Why art matters


Society needs the arts to grow and thrive - but there's a much more important reason to fund them, writes John Tusa

Six years ago, I published a volume of essays about my first five years in the arts world, Art Matters. So much has changed in the past six years that it is time to take a fresh look at the assumptions that prevailed then.

Six years ago, the theoretical questions circling the arts were much as they are today. I described them as amounting to a "great existential doubt" as to whether anyone at all cared about the arts. I tried to express that existential doubt in some detail: "The arts stand naked and without defence in a world where what cannot be measured is not valued; where what cannot be predicted will not be risked; . . . where whatever cannot deliver a forecast outcome is not undertaken." Given such doubts - and they can be voiced in identical terms today - it seemed only right to attempt a positive statement of why art was worth fighting for. "The arts matter," I wrote then, "because they are universal; because they are non-material; because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world . . . A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future." Six years on, I stand by all of that.

Soon after, I tried a further definition of the special nature of arts activity. It was slightly different and went like this: "Art is about searching and sometimes finding; it defines pain and sorrow and sometimes softens them; it is about exploring confusion and defining disorder; . . . it is universal though it may be attacked as exclusive; it is diverse and not homogenised; it resists categories and makes connections across them." Well, that was then and now is now. Different times, different needs, different assumptions, different prescriptions. At one of those lectures about why art matters, a local-authority politician said afterwards: "I'm sure that's all very well but none of it applies to me and what I do." There was no arguing with that. His comment was a salutary reminder of the gap between a specialist language of the arts and the more practical considerations of the outside world in which the arts exist. I needed to try harder.

So here is my new, revised version of Why Art Matters, couched more in terms that I hope the local politician can relate to. The arts matter because they are local and relevant to the needs and wishes of local people. They help citizens to express their needs and to clothe them in memorable forms. They offer a way of expressing ideas and wishes that ordinary politics do not allow. The arts regenerate the rundown and rehabilitate the neglected. Arts buildings lift the spirits, create symbols that people identify with, and give identity to places that may not have one. Where the arts start, jobs follow. Anywhere that neglects the arts short-changes its people.

Now all of that is true. The arts have acted as a pole of economic and social regeneration in many places. At the same time, it is worth insisting (as the architect David Chipperfield has pointed out) that while the arts may be a necessary condition of post-industrial regeneration, they are not a sufficient condition. The so-called Bilbao effect was not achieved primarily by building Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum. That building followed a period of sustained local-government investment in infrastructure.

The arts do stimulate the growth of a creative sector in the economy. They do play a part in the vigour of the ideas economy. Yet, true as this is, it still seems to me to miss the point. The value of the arts is not to be defined as if they were just another economic lever to be pulled. That would place them on a level of activity where measurement of results, predictability of outcome and direction of activity are rated as conditions of success and therefore as grounds for investment in the first place. It puts us back in the bind of instrumentality.

The real question, then, is this: if art cannot repay the public subsidy; if it represents an investment on which there is no return; if it cannot guarantee audiences; if it cannot demonstrate immediate social relevance - if all of this is the case, why does art matter? Real art can fail every measurable objective set by economists and politicians. Yet it will still be art, sometimes great art. The criteria by which it is judged are different and must be appropriate to the activity. This is not to evade accountability; it is to insist that accountability must be right for the activity.

So is it possible to produce a newer definition of why art matters, one combining the fundamental importance of values while acknowledging that instrumental considerations do form part of the case for arts funding? This is the definition I would suggest: the final value of the arts cannot be predicted or quantified; to curtail them on these grounds is to deny the possibility of an unpredictable benefit. The risk of funding the arts offers benefits far greater than the immediate gains of not funding them. The arts link society to its past, a people to its inherited store of ideas, images and words; yet the arts challenge those links in order to find ways of exploring new paths and ventures. The arts are evolutionary and revolutionary; they listen, recall and lead. They resist the homogeneous, strengthen the individual and are independent in the face of the pressures of the mass, the bland, the undifferentiated. In a postmodern world, in which individual creativity has never mattered more, the arts provide the opportunity for developing this characteristic. The investment in the arts is so small, the return so large, that it represents value as research into ideas.

Is there a conclusive argument? Unfortunately, there isn't. What matters far more is that the arts world in all its forms presents the arguments for the arts on any and every occasion; that it insists on the acknowledgment of arguments about the intrinsic importance of values as the key justification for the arts. - (Guardian service)

John Tusa runs the Barbican, in London, and is chairman of Britain's advisory Committee to the Government Art Collection, a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, a trustee of the Design Museum, and a Board Member of English National Opera.