I study English and drama at university. I read plays and novels instead of medical handbooks, I do practical classes and performances instead of placements, I use literary quotes instead of formulas to back up my arguments, and most of all, I don’t have a clear cut career path ahead of me. Therefore, I am perceived as doing a “soft subject.” We live in a society that is ever increasingly valuing productivity over interesting, balanced, varied lives. To do an arts subject is seen as foolish, the preserve of the privileged or a non-serious degree choice. They are the degrees that you will end up re-training after because, after all, can you really make a living from a drama degree, an English degree, or a music degree? The answer, to that question is yes, if only we allow each other to do so, if only the government and wider population change the way they think and act towards the arts sector.
We are not even half way through 2015 and already we have seen an 11.2% cut to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s funding, the loss of Queens Festival Belfast, 44% cuts to Tinderbox and Kabosh theatre companies, strikes by the underpaid staff of the National Gallery in London against the government’s plans for privatisation, an 84% funding cut to O’Brien press, and the move to “text-by-text” funding for a lot of publishing houses in Ireland, amongst other cuts and detrimental changes. Yes, the governments need to make savings, but we cannot continue to allow the arts to be a soft target for cuts.
We need to change the image of the arts sector. It is not just an occasional night out at the theatre that we could miss and not be too upset about, it is not just a gallery full of old paintings that really, we could just buy a €5 print of online, and it is not just the latest bestseller that you figure you will buy when the hype and price has dropped. The arts are a vibrant and essential part of our lives. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” If we continue to allow our arts sector to be driven into the ground by cut after cut, dismissing it as a disposable frivolity, then we will very soon find ourselves in a much less colourful world, a world lacking our greatest outlet for expression, a world without one of its major forces for change, and a world which has lost a part of what it is to live. As the quote from Bertolt Brecht (which lives on a post-it above my desk) puts it, “Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.”
We need to stop seeing the arts as a subject taught occasionally as a break from the “proper subjects” in primary school, as a soft subject in secondary school and university, as an expendable luxury, and as an easy target for cutbacks. It is time we recognised the arts for the powerful and valuable force in society that they are.