When governments try to balance their budgets in the face of huge deficits, or in the belief that cutting spending will boost the economy, there is consistently one area of funding that is cut, beaten bloody and left out in the cold. The arts. Whether Conservative or Labour, the arts tend to be first, and cut most harshly. In 2011, Arts Council England suffered a 29.6% cut in its funding, passing a 15% cut onto those organisations it funds. More cuts are likely to follow. In education, funding is pushed into those subjects that are good for the economy like the sciences, maths, and languages. Subjects such as Drama, art, design, dance however are often left to fend for themselves with poor facilities, little investment in teaching and low take-up rates. Last year, Newcastle City Council announced that it was going to completely remove the arts budget.
I suppose I can understand this to an extent. When politicians talk of ‘the arts’ they conjure images of stuck-up toffs swanning off to see a dry, rehashed performance of Hamlet. They suggest the kind of nonsense pieces of art that fill galleries like the Tate Modern (a pile of bricks…really?). The utter drivel that audiences pay huge sums of money to see in the West End; to sit where nosebleeds are a risk and watch ‘celebrities’ utterly destroy the songbooks of Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lloyd Webber. Not to mention the hours spent in GCSE classrooms learning the difference between stage right and stage left (I confess, I still get confused). There really is a lot of rubbish that receives funding from government, so they may as well cut as much funding as we can and save us the heartache of cutting granny’s once a week bridge club.
So why do I care? Firstly, as a gay man with performing running through my veins, the arts are my space, my outlet. I’m far happier sitting in the dark with a heavy-set man in drag singing to me about his Privates on Parade (a wonderful show from the Michael Grandage company that I saw yesterday) than sitting with the baying hoards at a football match. Here I feel safe, I feel comfortable and I feel happy. I can explore the full range of my emotions in just a few hours. Going to the theatre, to a film, to an art gallery are my therapy and my catharsis – the same for many people. They are also my social life. The vast majority of my friends have come from a shared bond in the arts – the camaraderie built from putting on a show together, through all the strains, tension and exhilaration. Unlike myself, many of those friends have pursued a career in the arts themselves and it breaks my heart to see how many of them are suffering financially, unable to find work in what they really want to do, all because of budget cuts.
It is this socialisation, this ability to express emotion, to relate to other humans that is the most essential part of the arts. Numerous studies have shown that arts participation leads to greater social cohesion, a growth in emotional intelligence in young people, more focus in other parts of a student’s education, and increased happiness. The arts are used to rehabilitate prisoners, to help young people suffering from abuse or neglect and to unite communities that may not even speak the same language. Much of this needs investment and the time of talented, well-trained practitioners who, when budgets are cut, may simply move away from the arts.
Also, the arts are the keepers of our social, cultural and political history. It is through paintings, through poetry, through plays that we can understand our predecessors; how they lived, loved and fought. We can properly learn from and explore the past. Instead of being resigned to dusty old textbooks, the arts bring history alive. And I love history. We can also explore our current society, the themes of life brought into stark reality. Were it not for the arts, I don’t believe the gay rights movement would have come so far so quickly – through the arts we are visible, we are not scary.
And here’s the paradox. The government might try to cut arts funding to reduce the big monoliths that suck up arts funding for mediocre works. But they will always hit the smaller galleries, theatre companies, dance teachers, writers – the ones that work with the community, that allow real people to get involved. The large institutions will always survive; when a show as vapid, soulless and terrible as Mamma Mia! can run in the West End for 14 years with huge audiences paying upwards of £50 for a ticket then a few budget cuts won’t make a difference. The National Theatre, The Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery – these will all survive. A change in funding I could advocate; if it encourages more young people, more people from non-privileged backgrounds to take part then I would applaud it. But not simple cuts. Smaller, important institutions will fall by the way-side, and with them, their unique critique of society, of politics and of culture. It is already happening, but we have to stop it.