The relevance of arts in society has always been a controversial debate and in the height of many pressing issues, the debate continues. With the emergence of a housing crisis resulting from a rapid rise of homelessness and many other prominent social issues, the question of where arts and culture stand, and more importantly should it still receive funding in the midst of these crises, is an important question to some.
One of the most popular questions often inspired by this debate is simply ‘what do the arts have to offer society?’ To some, art is undoubtedly significant while to others its significance is considered to be on a lesser plane, if considered at all. Is art just a form of escapism from the “real” world, or does it actually have something to offer society? Kellie Hughes, the Artistic Director at the UCD Ad Astra Academy for Performing Arts, establishes that art offers meaning to the world. Its significance can be seen in the sense that through art, we can view the world in a meaningful way and art can also bring personal revelation. In terms of its significance, Kellie says “when we either express ourselves or if we’re struck by a piece of art that either disturbs us or excites us we find something about ourselves that we don’t know about…. If you get good art it can really disturb you. It can excite you and ignite questions. Without that, what are we?” Speaking to some students from UCD, their response was mixed: “of course, the arts are important. I would be wrong to argue they offer no real substance but they’re not as pressing and important as other things.”
“However, it is important to some that the arts remain in a different category for classification purposes, so as to elevate it and show it it worth investing time and money in.”
We can see art taking a new form in society, for example the abbreviation of STEM becoming STEAM with arts right in the middle. This leads us to another interesting aspect of this discussion, and that is whether arts should be classified in a separate category from the four traditional areas of Science; Technology; Engineering and Mathematics, or if it should be merged with everything else to accurately place and acknowledge the role the arts and culture plays in our day-to-day lives. However, it is important to some that the arts remain in a different category for classification purposes, so as to elevate it and show that it’s worth investing time and money in. Kellie defies the need for categories and establishes that art can coexist with society, “I think,if I even take an example of the people I work with here in university, one of the scholars who have just graduated and had a piece of work in the Dublin Theatre Festival is Katie O’Byrne. She was a neuroscientist so her art and her scientific brain both sit together and they’re not mutually exclusive.”
“In a time where 1 in 6 people in Ireland live in poverty, and with approximately 100,000 homeless with figures increasing does one’s perception towards arts change? Should funding temporarily decrease?”
In recent times the crux of the debate around arts is often to do with funding. The Arts Council’s grant from the Irish Exchequer in the year 2018 was €68.2 million. The Director of the Arts Council of Ireland, Orlaith McBride, had a clear vision as she said with the 2018 budget, it would “create opportunities for the public to experience a large-scale work of excellence, as well as work of real artistic ambition, by supporting organisations through its two new funding programmes.” In a time where 1 in 6 people in Ireland live in poverty, and with approximately 100,000 homeless with figures increasing does one’s perception towards arts change? Should funding temporarily decrease? Could even a fraction of the funds be useful for something else?
For Kellie, it’s not a question of whether the arts are more important than public services. She argues that people as a whole need culture to have something to survive for. She says “I absolutely agree that other frontline services need it to be running. I think that if you take away the arts and the arts’ role in society, that creates a whole load of other problems. Down the road it’s not as pressing as obviously if I have a heart attack and need to go into an A&E ward. It’s a pressing issue but down the road if you take away art I think you take away the soul of the society and I think it’s incredibly important for our wellbeing but also for our understanding of ourselves.”
While the soul of a society may be important in the long run, according to some of the students “when we look at these pressing issues we can clearly see that people’s lives are at stake. I think it’s a matter of dealing with those issues with urgency and if that means using other resources, I think that should be okay.” Undeniably arts are important to culture and society but the question how important it is and it’s relevance remains.
Whether you consider the arts as a discretionary past time or something that tells us about ourselves, you cannot deny that even in times of crises, the arts will always be there. Be it in a grand theatre or just from word of mouth, the stories that are brought to life, tell us about our history, our struggles but also our survival as a community.