This philistine government is betraying the arts

Nov 26, 2018

In a sharply pointed piece on arts policy, Guardian columnist Hannah Jane Parkinson evokes the spirit of Jennie Lee, the first minister for the arts in 1964, in attacking what she sees as a ‘cultural deficit’ and ‘philistine times’ at the heart of government today.

Lee, she explains, ‘argued that the arts should be accessible to every adult and child, ingrained in everyday life; the education system; local communities, almost as an extension of public health’.

However, according to Parkinson, ‘the state of the arts in Britain does not make for good reading’ and there ‘seems to be no recognition of how powerful the arts can be in educating audiences, reflecting current events, exploring different views and opening up dialogue’.

It’s a message that gets repeated again and again and again. It’s clear that the arts have a positive impact on mental health, that they are good for general wellbeing, they can be a strong lever of social mobility, that they contribute significantly to the UK economy. And yet, time and again they’re systematically undervalued, undercut and underplayed across government. Take education, for example, for many the root source of a lasting appreciation of the value of the arts. Here the evidence is clear that they have been squeezed both from the curriculum and from the wider life of schools. With that comes a whole host of fears, well expressed in the recent Radio 4 Front Row debate on arts education: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00013vs.

And yet, there is always hope: the schools that do put the arts at the heart of their curriculum, the local groups rehearsing shows, the popularity of choirs and communal singing, the buoyancy of the creative industries, the burgeoning networks of crafters and creators online. In many respects it seems the arts survive in spite of government policy but how much richer might they – and the cultural life and health of the country – be if they were properly tended?

When 28,000 people turn out in the squally November weather for Plymouth’s Illuminate Festival it certainly suggests there’s an audience out there who are hungry for and deserve great arts and culture properly backed.

We just need a government that gets that and, as Parkinson suggests, a new Jennie Lee to champion it.

Read the full article from The Guardian here