Meat and Potatoes vs. Whipped Cream and Cherries: Why arts and culture matter in a recession

This article was shortlisted for The Independent‘s ‘iWriters’ competition 2013

‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship,’ said Philip Pullman, ‘stories are the thing we need most in the world.’

The arts, no matter what format they take – song, painting, illustration, photograph, sculpture, dance, novel, film, poem or play – tell stories that reflect, subvert and challenge society. They offer opposition to the status quo and make us question things. They educate and galvanise people to act, to want to right wrongs, to vote. No wonder the Coalition seems bent on cutting them to pieces.

In times of austerity, the arts are forced to compete for public funds with social care, education, policing and all the other meat-and-potato necessities of society. Meat and potatoes versus the whipped cream and cherries of people poncing about in leotards and intellectuals nodding their heads slowly in front of some unfathomable installation; it’s an unfair fight. There’s just something about Art with a capital ‘A’ that makes people wince. It conjures images of hierarchy and pretension, of luvvies draped in pashminas and people air-kissing in front of the new Hockney i-pad paintings.

Yet it is cutting arts funding that will turn the arts into an inaccessible, elitist sphere. Theatres, galleries, literary events… if their funds are slashed it really will just be people with money who get to produce and enjoy these things. It’s as if the government is saying to poor people: ‘Oh no, that’s not for you. By cutting their funding there will be more money for the things that really matter to you; your schools, your hospitals, your police stations.’ They’re basically claiming to be Robin Hood.

They are not Robin Hood. They are the opposite of Robin Hood. When libraries exist in deprived areas, when museums are free to enter, when theatres are publicly funded: that’s when the real social value of the arts comes into play. Drama workshops, for example, teach young people – regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds – communication skills and offer a vital boost to their confidence. The arts enlighten us about other cultures, which leads in turn to wider respect for minorities and, surely, to less hate crime. The arts contribute to the development of a happier, healthier nation of people who understand and tolerate one another, who want to help each other, and who feel they can express themselves without oppression.

The arts help us to discover the world and all its startling riches. They give joy and pleasure to those who participate in them and to those who are simply spectators. They help us to make sense of life, to embrace it and, by offering an escape from our often mundane and troubled existence, to endure it. We need the arts.

They are our meat and potatoes.

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