Giving €325 a week to artists a sign our society has grown up

Any move to make the artists’ lot an easier one is to be welcomed. Or is it, asks COLETTE SHERIDAN
Giving €325 a week to artists a sign our society has grown up

TV shows such as Derry Girls, which has just begun its third series, are produced by artists like writer Lisa McGee and the actors

CHATTING to some theatre people recently about the Government pilot scheme to give 2,000 random artists €325 a week for three years, they complained that techies, for example, are not included.

Yet no show could go on without the lighting crew or the sound technician, they argued.

(Yeah - and what about the ice-cream sellers at the interval of a play? Or the programme printers?)

That line of argument goes nowhere. Techies are not artists.

The Government initiative was sparked by the pandemic during which many artists struggled, unable to work. Any move to make the artists’ lot an easier one is to be welcomed. Or is it?

It all boils down to the perceived value of the arts.

I’ve been reading British literary critic, John Carey’s book, What Good Are The Arts? Known for his anti-elitist views on high culture, Carey writes that in the 19th century, “it became a widespread cultural assumption that the mission of the arts was to improve people and that public access to art galleries would affect this.

“It was felt in particular that if the poor could be persuaded to take an interest in high art, it would help them to transcend their material limitations, reconciling them to their lot, and rendering them less likely to covet or purloin or agitate for a share in the possessions of their superiors. Social tranquility would thus be ensured.”

That sounds utterly patronising, with its implicit notion of social control.

Historian and Church of England priest, Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), suggested that the working classes should visit art galleries to experience beauty, with a view to the beauty that eternal life in heaven will offer them.

As Carey rightly says, a worker might respond to such nonsense by saying: “Why have you and your kind left me to struggle in poverty and dirt? Is that the morality your so-called art promotes? if so, I want none of it.”

After all, you can’t ate art. And if you’re unable to afford food on the table, going on about the self-improving qualities of visiting art galleries is for the birds.

It’s no wonder some folk think the arts don’t speak to them and are elitist. But try living life without the arts and it will be very dull.

It seems like the nation tuned into the new series of Derry Girls last week. That counts as art, employing a clever and witty writer as well as actors bringing a little gaiety to our lives.

Some of the best drama is on TV and Netflix these days. It’s accessible and has been a life-saver during the lockdowns. We take it for granted now.

We know that at the click of a button, we can enter a whole new world that entertains and stimulates us, that makes us reflect on the human condition, and that gives us reference points that bond us to others.

Classical philosophers believed that art could make people better. Aristotle thought that music was character-forming and should be part of young people’s education. In listening to music, he said “our souls undergo a change”. It arouses “moral qualities”.

However, it must be the right sort of music. Get this: The “wrong” sort of music, particularly that of the flute (“too exciting” in Aristotle’s view) appeals to “mechanics, labourers and the like” as well as to slaves and children. its influence is “vulgarising”.

I don’t suppose he’d have had much time for rock ‘n roll.

Plato, on the other hand, thought the arts make people worse. Unlike reason and science, they are “far removed from truth” and have ‘no true or healthy aim.’

He saw the arts as primarily being a kind of sport or play. In arranging human souls into nine grades according to merit, Plato put philosophers on top and tyrants at the bottom. Artists came sixth.

However, he made an exception for music, as long as it is “virtuous” music that appeals to “the best and the best educated” as opposed to “vicious” music that appeals to the majority.

Plato definitely wouldn’t have tolerated the likes of The Sex Pistols.

Thankfully, his narrow view of what is and what is not acceptable is the preserve of snobs and the would-be moral police trying to dictate what is good taste.

The arts are a broad church. It is surely something to be proud of that in this country, we (well, the clergy and civil servants) have gone from banning books by some of our finest writers to acknowledging their crucial contribution to our inner lives.

That the Government is aiming to ensure that a basic income is given to artists (albeit a limited number of them) is a sign that we have grown up and no longer see the arts as some sort of outsider activity.









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