Perspectives on the Newcastle Arts Cuts

Yesterday I got all fired up and a little bit sentimental and wrote about the recent news of 100% art cuts in Newcastle on We Are CAN. I wrote a defence of exactly why the arts matter and managed to talk about Weimar Germany, Rubens and my mother.

They say its grim up North. While I don’t like to succumb to stereotypes, there is some meteorological fact to the saying. But colder temperatures and wetter weather aside, things are at risk of getting a lot grimmer in the north of the country after Newcastle Council announced it was planning to cut its arts funding.

Newcastle Council said they plan to cut all funding to arts organisations, including the Theatre Royal, Northern Stage and Live Theatre. Along with that , they propose a 50% cuts to museums, and a cut to libraries – which means all but two libraries will close in the city.

As many have pointed out, this is something of a self-inflicted disaster: gradually destroying the things which not only sustain and enrich its residents, but which  also make Newcastle an appealing cultural hub which, along with Manchester, offers a counter-balance to the capital, London.

The decision is not just relevant to a city where recent cultural growth has sparked something of a renaissance; the news of the 100% cuts reverberate on a national level as the position and strength of the arts continues to be threatened by short-sighted policy in the country as a whole.

Whether we think of the Arts Council’s plans to cut more than 100 jobs, the proposed English Baccalaureate which would entirely sideline subjects such as Drama, Art and Design, or the projections that arts funding across the country will be down by 16% compared with 2009-2010 by March; the overriding impression is that the people in authority don’t seem to appreciate the real value of culture – as a necessity rather than a luxury.

Comparisons with Germany in the pre-war period always seem a bit extreme (perhaps its only me, coming from my WW2-centric education that makes them), but the story of the Golden Years of culture in Weimar Germany and the cultural decline suffered as a result of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression holds some relevance here.

Fascism grew in strength for many reasons, but there was a cultural bereavement involved and the Nazis only perpetuated this by banning ‘degenerate’ artists and burning books. The point is that art, theatre, music: all of these things were responsible for a feeling of satisfaction and contentment in Weimar Germany; their loss was strongly (or should I say extremely) felt. The arts aren’t just a luxurious extra which we can all live without when pushed, they’re just some of the things which make the daily grind of life seem worthwhile.

There’s a debate about class which I won’t really go into here, although it is perfectly expressed on Newcastle & Me; we’re at risk of the privatisation of culture  and the return of the arts to privilege rather than access.

But you don’t have to be privileged or a Northerner to understand just how much these cuts will hurt. Our relationship with the arts is, more often than not, profoundly individual and personal.

Would I have loved books enough to study them for three years if it hadn’t been for a library bus which visited my village every week replenishing my stock and convincing me that the excitement could be sustained?

You could say that the first RSC performance I saw at 11, The Taming of the Shrew, is what made me a feminist (when it’s played right -it’s just so ambiguous);

I love the Rubens in the Prado because as a child they reminded me of my mother naked; and when I got  fired it was the Tate I retreated to – in fact any time I get a little sad, an exhibition is my first resort. All of this means very little to anybody but me, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t have equally universally-irrelevant but emotionally essential stories to tell.

It’s very easy to silence protests with a casual and cutting:  “It’s either the hospitals or the theatres, what would you rather?” and it’s much harder to set up any kind of moral defence that doesn’t sound bourgeois or indulgent. While I’m not advocating that arts be given priority over healthcare, it is important to make a case for why the preservation of culture really is necessary.

It’s no secret that the curriculum laid down by our education system is increasingly plotted out, narrow and uniform, but it’s a richness of the world that our lives just aren’t like that. As important as an education is, this richness usually comes from the culture that surrounds us. A little bit of suggestion is often far more significant than blatant indoctrination (I always loved the books I chose to read on my own, but tended to hate the literary masterworks I was forced to read at school).

There is something often silent, subtle and unconscious which culture gives us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth loudly fighting for. Newcastle will feel its 100% cuts, and I can only hope that it’s more of a cry for help from a government which has dramatically slashed its local funding, than a genuine sacrifice.

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