Friday, 12 November 2010

The arts - who needs them? Sue Purkiss

Somerset, where I live, is a very beautiful county. (See picture of Glastonbury Tor for example of beauteousness.) It's also very rural. Its only city, Wells, is a pocket Venus, with a population of 10 500. The county town, Taunton, is just that - a town. It is one of the few counties which doesn't have a university. (Bath and Bristol are nearby, but they're not in Somerset.)

So it doesn't have the usual springboards for the arts; it doesn't have very much money. Despite this, there are several small theatres, in Frome, Taunton, Street and Yeovil. There's a group called Takeart, which takes drama round to schools and villages. There are stacks of amazing artists and craftspeople, drawn by the magical landscape of the levels, the hills, woods and streams of Exmoor, the Somerset coast, the Quantocks. And there are writers, of course.

Up until now, the County Council has helped to support the arts. The amount of money involved wasn't huge: £159 000, or 0.0004% of the total budget. (There has never been enough for luxuries such as a literature development officer.) But two days ago, the Conserative led council voted not just to cut the budget by 26% over four years, as had been anticipated: with a fine sweep of the pen, they have decided to cut the arts development budget completely. The only arts projects which will have any support are those which will be able to show a direct economic benefit for the community. Imaginative as they are, organisations such as the theatres and Takeart will find it difficult to plug the holes in their budgets - difficult to persuade other hard-pushed organisations such as the Arts Council to take up the slack.

This seems to be part of a general drift towards a society where the arts are valued only for their direct contribution to the economy. So - universities are to be encouraged by means of funding to favour science over the arts. Students are to pick up the tab for their studies because, after all, they will get a better job because of their degree. There seems to be a notion that artists and thinkers are a luxury, not a necessity in these difficult economic times. Well, I don't believe this is so. Let me quote this, from

In Somerset we believe in the transformational power of the arts, their capacity to fire the imagination, their ability to give meaning to our lives and our relationships with each other, a language to enable us to celebrate our common bonds – they empower and enable the 'Big Society'. We also believe all groups in society should be able to access the arts, such as those living in isolated, rural communities or children and young people living in difficult financial circumstances.

Wednesday was a sad day for Somerset. Maybe it's worth considering: why do we remember Ancient Greece? Worthy and important as they no doubt were, is it because of the tax gatherers? Probably not...


Stroppy Author said...

'Why do we remember Ancient Greece?' Science and philosophy, mostly (which were essentially the same thing) - though there were some decent playwritghts ;-)

Plato evicted artists from the Republic. But there's still a useful lesson there - he wanted rid of them because they were a threat. Artists stir up dissent, they give a voice to the people's complaints. Could that have anything to do with the cuts?

Sue Purkiss said...

Plato may have evicted artists, but still, I think to most of us, Ancient Greece stands for thinkers, artists, builders, poets, storytellers. I am not in any way denigrating scientists; on the contrary, I think it's a great pity that there is seen to be such a divide between science and art.

All I'm trying to say - no doubt very ineffectively! - is that the arts matter too; and that to cut an already small budget by 100% sends a very sad message - and will have a disproportionately large effect.

verilion said...

Wasn't it a great scientist who said: Imagination is more important than knowledge. Oh well, I guess the UK isn't planning on producing any Einsteins as well as writers or artists in the near future.

Andrew Strong said...

I live in mid Wales. There's no university in Powys (the biggest county in Wales), and we're lucky to be hanging on to our thirteen secondary schools. A level courses are being cut, however, and fewer and fewer courses are available at GCSE. (No German, no Russian, not a chance of Chinese or Latin.) The arts, and to a large extent, even education isn't really valued in the UK. I'm not sure if this is the fault of any UK government, but more the character of the British people who generally are quite pragmatic, no nonsense, down to earth, tabloid reading, celebrity adoring philistines.

Stroppy Author said...

There will always be philistine, tabloid-reading people - but they still need others educated and trained in the arts (at least to some degree) in order to write the tabloids and the soaps! I'm not sure I agree with your view of the UK population, Andrew, but even if it is correct the policy is still shortsighted. I have never watched EastEnders, but I do know an EE producer, with an Oxford degree in English, and have heard that many of the storylines reflect Classical plots because they work and engage people. So even to provide the new opium for the masses you still need some educated people.

Sue, I didn't mean to suggest you were denigrating science but (as you say) that we need both. And that crushing the arts and withholding education are very common features of repressive regimes, so perhaps we should be worried about that. It doesn’t work of course. Will the new Alexandr Solzhenitsyn please stand up?

Nayuleska said...

I visit a friend on her parents' farm in Somerset, and it is beautiful.

It's sad that the arts are being pushed aside (in some respects). People need the arts both for informaiton and for relaxation. Funding needs to be there to help reduce stress in the future.

Andrew Strong said...

It astonishes me that UK governments can still find billions to keep submarines wandering the oceans encouraging Iran and other 'rogue states' to develop their own nuclear weapons. I suppose I understand the loopy logic behind it, but if arts, education, and the fabric of our society has to be cut away in order to pay for a such an expensive defence system, what is left to protect? I'm sorry, Anne, I'm in a foul grump - East Enders may well be written by clever Oxbridge people (the BBC is full of them) - but I think it should be retitled Angry People Shouting. I knew a very clever chap who was a Sun journalist...he told me the hardest part of his job was keeping the reading age of his reports to 'around 6'. Not the greatest vindication of one of the wealthiest democracies on Earth.