Art in Uncertain Times

Artists can help us make sense of the complexities of the society we live in and to re-imagine our role within it. They can't stop wars or riots, but they can offer a way to understand better what the challenges are.

Whenever there's a squeeze on both public and household spending - and that's certainly true today - there are always voices calling for the arts to be downgraded and discarded as 'nice to have'. It was true in the '80s and '90s here, and in the depression in 1930s America. But I'd argue the reverse is true - the tougher the times, the more important culture can become, and the more that art can thrive.

Old certainties are being questioned in so many areas of our lives - from the fragility of the economic system we've relied on for our prosperity, to the integrity of our media, and the need to make choices about what we hold dear in a time of austerity. And while it is not the sole, or even the primary, job of artists to interpret and respond to these challenges, one key role they do play is to reflect our world and to question our assumptions; they engage us with a beauty that can show us the joy and terror of living.

Artists can help us make sense of the complexities of the society we live in and to re-imagine our role within it. They can't stop wars or riots, but they can offer a way to understand better what the challenges are. They can open us up to ideas we may not have considered, giving us the chance to experience something new and unique and providing insights that could be invaluable as we look to rebuild our nation and our institutions.

And the crucial thing is that artists do these things in surprising ways. It can be direct - like the recent production at the Tricycle theatre in London, based on transcripts of real people who took part in the riots in London in the summer. And it can equally creep up and take you by surprise.

After the bombings in London in July 2007, in a different job, I had to accompany a government minister to the bomb scenes and to the mortuary. That evening I went to see Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi's piece Zero Degrees - about difference, death and being human - and it got to me like nothing else since. Everyone in the theatre that night walked out changed, thoughtful, reflective. And let's not forget the surge in museum visits that took place in Manhattan in the wake of the Twin Towers. Thousands went to see art in venues across the city to find some quiet space and to revel in beauty amidst the ugliness.

The Arts Council was born - and with it the notion of public investment in culture - at the height of post war Austerity. Roosevelt's determination to support creativity during the Depression (despite calls to the contrary) left the world with the work of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and hundreds more artists - and with millions of people across the USA having experienced great art for the first time.

It would be trite to say that poverty necessarily leads to towering heights of culture. But it is true in every age and every circumstance that letting go of art in tough times isn't an economy. It piles one kind of deprivation upon another.

Digital dreaming...

One of the ways we can make culture matter more is to harness the power of digital technology to transform the way people can connect with and experience the arts. Last month Arts Council England announced a new partnership with the BBC to create a project called The Space, which will launch next May and will capture and create outstanding artistic experiences that will be broadcast on a pop-up channel available on connected TV, computers, tablets and mobile devices.

We've already seen how powerful new digital approaches to the arts can be, from marvellous artistic 3D films like Wim Wender's Pina to Faber's The Waste Land app that transformed the way we experience T.S Eliot's extraordinary poem. We are commissioning arts organisations and artists to explore this medium in a way that bridges user-generated and curated content - it's generated by artists to surprise us in new ways. It'll be fun and serious and a little bit mind-blowing, I hope.

...and Olympian

And next Summer is the perfect time to launch this service, with the UK set to have one of its most exciting artistic years in living memory. Next year's Olympic celebrations will cement our place as one of the world's great cultural destinations with some extraordinary work on show - from River of Music, where top musicians from all 205 Olympic nations will perform for free at landmark sites across the UK, to Mark Rylance's pop-up Shakespeare performances, and Tanztheater Wuppertal's residency at the Barbican and Sadler's Wells.

Not only will this be a fantastic advertisement for our thriving cultural life but it gives us all a chance to step back from current uncertainties, consider who we are as a nation and discuss with the world what it means to live in England in the 21st century. Arts and cultural experiences have a unique capacity to bring us together and with the world changing at speed all around us, creating that shared sense of belonging and identity seems more important than ever.


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