then say, “Sorry, we haven’t got time to give you the award now.”

    Really. I’d have been gobsmacked, and I might have smacked a gob.

    As for art, as long as kids want to keep drawing pictures of their parents, there will always be good art, no?

  2. It’s a hard topic, but in here it is done in a most sincere and straight way. A world without art is as good as death. People mistake what art means, and art becomes an almost inacessible entity. Art cannot be contained in one bottle, and it cannot be explained under a dictionary entry. Art is truly what keep us going, even when we are not aware of it.

  3. ‘Art isn’t only what we do, it’s what we are.’ Brava!

  4. A great shame you weren’t given the platform, and a sad reflection on the WEF – somewhat proves the point that the importance of art is somewhat overlooked (a point reinforced as large numbers of people left the plenary hall yesterday before the Crystal Awards were presented)

  5. Wendy Ladd

    Dear Margaret: Thank you so much for sharing your speech. I very much appreciate the things that you do and the impact that you have and use to make a difference in the world.

  6. James Chief

    Just found your blog through the CBC website.

    I can only imagine the the time constraints stem from certain people, (and we all know who they are) pontificating to extoll thier own virtues.

    I look forward to future visits to your blog

    Thank you

  7. What a beautiful, yet simple word it is: ART. I cherish it and very definitely yours.

  8. Wes

    Thank-you, Ms. Atwood, in extending this award to all artists everywhere. Whether or not we are ever recognised publicly as such, we do each possess the inner knowledge which confirms that our Works are vital and life-giving.
    Congratulations on your achievements!

  9. Dear Mrs Atwood,

    This short notice is not about your speech — which I appreciated — but about a delightful and illuminating old book, a classic in social anthropology, dealing with debt, feast and gift: Marcel Mauss’s “The Gift” (now with a foreword by Mary Douglas). I am conviced this short book would feed your reflexion on debt for a long time. Thank you.

  10. I’ve often marveled at the “green room after-concert parties”. All of those people dressed up, drinking wine, wanting to talk to the performer or composer– living life like a bon vivant… a bohemian.

    “It’s cool.”

    Well, it’s not cool. If a lot of those people actually lived within the means of a composer or performer, the after-concert party would consist of Kraft dinner and tap water. The champagne gang -I listen to Mozart (the tuna fish sandwich of classical music) while sitting under my Ansel Adams prints (the cheese sandwich of photography) in Ikea frames to impress my friends- would hate it.

    As negative as my post seems, there is a brutal reality about it. What is that reality? It’s simple: you can’t buy “cultivatedness”. Culture -and the state of being cultured- is an “earned place”. It requires an investment of time.

    Is this sentiment arrogant? Is it snobby? Yes it is… if one does not have the background to understand that it isn’t… “snobby”… they have never experienced it, they have no context with which to judge it; they write it off.

    This is where our culture lives -or doesn’t live- today.

    Chimay Grand reserve is an excellent beer. Unfortunately, it’s a rip-off because it costs twenty dollars -per bottle- more than Budweiser.

    …but Budweiser is good beer.

  11. Pingback: Atwood posts speech Davos never heard - Need to know - Macleans.ca

  12. Annette

    A sad reflection on our governments and the their lack of understanding of what being ‘human’ means. Loosely transcribing a quote from Goethe: At least daily one should hear a little song, read a good poem, see an admirable painting and if possible speak some sensible and wise words.
    Thank you for yours, Ms. Atwood.

  13. Pingback: In Harmonium » The value of the Arts to Economics

  14. Mike

    Really refreshing to hear Margaret Atwood talking. I still remember the experience of her art; a car trip across Canada while listening to an audio tape of Cat’s Eye.

  15. Pingback: Instigating Change: Margaret Atwood « Bella's Bookshelves

  16. Susann

    MA shows that she grows wiser with age, calling for pragmatism in extolling a set value. She conveys the inate need for expression and reception, yet feels that suasion should ideally only exist within an art. To chastise solely the practicum of political decision in relation to art is altogether unhelpful and unwise. If someone recites a poem in the fabled forest, and no one can hear it, did it even get spoken or appreciated? That is art. Government only becomes involved out of special interest. And we knowly exploit that vulnerability blindingly ignoring integrity.

  17. Elizabeth

    Ms. Atwood,

    Thank-you for posting your ‘unheard’ speech. As a student of humanity and history I believe you are correct when you said “…any theory of humanity that fails to take account of human art fails indeed.” When we fail to take into account how much art is part of who humans are, we ignore much of who we are.

    Thank-you for your illumination on humanity.

  18. Hollis Williams

    Really enjoyed reading that: thanks for posting.

  19. Thank you, Margaret Atwood, for posting your speech. It is right on. WEF/Davos and its attendees should have let you speak, of course. So disappointing for the arts to be the expendable one (yet again). Keep on writing and speaking – we need you.

  20. Here in Vancouver, as we are about to be overwhelmed with a three-week “Cultural Olympiad” this February, it ought to be noted that our provincial government has cut arts funding so drastically that many small theatre, dance, music, and literary organizations must soon fold. The government places no value on art, except for the three weeks the world’s media will be here. In part this devaluation of the arts is due to the economy, and in part due to the inflationary Olympic Games themselves, and the cost of securing them, but it is also a mindset which is not restricted to one political party (Liberals in B.C., Conservatives in Ottawa: same ignorance of the arts). Countering this are the few–too few–wealthy individuals who not only invest in art for their private collection, but support the public arts, through such continuing events as the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale, for instance. As a photographer friend said recently, “Art is normal.” Perhaps the one lasting legacy for the arts of this Olympics will be the highly visible sculpture, video installations, performances and public art at venues throughout the city, which may encourage more participation in, and support of, the arts after the Olympic Family has left town and the posters are torn down and the scaffolding packed away.

  21. Ms. Atwood,

    I wasn’t sure how to contact you so I hope this isn’t out of line. I am currently reading Oryx and Crake and I am curious as to why the Snowman isn’t just living in the abandoned compounds? It would keep him safe from the critters and he would be closer to the abandoned non-perishable foods. I see that in Cormack McCarthy’s The Road that staying in one place is dangerous and I see that in I Am Legend, he has kept is home. I just don’t understand Snowman’s reason for not staying where he has access to safety and places to forage.

    I hope you reply because I am really interested in your answer. Thanks!

    • marg09

      Hello: 1) Because he feels he has to take care of the Crakers and they eat leaves. 2) Too many stinky dead bodies lying around in the Compounds when the group first made its exit. 3) Buildings fall down & catch fire & burn merrily when no people around — see “The World Without Us,” eg. Much safer in plain old Nature under those circs.

      • Melistress

        I appreciate the time you took to enlighten me. Thank you so very much. I will be sure to look up your reference. 🙂

  22. rhoda clattenburg

    I have more respect for artists who fund themselves.Why should I pay someone as wealthy as you ?Most Can-lit reeks.I used to read your books but you got so political & preachy…bad move. I think theCBC & the ”arts community” should be funded a la PBS.

    • marg09

      What makes you think I don’t fund myself (and others too?) Do the math! Get a grip! Figure out what sort of taxes my books must have generated over the years!
      And what makes you think I was talking about funding, and not about artists being jailed, shot, and exiled, as they are being now and have been throughout history? Politicians going for control do not like any contrarian voices.
      Read the news much? Check in on Amnesty or PEN International?
      And what makes you think I was talking just about Canada?
      What a great big plate of preconceptions you brought with you!

      • rhoda clattenburg

        I was talking about Canada. What the hell have we got to do with looking after artists in other countries By all means ”give your money to them I just dont think it should have gov money. Amazing how many on the left think of Venezuala & Cuba with romantic notions but those are the ones clamping down on free speech..very aggressivly

      • marg09

        If you want a blog on which to express your opinions — ones that have nothing to do with what I said — why don’t you start your own blog/website and pay for it? As it is, I am funding you. Since you are so very focussed on money and don’t seem to care about people being silenced in other countries, maybe that will resonate with you. You just got a freebie. Congratulations.

      • rhoda clattenburg

        It IS about money. Sorry to bother you . My last post

  23. Judy (JYOOP)

    I have to say, “Congratulations, on your Crystal Award”. I love the way you express your thoughts. I am still intrigued that I could look through your desk drawers on owtoad.com Where did it go?

    • marg09

      Thank you! Pleased you liked the desk drawers on O.W. Toad … We recently changed the site to margaretatwood.ca, as the former one has been around for many years and we (self and office) needed an update in order to allow us to add and subtract things to it ourselves. We will shortly add to it the same Twitter feed and Blog spot that are on the Yearoftheflood.com site.

  24. I very much enjoyed reading this speech in the Globe and Mail, and as a composer, this is an issue I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. Anyway, it kept playing in my mind and I started wondering what I would have said to a bunch of economists given a similar opportunity. It ended up as a post on my own blog (www.aarongervais.com/blog) and friends have told me I should post it here too and get your reaction. So that’s what I’m doing! Thanks for the inspiration!

    The economics of art is a perennial source of debate. Proponents of funding for the arts usually follow one of two arguments. The first is that art contributes intangibly to society by contributing a reason to live, as opposed to a way to live. The second is that art actually contributes tangibly to the greater economy through the hard work that many artists do for relatively little pay. In contrast, those who oppose funding for the arts argue that funding is waste of money, because valuable art will be able to survive economically on its own anyway: good artists will be in high demand, creating scarcity for their work, and hence ensuring them a commensurate level of income.

    But art has never been a good fit to any monetary economy, because money was not really designed to handle art. Money, and our current economic system, was designed to handle finite commodities that can be traded. This is when classical economic theories show some semblance to reality. These same economic theories fall short, however, in correctly measuring other kinds of real value, not just in the arts, but in all areas of human activity, because many of the important things that we do cannot really be measured in monetary value. And when we do try to measure these things in a monetary way, it often causes new issues (e.g., giving away sex vs. charging for it).

    A recent episode of the TV series House reminded me of this fact. A doctor wanted to know why he was being paid less than the other experts on his team when he had the same qualifications and was as useful to the team. His boss said, “Come on, you know salary isn’t based on what you’re worth, it’s based on what you can negotiate.” Because he had no competing offers of employment, he was being paid less.

    Creative artists (as opposed to interpretive artists) fall into the same pit trap. A composer is always disposable, because his or her labour can always be replaced with someone else’s. Sure, a particular composer might have a profound artistic message to share that would touch a lot of peoples’ lives. But there are always hundreds of other composers with a good, if not life-shatteringly profound, message to share. Some of them will be young composers who have never had any professional opportunities to speak of and would jump at the chance to gain experience. But once they have this experience, they haven’t gained any bargaining power, because they never have real “competing offers” and there is always someone new who is ready for the next “opportunity” to work for free.

    The situation is different for visual artists, because they create objects that can be sold. A painting can be treated like any other rare object and fits in perfectly with traditional economic theories: if there is only one original, then it commands value if many people want it. But for a composer or a dancer or a singer, the original does not exist: dance and sound are intangibles that can’t be held in one’s hands. True, there are some superstar performers who can turn their very presence into a rare commodity to be sold, but this doesn’t help composers or choreographers or playwrights or filmmakers—or any other artist whose work is intangible and realized through other people’s efforts (through interpretation, in other words).

    This problem, to my mind, invalidates the argument that good artists will be able to survive on the merits of their work. The creative artists—the ones who come up with the vision for the art in the first place—almost all work in the intangible realm, and their work falls between the cracks of our economic system. It cannot be assigned value and hence it is assigned a default value of zero, despite the fact that we instinctively know this to be an untrue valuation. Our society avoids the issue by giving other (often menial) jobs to people who work with intangibles: Composers, your job is to get students to enroll in a university music program; singer-songwriters, your job is to perform in such a way that you can sell a lot of t-shirts. Nobody actually tries to assign value to the intangible work that makes the person valuable in the first place (i.e. creating music).

    To complicate this issue, our economic system also rewards instant gratification and the production of goods that can serve the most people at the least cost, regardless of quality. The system doesn’t do a good job of distinguishing value from monetary worth, and neither do most people in the system (the “consumers”), because they have been trained to make short-term decisions based on price alone. The classic example of how this type of economics works out is the obesity epidemic. People eat a lot of fast food because it tastes good (at least in the few seconds after it enters your mouth), it’s cheap, and it’s readily accessible. Sometimes it’s the only option, as a result of monopolistic pressures on the part of the fast-food industry. But we have come to a general consensus that it is not healthy and it costs us dearly on the long run, both in terms of health and our wallets.

    Therefore, in the cases where the arts do provide tangible products for sale (paintings, sound recordings, DVDs, etc), the market does a poor job of judging their value. Successful artistic “products” are those that replicate the McDonald’s phenomenon in their respective disciplines. They tend to be disposable, quickly forgotten, and easily replaceable. They become fillers or background to our lives, as opposed to adding to them. And this is a truth that is as applicable in the high-art realm as in the popular one.

    Before modern media, people were much more receptive to art in general because they rarely experienced any of it. Today, they still rarely experience any of it, but they do experience a replica of art, equivalent to how fast food is a replica of real food, and which is similarly designed to take their money without providing any long-term value. So it’s no surprise that there is antagonism against supporting the arts: the economic framework of our everyday lives can’t evaluate it, and what does get presented to us as art too often is only artistic replica.

    This is hardly a justification to stop supporting the arts, however. Lest we forget, there is hardly an industry in the Western world today that does not rely on subsidies to survive. Real, open, free capitalism is just too brutal. There is a strong hypocrisy in claiming that the largest banks and auto manufacturers in the world might somehow need subsidies to survive (despite public disapproval) but that the arts should be self-sufficient. No human activity, economic or otherwise, is really self-sufficient, and we should be especially sensitive to those that are poorly served by the reigning economic theories. We need to remember that these are only theories, not truths. And perhaps a wake-up call in this respect will end up being the most lasting legacy of the 2008 credit crunch. Art has never been a good fit for economic theory, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. After all, it’s been around longer than history and refuses to die despite our neglect, so art must be something pretty important to humans on a fundamental, biological level. The only question is do we want to allow as many people to access real art as possible, or allow it to get buried under a mountain of replica?

  25. Dear Ms. Atwood,
    I loved reading your blog and am also saddened that you did not have a chance to read your well written and poignant speech. I also wanted to publish here something that not many people are aware of regarding the arts. Our government once deemed the arts important enough to have a place on our currency (a part from the art form used to develop the look of the currency that is).
    The Canadian $20 bill when examined closely has a tiny printed quote that states “Can we ever really know each other in the slightest without the arts?”
    Just a little f.y.i to accompany this note of gratitude for all you do for the the arts and women in the arts.
    Sincere wishes for the best of everything,
    Michelle J. Mainwaring
    Windsor, Ontario

  26. Pingback: cartoon family | The Cartooning Guide

  27. Louise

    Everything’s about money. I just read the “rules” about what the office does not do. I don’t want a blurb, have no published manuscript, I have a long observed and researched “lightbulb” moment, which might actually REALLY affect the outcome of humanity…our very real accountability as individuals and as nations…proof that there is no “free ride” and never was. We got ourselves into this mess and we can get ourselves out. Or we can go on believing in fiction and will likely fail. I want neither the crap (having had plenty already) or the glory (preferring the simple life), and I can’t even give this idea away.

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