Art for our sake: culture’s vital role in today’s society

12 Jul 2018

The decision to write about the arts during a week when the Brexit melodrama has dominated the news might initially seem a strange one.


To shift the focus away from the tumultuous exit of Boris Johnson from the Westminster stage, and the increasingly perilous position of the government, might appear to be ignoring the greatest spectacle of them all in favour of the more light-hearted offerings of the art galleries and concert halls.


Accusations of the arts being out of touch with society’s more pressing problems are nothing new. However, such criticisms are misplaced.


When questioning the relevance of the arts to the more ‘serious’ issues of the day, glancing over the week’s headlines provides an instant endorsement of the relevance of our cultural heritage.


The front cover of Tuesday’s i displayed a full-page photo of the now-ex Foreign Secretary, captioned with a headline borrowed directly from Shakespeare, ‘Et tu, Boris?’.


The headline suggests that, to illuminate an act of personal and political disloyalty, we must look not to our political history, but to Julius Caesar and its portrayal of the ultimate betrayal of a leader by a former friend.


Shakespeare’s tragedy embodies the role of the arts at their best, helping us to understand, reflect on, and even question the world as it appears before us.


Just as Johnson’s not altogether infrequent associations with Julius Caesar have added further tumult to an already-turbulent political career, the arts frequently provide a fruitful source of challenge to the status quo.


The popularity of plays such as Laura Wade’s Posh, which relentlessly denounces the perceived entitlement of the Oxbridge-educated political elite, demonstrates the widespread demand for the arts to hold society and its leaders to account.


At their most productive, however, the arts offer not only criticism of social and political problems, but also progressive alternatives.


Take the current smash-hit musical Hamilton, widely praised for its diverse recasting of the story of America’s founding fathers and focus on the immigrant status of its protagonist.


By offering a foundational history in which Americans of all ethnicities participate, Hamilton demands the historic claim of all Americans to an equal place in contemporary American society, immigrants included, challenging the exclusionary rhetoric of the President.


With Hamilton in mind, the often-heard criticism of the arts as elitist appears evidently misplaced.


However, the stereotype remains alive and well, given a recent, high-profile airing by the Labour MP and Chief Executive of UK Music, Michael Dugher,  who has branded the Arts Council ‘elitist and too posh for pop’ following its decision to allocate the bulk of its funding to opera. 


Dugher’s view of opera as stuffy and exclusionary no longer holds water. Just as Hamilton has injected musical theatre with a welcome social conscience, opera has consciously moved to dispel its unwanted reputation for exclusivity.


Opera companies can be found at the forefront of projects for social inclusion throughout the country, with initiatives such as Streetwise Opera working with those who have experienced homelessness.


Such projects are typical of the arts at grassroots level, frequently taking the lead in tackling some of society’s most pressing and often-overlooked problems. Projects such as these perform crucial work, operating in areas often overlooked or underfunded by government.


Beyond opera, we can look to the work of the Manchester Camerata, a leading regional orchestra, running sessions for local dementia patients to offer means of non-vocal expression for those struggling with verbal communication.


Or look to Chester’s newly opened Storyhouse cultural hub, which offers sewing classes for refugees and workshops which integrate those at risk of social isolation.


Both Storyhouse and the Camerata exemplify the role of the arts in providing a focus for community identity, something also embodied by Hull’s activities as the 2017-2020 City of Culture.


Such projects are vital in providing areas beyond London with a distinct cultural and regional character, and pulling in non-local visitors. Given the current prevarication over HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse projects, the arts are vital in providing a regionalised income and identity which politicians cannot, or will not, deliver.


Underpinning all of the work carried out by the creative industries, whether through onstage political commentaries aiming to fuel political progress, or classes tailored towards supporting dementia patients, is a fundamental desire for social improvement.


Above all, the arts can both inspire and practically enable us to build a better community.


At a time where our politicians are bitterly divided, the Brexit debate grows more toxic by the day, and the country awaits the visit of a US President whose policies have divided children from parents, the world desperately needs a voice for unity.


That voice can be heard loud and clear from the nation’s stages, actors, musicians, and artists.


At their best, the arts can stimulate not only our imaginations, but our work towards a better society.

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