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I have been as keen as anyone to talk about the arts in terms of their economic contributions to communities. (You have to defend the arts in the language people understand.) But in the end, a focus on economic return is limiting. There are other values on the spectrum from “art for art’s sake” to “art for the economy’s sake.”
How about art for wonder’s sake, joy’s sake, self-expression’s sake, mystery’s sake — for the sake of just seeing what comes out and where it leads?
Over in Scotland, Tiffany Jenkins of The Scotsman is having a fit about Maria Miller, the Scottish Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Sport?!), who expressed her own take on the arts in a recent speech.
Says Jenkins, “The speech began with the right noises – ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches’ – but quickly took a wrong turn, concentrating on what culture can ‘deliver,’ specifically for the economy, using sentences such as: ‘It allows us to build international relationships, forging a foundation for the trade deals of tomorrow.’ “
“It matters,” writes Jenkins, “because of what happened with the funding body Creative Scotland, where there was a major negative reaction … in part due to an agenda that instructed the arts to be about the economy …
“To her credit Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet secretary for culture and external affairs for Scotland, was reported on Twitter responding to Miller’s speech stating: ‘The Scottish Government does not see arts and culture as a commodity.’ …
“That the arts are central to the economy is not an isolated idea, or a new one. … [But] it is a philistine approach that misses the value and point of culture. It is true that the Edinburgh festivals, for example, bring a strong financial return. … But even in this case, the financial return is not the best thing about the festivals – or why people come back every year to perform or to watch. They do it because they love it, enjoy it and are driven to participate in something meaningful. …
“Let us not forget the economic climate in which the Arts Council was established. This was a period in the 1940s, after a devastating war, when Britain was in a dire financial situation. The funding body was set up not to use the arts to get the country out of the economic crisis, in the blunt instrumental terms they are discussed today, but to stimulate ‘the best’ work.
“Economist John Maynard Keynes, the council’s first chairman, wanted to bring forth a ‘creative renaissance’ that was artist led, and acted at ‘arm’s length’ from the government, a vision that I would have no trouble with if it were realized today.” But it isn’t, complains Jenkins. Many of her concerns are pretty universal. More.
It’s an argument we will never hear the end of, having been debated in every generation. I am coming down firmly on the side of “yes, and…”
In other words, the arts can be great for the economy, but that is just the tiniest part of why they are great.