Recognising the value of the arts

The arts, like all good things, are currently under threat in this time of belt-tightening and number-crunching. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke refuses to take the so-called easy option.

What is art? Why is art important? Should we be subsiding or providing artistic experiences when jobs are being threatened and vital social services axed?

These are tough questions and do make you stop and think but it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that art – in its widest sense – is very important indeed. It defines who we are not only as a society but also as human beings.

In a world where we are increasingly being treated like automatons, where government and industry treats individuals in a one-size fits all manner – the arts remind us that we are all different.

That it is okay to have an opinion that doesn’t chime with the mainstream, that it is great to have a quirky, sideways view of the world, it is healthy to ask questions about why we do things and above all it’s important that we are true to ourselves.

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The arts also provide an opportunity to stop, draw breath, and take a look at the world in which we live. We are all hurtling along at such a speed these days, cramming as much as we can into each and every day, being busy, hitting targets, getting an ever-increasing number of jobs done – so focused on the immediate task at hand that we either forget to look at the world around us or simply cannot see, let alone enjoy, the world around us.

In short, we are in danger of forgetting to live a life. At times I fear we are becoming robots – fully functional, completely compliant organic machines that efficiently get up every morning, work all hours that God gives, collapse at the end of each day (because we are not machines) get up the following morning and start the process all over again.

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Hobbies and out of hours are becoming increasingly frowned on – particularly in professional circles. Friends of mine (amateur actors naturally) are viewed with resentment as they head off at 6pm so they can be at rehearsal, having had a bite to eat and time to change clothes, for 7.30pm.

It doesn’t help that their colleagues don’t understand this desire to dress up and perform in public. It’s not just actors who get that frosty treatment in the office.

Local artist Ken Cuthbert, a dazzling talent who has been a leading professional for many years now, was taken aside as an aspiring youngster while working for Ipswich Weights and Measures – now trading standards – and warned after a high profile exhibition not to let his painting interfere with his day job.

“An outside interest is all very well but it shouldn’t distract you from your work,” he was told.

It’s the desire to create identikit citizens that causes so much stress. Fitting square pegs into round holes. Clones are much easier to manage, to legislate for than real people.

Folk with quirky, unpredictable personalities and strange enthusiasms. Britain used to be renowned as a nation of eccentrics. We see very few these days.

Libraries are vital in spreading the word (if you pardon the pun). They can open up a wide variety of new worlds, a range of new experiences. They can expand all our horizons, not just those of the young, although they remain the biggest group that would lose out if this vital amenity is lost. Libraries are a vast treasure store of knowledge and a launching pad for our imaginations.

They remain a vital gateway into the arts and the world in the broadest possible sense. Not only do they frequently provide us with our first access to the parts with books on artists, actors, musicians, theatre and film, but they also provide writers and artists with the raw material to create their work. And the Government is willing to withdraw this bank of accumulated wisdom?

The arts encourage to stop and look at the world in which we live. Prompt us to ask questions – of ourselves and the people in power. The arts can effect change, they can raise awareness and take our leaders to task.

Government is using education to try and shape our society. You see it everyday. League tables, Ofsted and the national curriculum are just the visible personification of this.

The Government is declaring that everyone in higher education has to be good at maths and take science. What if you are clever but not good at maths and science or God forbid, not interested in maths and science. What if you want to be an actor, dancer, musician, photographer, sculptor?

What happens if you are good at these things and that is where your special talents lie?

Shouldn’t you be allowed to pursue them? Shouldn’t you be allowed to train to maximise your gifts – allow them to make some contribution to the economy? Make no mistake, the arts bring shedloads of money into the economy, both locally and nationally.

Investment in the arts not only makes our lives brighter, not only increases our under-standing of the world around us, but it also helps fill the coffers.

If that is all our Government officials understand in these financially straitened times, then so be it. Investing money in the arts is investing in the future of our economy – in terms of sales in restaurants, car parks, hotels, wood, paint, wages, food, costumes, electricity and allowing audiences to shed the stresses and burdens of the day.

Hobbies too are important. The arts allow people to embrace and explore the world. How many sick days through stress are avoided by people enjoying an artistic hobby or attending concerts, plays, theatre and cinema as an audience member?

As people, we are supposed to live. We are supposed to experience life in all its many facets – the arts give us the tools to do that. Sadly, at times I fear that we are merely existing.

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