The place of the artist


President Michael D Higgins’s recent insistence that supporting the arts is as important during a recession as in times of economic growth is timely. His speech at the Paris headquarters of Unesco about the need to place culture centre stage in discussions of how to build a more fulfilling society, carried an echo of the remarks of another president almost 50 years ago, John F Kennedy.

In a powerful speech to honour poet Robert Frost, Kennedy declared “the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope’.” The creation of America’s National Endowment for the Arts two years later could be seen as the practical expression of Kennedy’s vision that there was “little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilisation than full recognition of the place of the artist”.

While the context for his speech was Unesco’s cultural programme, in a time of regressive cuts to arts here funding Mr Higgins’s reference to the trickle-down effects of such cuts was blunt: “Starving artists in attics may make for entertaining operatic librettos, but such a myth is as destructive of social values as it is of the individual artist’s life.”

In austere times there is a danger that cultural policy will lean too much on economic argument instead of emphasising the social, educational and other riches society bestows on its citizens. Kennedy’s “recognition of the place of the artist” is best expressed in support that bestows financial dignity. To its credit the Arts Council, through public subsidy, has done much to improve conditions for artists and writers, but it took decades to haul the arts out of impecuniosity. They must now not be allowed become a beggar’s opera or return to the myth that they thrive in adversity.

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