A dangerous downgrade: undervaluing the arts

What price will we pay for taking the humanities for granted? asks Christopher Bigsby

August 6, 2015
Christopher Bigsby illustration (6 August 2015)

According to a government publication of 2013, “Our nation is a world leader in culture and the arts. Innovative, challenging and exciting arts and culture improve people’s lives, benefit our economy [and] strengthen communities…Involving young people in the arts increases their academic performance, encourages creativity, and supports talent early on.”

For David Cameron, an education which inspires a love of books is one route to a happy and fulfilling life. But that was what he said in 2005. Since then priorities seem to have shifted a little as the government proceeded to remove 100 per cent of teaching grants for the arts in the country’s universities and to cut the budget of Arts Council England by a third since 2010, while government funding for music has been reduced by more than 25 per cent.

In 2013, Maria Miller, minister for culture before she had to resign after a row over her parliamentary expenses, said that the arts should be regarded as a commodity, insisting that the “focus must be on culture’s economic impact”. Their job was to “position themselves squarely in the visitor economy”. A year later, Nicky Morgan, the education minister, warned students that studying arts degrees could damage their career prospects. So there you have it. The arts are good for tourism but damaging to the future of students who should have their shoulders to the wheel of national priorities. Certainly those who choose careers that strengthen communities are rewarded with incomes that would qualify for tax credits and probably food banks, so maybe students should indeed avoid subjects that have made the UK a world leader in culture and the arts.

In this country, the median income for professional authors in 2013 was £11,000, down 29 per cent since 2005 when Cameron was urging the importance of books. Ten years ago, 40 per cent of writers earned their money solely by writing. In 2013, it was 11.5 per cent. The average income of an artist in 2014 was £10,000, down £6,000 in real terms since 1997. Musicians in a major orchestra earn, on average, a little over a third of what they would in the US. Half of Actors’ Equity members earn less than £5,000 a year while nearly half have worked for no pay. Just to show that there is another kind of equity, half the country’s theatre directors also earn less than £5,000 a year, the average salary of a director working in the subsidised theatre being £10,759, and half have worked for nothing. The Klingons apparently have no word for thank you. Neither, it turns out, does the government. These, after all, are merely those who produce the “challenging and exciting arts” that improve people’s lives.

Wordsworth warned that in “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”. The world, he suggested, is too much with us. For those with their eyes on the prize, the world can never be too much with us. That’s why Morgan advises students to do something useful rather than fiddle around with literature, theatre, music, art. Education, after all, exists to be monetised.

The arts and humanities suggest a different priority. The novelist Jeanette Winterson has likened them to a blood transfusion. They are certainly an infusion of something – knowledge, understanding, empathy, craft and even a sense of transcendence, not religious, although art has often sprung from a religious impulse, simply human. The reading, teaching, experiencing of Shakespeare is likely to reshape minds and imaginations, astonish with the capacities of language and the power of metaphor, as well as generating money. Art, in its many forms, is about creation. Something exists that did not before. Of course this is true of bad as well as good art and the ability to distinguish the one from the other is learned and not necessarily from a teacher. It is learned as we hold it up against experience, test its true mettle. Even that is not enough, though, because art has the power to astonish, disturb, transform, in the process exposing the inadequacies of mere experience.

Of course all this cuts deeper than how the government treats the arts. It is a part of that discussion of why a footballer can be paid £1 million a month and bankers wreck the economy and carry off a fortune while care workers can barely survive or afford the time to offer care, why the gap between the rich and poor widens with no sense that this momentum can or, in the view of some, should be stopped. It is part of a debate, which in truth seldom happens, about who we think we are and what we stand for. There is every reason to invest in science and technology. There is equally every reason to invest in the humanities concerned, as the word suggests, with understanding how we relate to the world and others, in short with human culture.

Lahcen Daoudi, the Moroccan minister of higher education, has said that those graduating in the humanities will be a burden on their families. Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, evidently a fan of Morgan, has dismissed humanities degrees as “useless”. One of the courses he singled out was conflict resolution on the grounds that when the conflicts were resolved its students would become irrelevant, which is, of course, impeccable logic if a little short on historical awareness. The University of Essex is evidently in tune. In 2013 it cancelled its new building to house an international centre for democracy and conflict resolution even as the following year it was in conflict with some of its own faculty, including creative writers who lamented its lack of democracy. There is now a building, but it is much more in tune with the times. It houses the business school. Somebody else can handle democracy and conflicts.

Christopher Bigsby is director of the Arthur Miller Centre and professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia.

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