Not some intangible panacea - but arts are key to saving our soul


OPINION: We need only imagine what life would be like without the arts to see how important they are, writes PAT MOYLAN

IN THE Irish Timesrecently, there was a supplement celebrating Dublin and its writers. The supplement documented, among other things, how writers such as Yeats, O’Casey and others helped Ireland as a society to interpret events such as the 1916 rising.

In the same supplement, author Claire Kilroy wrote about how the boom cleared the pubs of dreamers and arty types, “giving them jobs that both harnessed and limited their creativity”. She also made the observation that the older generation of writers is now publishing a lot of historical fiction whereas “our age group, mainly Dubliners, are preoccupied with the city itself, and in particular with the nasty side of the recent wealth and the victims left in its wake”.

It is often in times of adversity that the arts come into their own. Of course we cannot command the kind of artistic response we wish for. But we can trust our artists to explore and articulate the human response to the tribulations of our times.

Right now, our morale and self-esteem as a nation have taken a pounding. More than ever it is important for Irish people to believe in themselves, and the arts can be the vehicle to achieve that. The arts can help people, as playwrights did in the 1920s, to give expression to the simmering anger and confusion they feel at the economic maelstrom, and the helplessness felt by so many. Even when the arts experience is complex or disturbing, exploring the dark side of the boom perhaps, the truth of that experience will be compelling if it is a good work of art.

The arts help to define and enrich community identity and quality of life. The sense of place – physical or cultural – which can be accentuated by the arts is recognised in academic literature as a critical motivator of creativity and innovation.

The success of our artists abroad is a priceless boost to morale and helps us to hope and believe that as a nation we have the creativity to pull through. You just have to imagine what life would be like without the arts to recognise how important they are to the life and soul of the country.

Don’t believe for a moment that the arts are some intangible panacea whose only contribution is to make us feel better. They deliver much more. Every time one of our writers, actors, directors or musicians hits the headlines, it attracts more tourist hits for Ireland and safeguards more hospitality sector jobs.

The arts on their own could never solve the unemployment problem, but can make a big contribution, generating, for example, turnover of more than three times the investment level, a quarter of which is returned in taxes. The wider arts sector sustains more than 26,500 jobs, while the wider creative sector employs 96,000 and gives an added value to the economy of some €5.5 billion.

Arts are at the heart of the cultural tourism offering of this country and local festivals put the sizzle in Irish summers. Cultural tourism is worth about €5 billion a year to our economy, according to Fáilte Ireland.

It is in binding communities and society together that the arts can fulfil their greatest role. We need this motivator of creativity and innovation. That is why, even now, investment in the arts should be stepped up. The arts have the countrywide and community spread necessary to be the motivating force for this time. In the past two decades, significant progress has been made in advancing the goal of integration of the arts within the lives of communities throughout the country with an impressive grid of arts centres and venues.

Such venues act as local hubs and Arts Council support has woven the arts into the fabric of communities. A wealth of expertise has built up with artists and communities who were involved in the early days of the community arts movement who have now consolidated that in established companies and projects around the country.

The public see the arts in a different way now too. The most recent major study of public attitudes to the arts shows much greater public access and engagement than at any time in the previous 20 years.

The investment made in the arts could be used now to contribute to our understanding of ourselves. It is beyond doubt that the State needs to find a way to connect across communities and groups. Doing it through the arts might silence the critics at the Financial Times– for at least in culture we are internationally recognised for innovation and excellence.

Pat Moylan is chairwoman of the Arts Council