One of the more depressing trends in public discourse about the arts (and, for that matter, education) has been the compulsion to justify what we do in economic terms: theatre brings £3 billion a year into the UK economy; reading poetry can relieve stress [and save you/the NHS money]; Shakespeare is an effective way to teach strategy to MBA students; etc. All of which is fine as far as it goes, but it cedes the argument by engaging on the enemy’s terms: for anything to have value, it has to translate into money.
This is partly a function of the funding landscape and the competition for scarce grants. But that in itself is symptomatic of an underlying cultural disease, against which the true value of the arts (if that term means anything) is directly opposed. Art is a form of serious play. It has no purpose beyond itself, and for this reason it can do things that everyday utile activities cannot. Poetry changes how we think and feel. In fiction we can encounter other minds; in music, pattern and form. The arts let us connect — tentatively, imperfectly, but profoundly — with what it means to be human. And they do that precisely because they have no other purpose. Continue reading