Richard Eyre on cuts to the arts

Richard Eyre

Filed under: Non-fiction

Richard Eyre warns against spending cuts to the arts and humanities

During the year of the Jubilee I was asked to make a short speech about the arts in the Queen’s presence. As I spoke, the Queen standing beside me, she remained inscrutable. If she agreed with me that the government should increase its support for the arts, she kept it to herself. Only when I quoted this – from Ruskin – did she respond: ‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the other two, but of these three, the only trustworthy one is the last.’ As I spoke the last sentence I turned to share it with hmq. Her eyes were fixed with no great curiosity on a spot on the ceiling, her heart no doubt longing to be delivered from the tedium of polemic.

To me this assertion from the art critic John Ruskin is a matter of faith. The book of our art lives in the empire of invention of our fiction, poetry, drama, dance, our music, films, fashion, tv, video games, advertising, photography, design, architecture and so on, and in the archipelago of our cultural institutions – libraries, museums, theatres, opera houses, galleries, concert halls, cinemas and arts centres. They’ll all be eroded by the decision to leech the humanities from our universities, by Arts Council cuts and by the depletion of the training of musicians, actors and artists. And little by little the already large gap between those for whom the arts are a part of life and those who feel excluded from them will widen to an unbridgeable divide. The result: cultural apartheid.

Governments have always been wary of the arts because they’re wayward and ambiguous and because they deal with feelings rather than facts. Napoleon said that teaching the humanities in universities was ‘glorified table talk’. Lenin said he was afraid of listening to Beethoven because it made him feel like caressing people’s heads when it was necessary to beat them. Most politicians in this country are more interested in having their own heads caressed and respond in wounded bewilderment when they discover that the artists that they’ve allowed to flourish through their patronage wish to retain the right to criticise them.

Of course it’s irritating for politicians to have to endure the noisy dissent of an apparently arrogant and self-interested claque, but then it’s always been hard for rulers to license the jester as well as the judge, or to acknowledge poets as the legislators of the world. After all, art is all the things that politics isn’t: ‘Politics is the great generaliser and literature the great particulariser,’ wrote Philip Roth, ‘and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other – they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrong-headed, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularising influence is literature. But how can you be a artist and renounce the nuance? How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify…’

Art is about the ‘I’ in life not the ‘we’, about private life rather than public. A public life that doesn’t acknowledge the private is a life not worth having. David Cameron seems to grasp this and is keen to ‘start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.’ But how this could possibly exclude the arts and the humanities? Can’t government for once be persuaded of the virtue of subsidising weapons of happiness rather than weapons of destruction?

We’re assiduous in presenting arguments that it should: we say that the cultural industries are of enormous and growing value to the British economy; that a healthy cultural realm is a powerful reason for Britain’s magnetism as a tourist destination; that British cultural excellence is a valuable element of British identity abroad. And, like a nineteenth-century curate’s wife distributing pamphlets to the deserving poor, we argue for the social usefulness of art: we say, for instance, that music makes schoolchildren better at maths or that drama makes our society more tolerant. These things may be true – I hope they are – but this utilitarianism takes away from art the very thing that makes it alluring: its mystery and its joy, its irresponsibility, if you like.

Any utilitarian argument for art will succeed only in diminishing the thing it’s arguing for. Art is not an ethical medicine: it doesn’t improve our behaviour or civilise us. Indeed, as the philosopher George Santayana said, ‘Music is useless, as life is’; but it’s precisely our awareness of the ‘uselessness’ of life that make us want to struggle to give it purpose and to give that purpose meaning. The arts offer us a commentary on being alive: how to make sense of the world and even how to change it. Change begins with understanding and understanding begins by identifying oneself with another person: in a word, empathy. The arts enable us to put ourselves in the minds, eyes, ears and hearts of other human beings.

What we hold in our heads – our memory, our feelings, our thoughts, our sense of our own history – is the sum of our humanity. We carry on us what King Lear called the ‘smell of mortality’; art redeems mortality by giving us a glimpse of eternity. It briefly illuminates something that’s more than human. By diminishing the opportunity to experience the arts or to study them and the humanities – literature, philosophy, history, religion, languages – we condemn future generations to a life a little less than human.

Richard Eyre is the former artistic director of the National Theatre.

Related RSL Fellows

Sir Richard Eyre 2011