The debate about whether art matters has been raging since the very birth of Western culture. Plato banished those pesky poets from his hypothetical republic, whereas Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that the arts had social as well as aesthetic value, hoping that his poems would rouse the masses to revolution.
Fast forward a couple of centuries or so, and the great and the good still haven’t made up their minds. In 2010, the current coalition government cut Arts Council (ACE) funding by 30%, with further cuts being imposed every year since. Contrast today’s attitude with that of the British government during World War II. Back then they paid artists – among them Henry Moore and L. S. Lowry – to record the nation’s experiences of war, and to produce aesthetically pleasing propaganda.
The question of whether the arts are worth spending money on – particularly tax payers’ money – remains contentious. Why waste public money on actors waving their arms and pretending to be trees when there are 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK (according to Barnardo’s). When people are having to choose between food and heating this winter, others losing their jobs, and still others having their benefits slashed? And what about tackling the deficit?
The fact is that whatever we think of the arts, they are inextricably linked to these social and monetary concerns. Just look at the music and movie industries in the face of illegal downloading and streaming. The UK film industry is estimated to have contributed £4.6bn to GDP in 2011, even with many of us being a bit sneaky about getting our hands on the latest blockbuster. And let’s not forget Patricia Lockwood’s poem ‘Rape Joke’, which recently went viral, bringing the reality of rape culture to the forefront of online debate. The arts don’t just contribute to our society. They help to shape the way we live our lives, just as much as politics and money. And, just as importantly, they can reveal to us the forces that define our experiences and even encourage us to work for change.
But does that mean that we can’t just enjoy the vista of the sloping UEA lawns dotted with bunnies for its own sake? We don’t really have to think about the drier things in life every time we listen to a song we like or read a decent book, do we? And isn’t there a side to the arts that you can’t put a price on? Whatever we think about actors waving their arms around pretending to be trees, I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a single person on earth who hasn’t had a tingle in their toes when they see something beautiful. Whatever does it for you – be it the Mona Lisa or a bit of graffiti you passed on your way to work that time, Elgar or Nickelback’s latest mistake – the experience of art is one that connects us to something deeper than cleaning the kitchen. Beauty, and whether art matters, may be in the eye of the beholder – but what is universally human, and what changes our lives whether we realise it or not – is that we find things beautiful at all.