Friday, 4 January 2013

The Arts: a Moral Issue?

Everyone knows that not all is well with the UK and world economy at the moment. Unemployment is high, we're in a double dip recession, and the government is cutting budgets across the board. As a music student about to leave university the situation can seem particularly bleak at times, especially as the arts have been hit hard by the cuts over the last few years. Central funding for both performance and education has been cut, the government's plan to replace it with philanthropy doesn't seem to be working, institutions and artists have lost confidence in subsequent culture secretaries, and organisations, especially small regional ones, are struggling.

I firmly believe that culture is an essential part of our society. The arts are part of our humanity, helping us to communicate, further debate, and express our emotions, whilst also providing entertainment and an escape from our everyday lives. Furthermore, participation in activities like drama and group music-making can encourage teamwork and leadership skills. There is no doubt in my mind that the arts (and not just in their western forms) make the world a more interesting and vibrant place.

On the other hand, the arts are far from being the only part of society that has been affected by the cuts. Government spending has been slashed across the board, including welfare and benefits, defence, and the NHS, while public sector pay has been frozen, and both tuition fees and the retirement age have been raised. These changes are clearly having an effect on many people's basic living standards, and it is that which, for me, raises a moral issue regarding arts funding. While the arts are valuable, I am not sure they have the same widespread, direct impact on quality of life as these other spending decisions do for many people. Arts funding does have an impact on people's livelihoods, and we shouldn't forget that, but does it really have the same impact on so many people's basic standard of living as something like disability benefits, or the same potential rewards as spending the money on poverty relief programmes would?

I am not suggesting that we should abandon the arts - they are part of our culture, and we should continue to push for them to be supported, while if we ceased to fund the arts entirely then many more people would be without work. However, if as artists and arts organisations we want our arguments for funding and attention to be respected it is important to recognise that there are other issues at stake. In an ideal world the arts, benefits, and schemes to tackle poverty and inequality would all be fully funded, but sadly that is not the case at the moment. Personally, I sometimes struggle to reconcile requests for expenditure on art with the knowledge that many people around the UK are struggling to make ends meet.

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