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We need the Arts

While medicine keeps us alive, the Arts give us a reason to live, argues Shruti Sharma.

Coming from a family of physicians, I grew up in hospitals. When I followed my white-coat-donned brother through the halls, I felt that, while physicians could take care of the patients’ disease, another type of medicine was needed to take care of the person with the disease. I have a vivid memory of when it hit me that the arts could be this medicine. I was in the clinic with a teenage girl who had suffered extensive facial burns. During an arts therapy session, she wrote a poem that communicated a lot more to me than her medical record. Through her lyrical lines she expressed the trauma she had experienced and reflected on the true essence of beauty.

It then came to me that beauty is reached through a deeper connection to the human experience; a connection the arts successfully facilitate. I’m concerned that widespread cuts for the arts will excise programmes like these. Recently, the UK government estimated that over £40m per year will be cut from arts funding post-Brexit. This money is currently being used to fund over 1,300 art projects. Moreover, with a strained connection to Europe, British artists will not have the same ability to collaborate.

Disruption to the arts will have consequences as the arts are as important to sustaining the health of our society as is medicine. While medicine lets us live, the arts give us reason to live. Arts and culture are the life and blood of a nation, and, thus, public funding to keep the sector alive is crucial.

First, the arts give us a medium with which we can question our political thought and are a platform for diverse narratives to give light to social inequalities. Second, their proven therapeutic effects are needed in current, divisive times when the mental health of people is deteriorating. The positive effects that arts have on our society means that the arts need to be accessible to all.

Fostering a relationship between different cultures increases creativity and open-mindedness, traits shown to be important for sustaining peace. Ai Wei Wei’s recent sculpture, Law of the Journey, discusses the refugee crises and is a result of collaboration between the East and West. The importance of intercultural collaboration has also been recognised by Arts Council Chair, Nicholas Serota, who stated: “Culture has always made a key contribution to our soft power, making friends and building dialogue, and supports our growing creative industries. It is clear that artistic exchange that comes from international collaboration plays an important role in this success.”

Challenging political decisions

In the current political climate, which is characterised by highly nationalist sentiments, the arts are needed to bridge the left and right and bestow perspective on our politics. While Britain transitions away from Europe, there have been harsh political debates, that, at times, are unkind and impart a cold atmosphere to a torn country. But instead of leading discussion through overpowering rhetoric, the arts instead allow us to question political decisions and explore complex social issues.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Shepard Fairey’s Hope portrait are past and present examples of iconic art that have played a major role in embracing new political directions. During this politically divisive time, the arts are also needed for their therapeutic effects as they are medicine to both our mind and soul. Recent statistics reported that one in three young people in Britain feel more anxious now leaving the EU.

Moreover, 14% of all hospital beds in the EU are for psychiatric care and one in four people in the UK suffer from mental illness. Art therapy has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression by over 70%, according to results from the Arts on Prescription project led by the leading mental health charity, Arts and Minds. Worldwide, the therapeutic effects of the arts have been recognised and funded. Harvard Medical School founded the Arts and Humanities Initiative that funds a residential artist. Recently, a hospital in Montréal has been allowing doctors to prescribe free visits to fine arts museums as complements to more traditional treatments. These visits are aimed at improving both physical and mental health.

Access 

It is particularly important that the positive effects of the arts reach all of society. We cannot solely depend on privatised funding of art as it will limit access to the nation’s wealthiest. Raising the barrier to arts at a time when poverty, especially in-work poverty, is on the rise will segregate our community further. Under such circumstances, only the select privileged few will be privy to the arts. Public funding of the arts was embraced by British society in 2001 when admission to national museums were made free through major efforts by the then Cultural Secretary.  After a decade of free admissions, visitor numbers to government-sponsored museums rose from seven million to almost 18 million. Specifically, free admission has increased visits from lower economic groups. Even with political change in 2010, when the arts faced a funding cut of 30%, the Culture Secretary secured the future of free museum admission. Yet, if funding keeps getting pulled away from arts institutions, there will undoubtedly be a tipping point between access and excellence.

One may argue that technology such as apps and virtual reality could compensate for direct access to art. But a technological experience is not a human experience. For it is only with your eyes that you can value John Constable’s colourful, poignant landscapes or appreciate the finer strokes of Ben Nicholson’s sombre colour palette in his portraits. The feeling of transcendence can only be experienced live from an operatic aria in Manon set on a fantastical stage with trapeze acts. And the thrill of human strength is witnessed from a series of grand jetés in a ballet performance.

But it is up to the individual, and only from their personal interaction with a piece can a connection be formed with a work of art. Recently the city of Hull completed its year as city of culture and experienced the transformative effect of the arts on its people. Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, noted that: “…for the first time, space was created for members of the public to come together to share different ideas and values and to challenge and debate. The city today feels more confident and the community more united…At a time when the cohesion of society is threatened by visible inequalities in wealth, housing, health and education, the arts provide a place where ideas can be debated, explored and developed and new propositions can be put forward.” 

Meeting the needs of society

Hence, it is vital for Britain to distribute its resources to allow arts to flourish in the entirety of the country. Through adequate funding, centres for arts can continue to grow and evolve to meet the needs of society. As an example, the Royal Opera House has made progress as a “cultural centre” and since September includes working spaces with free wifi, exhibits and a café. The Royal Opera House also has a variety of student schemes to introduce experiences with arts and culture early. Such programmes with the arts have been further shown to elevate student confidence, and their pieces of historical significance impart to students a deeper sense of belonging.

Through similar changes in all public art institutes, wider audiences can appreciate the arts. Moreover, widespread access to the arts will empower communities to be accepting. This will be a strategy for economic and social success in an era that will embrace globalisation and collaboration.

Lyndon B. Johnson, former President of the United States left a legacy of social reform. When signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts in 1965, Johnson claimed: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

In these times of extreme thoughts, the Arts help us recognise perspective. In these days of nationalism, the Arts give us a global appreciation. And, indeed, in these moments of division, the Arts remind us of the value of our shared experience and the greatness we can achieve together as a society.

*Shruti Sharma [2015] is doing a PhD in Physics. This article is based on a speech Shruti gave as a finalist for the Brian Riley Declamation Prize at Pembroke College. The Master gave her a special commendation in which he stated that her speech was "beautiful, really beautiful and her delivery was passionate and elegant". Picture credit of the Royal Opera House: Russ London (talk) courtesy of Wikimedia commons.