The myth of the arts

James Bryce wonders why the arts are important to some but not to others, particularly when the others in question happen to be those in government.

Arts in action: bringing people together for shared experiences

We are in a time of crisis. We are always in a time of crisis. That is what sells the papers. That is what keeps us nervy by titillating our inveterate worry patterns.

In this country, in times of crisis, the arts are always one of the first things to be hit. Why?  Well, in this country, the arts are a frippery, an entertainment, something to pass the time when the real business of the day has been done; a view injected into the blood along with the work ethic and probably Puritan guilt. 

When the likes of Danny Boyle, fresh from wowing us with his Olympic opening ceremony, and Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, make the same old pleas for the arts on the basis that the arts are (a) educational and vital to the welfare of the country, and (b) provide a lot of employment to a lot of people, I experience a sense of weariness. The government – any British government – has heard all this before. Many people's jobs have been hit. Everyone has to tighten their belts, we are told (apart from bankers and company directors, of course, but we won't go into that) until economic Xanadu has been realised.

I specifically cite British government because it appears that in other countries the arts are important. Finland, for example, has a wondrous new theatre in Helsinki. Each major town in Germany is allocated money to help fund individual film projects. During the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia,Havel'splays were seen as dangerous and had to be performed in secret locations. Soviet censorship is well-known. There was riot at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, although I understand this may have been staged. So, in Europe at least, the arts must be saying something.

But not here. Or are we missing something?

Originally, the arts, in the form of ritual dances or religious plays, were the focus of the community. Vestiges of this can still be seen in the bull-run in Pamplona, in religious parades and processions, events which are for the community and of the community. The Czechoslovak example above reaffirms this.

In this country, until relatively recently, there was an element of this, even at the level of pure entertainment with the music halls and popular theatres. Even when the cinema came along people had to conjoin to experience a common event. When TV originally appeared there was always the knowledge that a great number of our neighbours were sharing that event at the same time. However, the vital ingredient was slowly being lost.

Now the only places you really get a large group of people sharing the same event are at sports events, at concerts and in theatres. It is a far cry from ritual participation but it is something. We are now a crowd of individuals. Community is dying and the results, aided and abetted by the current worship of out-of-town malls, can be seen in many a derelict town centre. And, as a whole, we are not happy buns.

I think this is why the arts are so important. New plays, new music, new art are often saying something quite important about ourselves, investigating the myths of our society, of our humanity. This is how Shakespeare and others can keep talking to us over the years. But government does not understand this. It is all about product, not about what the product does.

We have brought the arts into the marketplace to be dealt with as part of the same belief system as that of selling beans in a supermarket. Witness the growth of middle management in the arts. Thirty years ago the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh had one publicity officer; now it has seven. Newcastle plans to cut its funding to all arts bodies. And how many administrators were employed to make that decision? How many of them will lose their jobs? Creative Scotland is now an unwieldy, watch-your-back, funding body happily sponsoring big classy productions and organisations which for years have toured abroad while ignoring local talent. Scottish film-makers have all but given up expecting anything from this arts organisation.

And yet, there is a thirst for live settings of new work. Witness the growth of songwriters' venues; the plethora of home-made CDs; and the desire on the part of many of the younger generation to express themselves through music and drama, which had thousands of school-age followers until recently peripatetic tutors were cut, doubtless to the tune: “We don't need cellists, do we?”

But government does not understand this. It is all about product.

The arts, sports, events which can bring our communities together are vital to the very act of physically bringing together people as part of the same event. Telly will not do it. Cinema does not really do it. But our community depends on it, and continuing to treat apparently “leisurely, passing-the-time” activities as of no more value than a can of beans does us no favours as human beings.

Mind you, if popular science can continue to see us as no more than a bundle of atoms and the result of chance mutations, then it is no surprise that funding bodies see us, the artistic entities that craft the work, in the same way. What goes on in one part of society is a mirror of each other part; but that's another story.



The Leisure Review, December 2012

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“The arts, sports, events which can bring our communities together are vital to the very act of physically bringing together people as part of the same event. Telly will not do it. Cinema does not really do it. But our community depends on it”

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