Head to Head: The price of art

As an increasingly tough-looking Budget approaches, Aoife Brophy and Kate Rothwell debate whether or not the arts are worth investing in‘The arts’ is a lofty title, but what it consists of is not just for the privileged few who regularly attend the country’s grandest opera and ballet performances, or purchase paintings for six-figure sums. ‘The arts’ are culture in all of its varied and glorious forms; from short films to street theatre, ceramics to comedy, grungy gigs to fantasy fiction. There’s something for everyone and without it we have very little to show for ourselves.Ireland has always prided itself on being a small country with a vast cultural spectrum, and our relatively tiny population has spawned numerous authors and artists who have gone on to enjoy international fame. However, we have not only exported our talent; the arts have thrived on our own doorstep in the form of countless festivals, arts centres, age-old crafts, performances, exhibitions and innovative cultural companies.If the support that has helped to develop this artistic diversity is withdrawn, then we will damage more than the livelihoods of those who work in the arts and culture sector; we will also be disregarding an integral part of our heritage.An abandonment of the arts would mean losing much of the entertainment that is so badly needed during the depressing times of economic failure. Imagine how mundane our society would be if we had no local festivals to bring colour to our streets during the year, if the only films we could see were American blockbusters, if the only concerts we could go to were overpriced big-name acts in the O2. This may be painting an overly bleak picture, but when funding is cut, it is the small-scale events that really suffer and the lesser-known talent that is denied the chance to shine.Yet it is not just local communities who would bemoan the loss of cultural happenings in their area; our visitors would be sure to notice it too. The last couple of years may have seen a decline in the number of tourists travelling to Ireland, but the nigh-on 7,000 overseas visitors who came to our shores last year still made a hugely positive contribution to the ill beast that is our economy.Tourism is one of the few sectors that still shows a glimmer of potential even during the current financial climate, so it would be foolish to discourage tourists by offering them a reduced cultural programme, or indeed by replacing our renowned hospitality and friendly attitude with a pessimistic and plaintive reception. Céad míle fáilte might be easier said than done, but it is still worth the effort.The National Campaign for the Arts has worked hard to highlight the benefits of maintaining and even increasing the current funding available to the arts, with members of the campaign meeting a total of 80 TDs to discuss the issue of supporting the arts on September’s ‘National Day of Action’. The effort was valiant, but even if the ears on which their words fell were not all deaf, that message is far from topping any TDs’ agenda today.We are in a recession beyond compare. Politically turbulent, socially difficult times are always the eras that inspire the richest catalogue of literature, art, music and more. Yeats and Joyce, to name just two of our best-known greats, both produced huge volumes of now-revered material in the midst of the country’s political upheaval 100 years ago. Today’s situation is hardly comparable, but it is still a seismic change in our times.The recession may not lead to another Ulysses, but Ireland’s artists have been witness to enough corruption and crisis during the past couple of years to fuel their creative fire for decades to come. Yet they have not been the only ones to observe this fall from grace, their prospective audience, the general public, have also watched in disbelief as society felt the effects of a bubble that had to burst. This is exactly the reason why the arts will resonate more with their public in the times to come than they ever could have during the Celtic Tiger years.Our artists will express what we can’t find words for and, should we support them, their work will remain as a living example to future generations of what it meant to live in the formative years of 21st century Ireland. Not convinced? Read a couple of Irish dramas written in 2010 in fifty years’ time and see if you’re not starkly reminded of how things were.Living in a country that needs €90 billion from its neighbours in order to stay afloat is embarrassing enough, but should our Government decide to turn its back on the vital source of pride and hope that is the arts, then we will no longer need reasons to emigrate, as there will simply be no reason left to stay.Kate RothwellPull Quotes: In reality, the arts are hobbies, and entertainment shouldn’t be a top priority on any government’s agendaUndeniably, drama, painting, sculpting, music and writing are all inherent parts of ourculture. However, it is difficult to understand why the government gives financial aid to the arts when the best forms of art tend to be money-spinners themselves.In 2009, the Budget for the arts in Ireland was €185 million. Of the €185 million, the Arts Council of Ireland received €68 million. This money goes towards various artistic endeavours, which are of no real benefit to the country as a whole.If a play is good enough, then people will pay to see it. If a painting is good enough, thensomeone will buy it. If a band is good enough, people will buy their music and go to their concerts. Any artist should be able to stand on their own two feet without relying on aid and grants from an already-drained economy.Artists are also given very special treatment when it comes to the Irish tax system. For many years, artists didn’t have to pay taxes. Thankfully, a cap has been introduced in recent times, so that the artists who are making money now contribute to the Irish economy.In October, the abolition of the artist tax exemption was debated in the Dáil. Minister Mary Hanafin defended it fiercely, saying that artists make a huge contribution to society. It is disgraceful to suggest that artists make more of a contribution to society than doctors, nurses and firemen, for example. As we keep hearing in the news, everyone needs to feel the pinch if we are to recover from this recession, so there is no reason why artists should be exempt from this.Some may say that we need the arts now more than ever in the recession to distract and entertain ourselves. It is also said that the arts bind people together and promote the culture of the country. What we need to remember is that there are homes that are being repossessed today. There are people sleeping on our streets in the freezing cold. There are patients in hospitals waiting for surgery and for medicine that the HSE cannot afford to provide. Surely these people should come before a pretty picture or a nice new museum?It could be argued that the arts create jobs. However, jobs in the arts today are in theatres, art galleries and concert halls – the government funds all these places. Local authorities must pay the wages so economically; it’s just a vicious circle.While children should be encouraged to develop their creativity from a young age, they should also be encouraged academically. The much-talked-about culture of celebrity is encouraging children to focus solely on the arts as the best chance for them to become famous. More and more young people shy away from difficult careers, as they are too distracted by the idea of celebrity.Arts festivals can contribute millions of euro to local economies, which of course can only be a good thing. However, funding from local authorities isn’t necessarily the only way to finance these festivals. Perhaps a more sensible solution is for the county councils to give arts festival committees loans that they must pay back when they make a profit. Or perhaps they could ask local artists to contribute money to the festival, since they don’t have to pay taxes.There are many students in Ireland doing courses in Art and Design. Not many students will manage to secure a job after going to college in Ireland, but at least we might have some chance in other countries, or indeed here, when the job market eventually improves.What use will a degree in design be? Maybe it will be useful to a handful of people who get into teaching, tattooing or interior design, however the running joke in school for an artist friend of mine was that standing in a queue in the canteen was “good practice for when you’re on the dole.”Fundraisers could be held if the arts needed more money. In reality, the arts are hobbies, and entertainment shouldn’t be a top priority on any government’s agenda. The arts are not alone in wasting governmental money, considering that the government has wasted huge amounts of money in other areas such as electronic voting, government jets, Anglo Irish Bank and so on.The artist’s funding is miniscule in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still something. €185 million would be a lot to all of the families who are struggling to pay off mortgages. It would provide accommodation for those on the streets. This government has misappropriated most of its funds and supporting floundering artists is just another example of money being wasted.Aoife Brophy