It is hard to escape the constant talk of austerity and public service cuts in Britain right now, and one of the sectors hit the hardest by these is the arts. From professional theatres and museums to educational services, the arts are seen as one luxury that we can afford to get rid of. So are there benefits to the arts, and is the government disregarding them when they are perhaps the most important?
Young people are consistently overlooked by the government, in all areas. Artistic endeavours of all media are seen as something of a ‘treat’, an unnecessary part of society that is only allowed to flourish in times of economic boom. It seems as though the government — and society — refuses to understand how beneficial theatre, music, literature and all other forms of art can be to education, cultural progression and society as a whole. This week the Treasury announced a 7% cut to all arts services, and a 5% cut to Arts Council England, meaning yet more arts services are losing some, if not all, of their funding. This is on top of the 206 arts organisations that lost 100% of their financial support during 2011. Alongside this, university arts courses are facing further funding cuts, alongside the extortionate rise in tuition fees. You could be forgiven for wondering why anyone still pursues an education and career in the arts at all. Arts students in British universities find themselves paying the same fees as science or engineering students, but receiving far less contact time from lecturers and frankly woeful job prospects upon graduation. The government wants to encourage young people into apprenticeships, giving them practical vocational skills that will benefit society, whilst the arts have become a privilege that the average Briton can no longer afford to be part of.
The argument has been made for centuries that artistic endeavours are beneficial to creating well-rounded and culturally aware individuals. Theatre, literature and music are used as vital evidence of historical culture and demonstrate how society has developed. Contemporary art is a tool for social change, a method of therapy, an escape from the rat race and any number of other things for different individuals. Certain themes, particularly in theatre, resonate just as well with contemporary audiences as they did hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. So why cut funding for this seemingly vital part of life?
That’s just it, the arts are not vital. They are an optional extra; the arts are the cream cake you buy when you shop just after pay day. Arts and humanities education is not something that is going to save lives, or make companies wealthy: it is there to enrich life. I can’t even count the number of times I sat in the student union justifying my Music and English Literature degree to engineers and medics, whose argument slowly became more valid to me as I lost faith in my higher education choice. So are governments right in cutting funding for these seemingly frivolous activities? If we let young people indulge their passions for the arts, will Britain be faced with a generation of artistic wastes of space that are no good to anybody? Obviously this isn’t what would happen; so now anyone with an interest in the arts, no matter how small they consider their voice to be, should battle for funding to be retained. Despite calls from celebrities such as Alistair McGowan, and thousands of signatures on a petition, Westminster Council is still going ahead with plans to completely scrap funding for arts projects in the borough by 2015. Is there anything left for us to do that will encourage the authorities to identify the benefits of the arts, and therefore continue funding them? Should we embrace the arts as a recreational activity and pursue more in-demand career paths that contribute to society in a more obvious way? Accept our lot as lesser members of society due to our perceived lack of worth? Perhaps this is a futile battle during this seemingly endless recession.
Photo by Flickr user LollyKnit under a Creative Commons Licence.