Last night, I met an English chap by the name of David and got into a friendly bit of banter about the power of art. His girlfriend is an artist, so he has been forcing himself to learn a little bit about it of late, and is enjoying the process, although he admits to wondering what all the fuss is about Picasso. He also lives in the centre of London, so has all the educational tools he could possibly want on his doorstep.
David also cheerfully admitted that he held the impossible opinion that while he doesn’t think arts should be cut back more than other areas, he also doesn’t, as a taxpayer, want to fork out for it, and he raised the age-old question of where do you draw the line with funding, and at what point do you stop funding hospitals and start funding art galleries, when the purse is tight and the coffers bare?
This enormous issue was tackled rather eloquently in this honest essay by AL Kennedy. In it, she grabs the bulls by the horns and says: “A straight – and completely mythical – choice between the baby’s incubator and a poem? The incubator wins every time. The poet would write the poem anyway. Poets will write less if they never get paid, thrive less, or give up. So we get fewer poems and, long term, the poems are part of why we try to make sure there’s an incubator there for the people we don’t know, will never meet, don’t understand, don’t like.”
Read the full piece for her much more complete reasoning, but here is one very personal example of how funding for the arts is critical to our wellbeing. Over the Christmas, I was doing the usual tour of the relatives and we called into an older aunt of mine, Terry (incidentally, she claims to be the last virgin in Dundalk, but that is a very different story for a very different blog). Trying to keep up with Terry’s conversation is like trying to catch the wind. She rattles off quip after insult while battering you gently with questions and throwing in the odd appraisal: “That’s a lovely coat you have there. Where did you get that? Would you not shave that auld beard? Why haven’t I seen you in ages? Come here till I tell ye what that one up the road did to me the other day …”
On this particular day, she was holding court in her tiny sitting room, and we noticed a painting on the wall that hadn’t been there before. It was a straightforward scene, an old boat dragged on to an estuary beach, the river running out on an evening’s low tide, with a few indifferent mountains holding up the sky. The colours were vivid and bright, the strokes were steady. It was simple, and lovely to look at, and stood out on the bare walls. I guessed it must have been a gift, or something that had long been in the family, and wondered why we hadn’t seen it before.
My father asked where it came from. A short glance from Terry. “Ah, I did that auld thing.” It turns out that Terry goes to a day centre regularly, where older people drop in for a chat, a cup of tea and various social activities, one of which was an art class. (There followed a five-minute tirade from Terry at the extra fiver they were asked to stump up to cover the cost of art materials.) But afterwards, she told us how in the art class they were told to simply paint what they liked, so Terry painted the river in Dundalk and the boat, mindful that so many of her relations had worked at sea. She had never in her life before picked up a paintbrush, and has had no education in this regard. But the picture is every bit as sharp and joyful as her wit and her banter.
“They had some fella down from Dublin and had an exhibition yoke, and I won first prize.” At this stage she couldn’t keep the quiet bit of proud satisfaction from her voice though she waved it away dismissively. “So they asked me to do another, and I asked yer man there [an accusatory finger fired in the direction of my father] to bring me an auld picture of the lighthouse so I can do that, and I’m still waiting on it, hey.” And with that we were back on to the safe ground of slagging and accusations amid slabs of cake and buckets of tea.
The point is that this small art class has probably done more for Terry’s confidence and got her out of the house more often than plenty of other well-intended schemes. She tried something new, found a bit of joy in it, and something she could be proud of. A tiny bit of arts funding can work wonders when properly deployed and reach areas and people that are unresponsive to other approaches, as argued by Kennedy in her article that I referenced above. You don’t have to look far to see why funding the arts is every bit as essential as properly funding our healthcare and welfare systems.