Belfast Telegraph

It's time for all of us to stand up and fight for future of arts

By Jane Graham

I'm not the kind of person who advocates shoving the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, Jim Sheridan or Van Morrison down the populace's throats, but only because I don't have the muscle to hold down the average 6ft male.

Call me a hypocritical fascist if you like; you'd be right. My faith in individual freedom is undermined by my insistence that humanity as a whole can only improve if everyone is made to read The Great Gatsby and watch The Wire.

So it is with growing horror that I'm watching the UK edge the other way, towards a pernicious philistinism which will leave the place colder, duller, more aggressive and less productive.

My heart sank this week when I heard world-renowned cultural adviser Sir Ken Robinson weighing up Education Secretary Michel Gove's ideas on school curriculum reforms.

Gove favours a Baccalaureate style curriculum and has identified the five core subjects which students would be required to study under it - maths, English, science, a language and history or geography.

Sir Ken found Gove's approach alarming, assessing that such a hierarchy would lead to a downgrade of subjects like music, art and drama.

This, he said, would have a detrimental impact not only on those students who enjoy and excel in the arts but on the well-being of their schools.

Gove has heard such suggestions before and has vehemently denied that his changes would have any negative effect on arts teaching whatsoever.

So he must have been gutted when it emerged a few days ago that huge numbers of UK schools are looking to axe or reduce 'vocational' arts classes, while drama, art and music teachers have been identified as the most likely to be made redundant.

Meanwhile, out in the wider world, hundreds of libraries face closure, the Film Council has been killed off and regional arts funding is going down the toilet.

And it's particularly scary in Northern Ireland - the most logic-defying case of a tiny nation which has produced some of the greatest poets, playwrights and musicians on the planet, and yet whose Assembly is hellbent on a ruinous cut in arts funding of 23%, despite public spending in that area currently counting for a pathetic 1% of the total Executive budget.

It's a shock statistic from a country whose Culture Minister likes a laugh like everyone else but draws the line at, as his blog puts it, "modern playwrights (who) feel obliged to pepper their work with so much bad language" (written just after the internationally acclaimed, and frankly brilliant, play Black Watch arrived at the Belfast Festival last autumn).

But then Nelson McCausland is the guy who argued for a greater role for Creationism in Belfast's museums and regards NI's pipe bands among the country's finest artists - he probably thinks the dockside Big Fish is a better sculpture than Michelangelo's seedy old David.

Forget how much cold hard cash the arts generate in Northern Ireland (they employ about 33,000 people and generate about £580m a year but who's counting?).

The point is that exposure to the smartest, most empathetic minds and the richest, most enlightening language can make a weak will stronger, a lazy brain brighter, and a broken person whole again.

Just as raw self-expression, if we have the nerve to try it, can make us happier, more free and more fulfilled.

There are few things more crucial to our national mental health than a vibrant artistic culture - so, even if the fight requires pulleys and head clamps, then count me in.

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