“The arts affect each one of us every day in ways we rarely consider… and it does it without us noticing.”
There’s a Chinese proverb that teaches us “if you have only two pennies left, buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other“.
James Oppenheim famously echoed this sentiment in his poem ‘Bread and Roses’, observing that “hearts starve as well as bodies”.
The message in both, is that to survive, to merely exist, is not all that we should hope for. Instead, that we should look to live well, to thrive, to seek out and take pleasure in what is beautiful.
In 2019 a national newspaper named Middlesbrough as the most deprived city in the UK. It painted a picture of a community struggling with poverty, mental health issues and rampant crime.
Of course, economic measurements can never sum up an area entirely and Teesside is so much more than that, though against this backdrop of complex social and economic problems, which will undoubtedly be made more challenging by Covid-19, it may feel more than just a little misguided to propose that at a time like this, what the area needs most is the arts.
Yet, this isn’t an unreasonable argument. The arts affect each one of us every day in ways we rarely consider. Whether it’s that book we read or that film we watched, the computer game we just played or the graffiti we passed on the subway, art shapes us. It does it without us noticing. It gives us an identity, a sense of community, it bridges divides and opens doors that may otherwise remain closed.
Art also happens to be good for us. Creative Health found that the ‘One Arts on Prescription’ project administered by the charity Artlift led to a 37% drop in GP visits and a 39% reduction in hospital admissions.
Research has shown that children from low income families who engage in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree than children who don’t.
And the arts are big business. According to The Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport, every hour the UK’s Creative Industries contributes almost £13 million to the UK economy, and new government figures show the country’s successful creative industries contributed £111.7 billion to the UK in 2018, equivalent to £306 million every day. In fact, the Creative Industries sector is growing more than five times faster than the national economy.
Still, while we washed our hands as we sang Happy Birthday, we barely noticed the lights being dimmed, theatres falling silent, or that the music had stopped.
But, when we had stockpiled our pasta and our toilet rolls, and began to adjust to the silence of our isolation, as the days and hours stretched out before us, too long and too many to fill, it was the arts that we turned to. Our books, our films, our songs. Our artists responded and they performed for free.
If there is a lesson that this pandemic has taught us, it is that in the hardest of times, perhaps especially in the hardest of times, we need flowers. We need beauty, and music, and poetry, and art. That they are as vital to our wellbeing as shelter and food and clean water.
Of course, we won’t die without them, but neither will we truly live.
Image by Pat Surtees
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