Worth of the arts cannot be judged by cash it makes
When we've just been warned that our basic physical health could be compromised by proposed budget cuts, there won't be many people fretting about the fate of the arts in Northern Ireland, which are also facing crippling cuts – possibly terminal, in some cases.
Thirty-seven organisations, including the Ulster Orchestra, the Lyric Theatre and The Mac, are getting their budgets unexpectedly chopped, right in the middle of the funding year.
But what does one less performance, or painting, or play, matter when there are lives at stake, right? Wrong. If you think like that, you may as well just give up on the arts altogether. Gather them up and dump them at the kerb in a black bin bag.
There will always be other, more obviously pressing, demands on the public purse, and the arts will never win in a showdown with health or education, but they're vital nonetheless.
We would be impoverished in the deepest sense – as a society, as individuals – if we allowed the arts to dwindle and die. At their best, they teach us what it is to be human, opening up possibilities, other worlds, challenging us to think differently.
They wake us up, kick us in the backside, show us hidden parts of our minds and stimulate our wildest fantasies. They revolt us, delight us, infuriate us, make us laugh and weep and remember and forget. They touch us in a way that nothing else can. And without them, we are little more than dull plodders on the surface of the Earth.
That's why we need the arts to be in the control of a minister who understands what they're dealing with. Composer and former Arts Council director Dr Philip Hammond made headlines this week when he claimed the current incumbent, Caral Ni Chuilín, hasn't a clue.
Hammond said he was "outraged, shocked, disappointed, angry – and incredulous – that our fragile world is in the hands of a politician who clearly has absolutely no notion of what is going on in the arts in Northern Ireland, has no notion of what has been happening in the arts in Northern Ireland, and clearly has even less notion of what should be happening in the arts."
He drew particular attention to the severe difficulties encountered by the Ulster Orchestra, adding that: "I know for a fact they cannot survive on the money they bring in in sponsorship and in box office. They have to have public funding."
It certainly does seem extraordinary that Ms Ni Chuilín was able to come up with £1m of extra arts funding – seemingly from down the back of the sofa – and distribute it to favoured projects at the very time when flagship organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra are teetering on the edge of disaster.
The real problem here is that we've forgotten the fundamental value of the arts. Some of our politicians – the vast majority, I'd argue – never knew it in the first place, because they're anti-intellectual philistines.
The main purpose of the arts is not driving the economy, nor bringing people together in love and harmony, nor widening access to excluded social groups. All these things can be part of what art can do, but they're not the main reason for it to exist.
Yet that's what art means to the politicians. – it's little more than a crude tool for maximising social inclusion.
Who cares whether it's good, or beautiful, or ugly, or awe-inspiring?
They're only interested in getting the mass public involved and, if they do, that's counted as a success.
Far from the whinge by local playwright and self-appointed man of the people, Martin Lynch, that the arts are snobby and elitist, the truth is that if you want cash for art projects – even in these straitened times – just make sure it's as accessible and relevant and all-round populist as possible, then, miraculously, the money will come rolling in.
That doesn't work so easily for groups such as the Ulster Orchestra. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto can hardly be given a populist makeover.
Yet if it, and similar organisations, are slowly starved of cash until they can no longer survive, then we're all losers. We are less of a society.
And nobody is being excluded here. A ticket for the Ulster Orchestra's Grand Opening Concert in September costs £10.
What's to stop any of us from walking in and experiencing this rich pleasure for ourselves?