Next time you’re at the English National Opera or Glyndebourne enjoying an aria or two or you’re at marvelling at the brushstrokes on a striking painting at the Tate or The National Gallery take a moment to ask yourself this question: why exactly is culture important?
In a world where admission to most permanent exhibitions is free, theatres offer discounts to local residents (see here for details) and books can be downloaded at minimal cost, it’s easy to take culture in all its many guises, for granted. However, imagine a society without the civilizing influence of the arts and you’ll have to conjure a bleak existence, bereft of much we find pleasurable and instructive.
From the oldest cave paintings in at the Jeriji Saleh cave in Borneo to the latest bands and spoken word at this year’s Glastonbury, culture is the defining element of human society, a barometer of current tastes and a chronicler of history. It binds and brings us together on all levels, whether that’s via family, school, community or country. Culture is our most common dialogue - a shorthand for experience and expectations. Culture helps us to communicate with each other and with the wider world. It provides us with a lingua-franca with which to relate to our fellow human beings.
Throughout the ages, people have defined the crucial nature of culture in different ways. Sir Malcolm Bradbury, an author and academic, said that ‘culture is a way of coping with the world by defining it in detail’. Historian Johan Huizinga believed that ‘if we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it’. Mean while, the Greek dramatist Menander said simply: ‘Culture makes all men gentle.’
The preservation of the arts, for many at least, is instinctive and preserving needn’t mean having deep pockets with which to donate to arts organisations. The seemingly mundane act of buying a theatre ticket, purchasing a book or paying to see a special exhibition all count, as does a tweet, Facebook post or Instagram about a favourite opera, portrait or venue; you can also play your part in the preservation of the arts.
While your GP may not prescribe a trip to the local art gallery to improve your wellbeing (or would they….?) the health benefits of active engagement in the arts have been well documented, even if it’s just putting pen to paper or picking up a paintbrush. In 2007, the Department of Health’s Review of Arts and Health Working Group examined the role the arts can play in health. It found that arts and health initiatives were delivering real and measurable benefits, particularly in the field of mental health. In 2011, the British Medical Association published a paper which concluded that arts and humanities programmes had a positive impact on inpatients. And this research is the tip of the iceberg. For example, the annual SICK! Festival in Manchester (next dates 18th September – 5th October 2019) is one of many events to place art at the heart of positive health and, as it says, ‘health is the heart of outstanding art’.
Of course, it’s not always easy to quantify the often intangible benefits of the arts but it is possible to pin down culture’s contribution to the public purse. Consider this: in recent years the creative industries have been growing five times as fast as the national economy.
The Arts Council is well placed to judge the financial impact of the arts. In are port published in 2017 by the Centre for Economics and Business Research on be half of Arts Council England, researchers found that the arts and culture industry generated £15.8 billion in turnover in 2015, an increase of 9.5 per cent since 2013.
Culture and the arts are key drivers of tourism in many cities and not just in London. Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield have all shown huge growth in the arts as well as Hull being named International City of Culture in 2017. There’s more to come with new arts venues being built across the country. In Manchester, one of the largest purpose-built cultural buildings in the world is planned for 2021: Manchester City Council estimates that The Factory will deliver a £1.1 billion boost to the city’s economy over a decade and generate 1,500 new jobs. As Sir Richard Leese, leader of the city council, has said: “Culture is part of how you attract businesses to a location and how you attract people.”
In short, Culture is central to the human experience and leaves an indelible mark on our collective history that will outlive us all. Now, get out there and enjoy it!