UK government plans to cut funding for arts education by 50% to prioritise ‘high-value subjects’
Nobel Prize winner George Shaw once said, “without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” Sadly, this is a reality that may ring true for future generations of students. Earlier this week the British government announced plans to cut funding by 50% for higher education arts degrees. The cutbacks apply to art and design, music, dance, drama and performing arts, media studies, and archaeology courses starting from the 2021-2022 academic year.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said, “the Ofs (Office for Students) should reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS…high-cost STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”
As duplicitously as ever, we have a high-ranking Tory politician justifying unnecessary cuts by proclaiming it is for the good of the NHS. If I had a penny for every time a politician hid behind the untouchable wall that is the NHS to defend cuts, I would be a much richer person. It is a ye-olde political tactic commonly used by disingenuous career politicians concealing their true agenda. If Gavin Williamson looked deeper into the matter, he would realise that there is a notable link between the arts and the health service in this country.
Britain is in the midst of a mental health crisis and you wouldn’t have to do much research to see the benefits of creative therapy. Whether it be creating or viewing art, art therapy is used to help people explore emotions, develop self-awareness, cope with stress, boost self-esteem, and work on social skills. MA art therapy courses run nationwide and undeniably serve a purpose in our society. Graduates of these courses are likely to go on and use their training to change lives for the better.
Alongside art therapy, there are several similar Master of Arts courses available, such as music therapy, drama therapy, dance movement therapy – all are effective methods employed to treat chronic or life-limiting illnesses (including cancer), mental health issues (in particular depression and addiction), or relationship problems. Art is more than just creative activity; it can be used to help people heal.
The Impact of the Arts on Real People
An example of the healing characteristics of art can be found in Kimberley Burrows’ story – a true testament to human resilience. Upon pursuing her dream to become a children’s book illustrator, Kimberley started studying illustration at Leeds Arts University. However, in her first year of study in 2018, Kimberley’s retinas detached, leaving her blind. Due to the trauma of losing her vision and her mother falling ill, Kimberley made the tough decision to defer her place at university. When the time was right for Kimberley to return to her studies, she found herself lonely and isolated. All of her friends had graduated and moved on, and with Kimberley being older than the rest of her peers and still adjusting to her sight loss, she struggled to integrate.
Fast-forward to March 2020, as COVID-19 swept across the globe Kimberley’s world became even smaller. Kimberley’s ever-present guide dog, Tammy, had to leave her side because she needed surgery, unfortunately leaving Kimberly feeling more vulnerable and isolated than ever. This unfortunately led her down the relentless path of depression. Amid her lowest moment, seemingly at the point of no return, a voice in Kimberley’s head told her to create and seek solace in art.
Kimberley used oil pastels to create a whirlpool of colour which she then scratched away at, a symbolic physical act of art representing the anger and frustration that she had been carrying. The outcome? An incredible piece of work showing her innermost feelings. The pastels soon evolved into watercolours and then she felt ready to face her fears. She explained that she was tremendously anxious about using a canvas and acrylic paints because she didn’t feel worthy enough. To her, a canvas embodied everything she was not. The canvas represented prestige, ability, and elitism.
Thankfully, Kimberley conquered her fears and has since been creating magnificent pieces.
Kimberley stated that the freedom she discovered in painting has transformed her life, enabling her to accept and embrace her true self. Her blindness allows her to focus on expressing how she feels, rather than obsessing about how it would look or be received. She goes on to state that “When I started out as a young illustrator, I wanted my work to be as good as everyone else’s. I wanted it to look like everyone else’s. I had no confidence because what I was making wasn’t me. Now, I am confident in what I create because it’s me. All me”.
The authenticity in Kimberley’s work is truly timeless and unparalleled. Her compelling story highlights how invaluable the arts are to our well-being. Communicating our vulnerability is difficult for anyone, but for those who have experienced trauma, verbal language can be a formidable hurdle.
A further example can be seen with my great-grandfather, who returned from World War I mute from shellshock. My great-grandfather’s only way of processing the mental and physical agony afflicted upon him was through painting. When he couldn’t verbally communicate, he took to the canvas and used the paintbrush as his communicator.
Stories like this are a testament to the power of art and to our natural desire to create. They highlight the absurdity of the government’s decision to cut funding for the arts.
Artists: Pioneers of Creativity and Change
Human beings have the miraculous ability to communicate their most complex feelings through the composition of colour, music, dance, and so much more. We, the viewer, have the ability to translate a work of art into meaning and we have the capacity to connect with someone we’ve never met. For these reasons alone, it is utterly perplexing that anyone could reduce the value of art to a sum, let alone determine the arts as lesser than.
The impact the arts have on society is deeply profound. Art provides bold social commentary that gives the viewer reason to think and reflect. Art portrays and confronts issues present in society, holding up a mirror. However, as the famous quote by Bertolt Brecht states, art doesn’t hold a mirror up to society but “a hammer in which to shape it”. In Brecht’s eyes, art can show people what could and should be done in the world. And art should be a vehicle for social change.
The Victorians were the first to recognise art as an important political tool that has the power to shape the future. The possibility of art being a vehicle for social change came from the Impressionists in the late 19th Century, whose work was considered controversial and obscene. Impressionist painting went against the conventions of Realist work and broke the rules of the French Fine Art Academy.
By breaking away from conventional art, the Impressionists were able to pave the way for artistic freedom. Their model for freedom and subjectivity in art empowered later artists who have been able to challenge the status quo, question authority, and uphold democracy.
Artistic freedom ensures the wellbeing of society by defending the fundamental human right of expression. Through expression, art helps people understand themselves and others, and this understanding is the foundation of social solidarity. Without art, social fragmentation would ensue. Many studies indicate how democracy needs art and culture to strengthen social cohesion and improve democratic governance. In a time where we’re facing unprecedented ecological, social and economic challenges, art is particularly needed to encourage creative solutions and incite unity.
The timing of the cuts comes as England is easing out of the COVID-19 restrictions and attempting to restore some form of normalcy. Throughout lockdown I, like most people, spent the majority of my time listening to music, watching films or television, and reading novels. Not a day passed where I didn’t rely on some form of art to help pass the time. What would have our lockdown experiences been like without these mediums? All of which were likely written, performed, or produced by someone with an arts degree or an artistic formative background.
Art in all forms is a valuable commodity that has become a part of our everyday living. How ignorant can one be to claim that the arts aren’t high-value subjects when the creative industries contributed £111.7bn of value to the UK economy in 2018. UK creative organisations also reported £35.6bn of services exports in 2018. However, the Office for National Statistics confirmed that the arts and entertainment sector has been the worst hit by the COVID-19 crisis. 25% of businesses are not trading at all; 41% have seen their turnover fall by half.
One mustn’t forget that in October 2020 the Government naïvely brandished posters encouraging people within the arts and other industries to retrain and work within the cyber sector. The poster, showing a picture of a ballet dancer read, “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet). Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.” A slap in the face to everyone who has put blood, sweat, and tears into their arts training and an insult to every artist in the country.
Another tone-deaf poorly thought-out policy enabled by a gang of con men and crooks with not one iota of respect for the arts in this country. Ask yourself, what do the arts mean to me?
My answer is very clear; the arts mean freedom, honesty, liberalism, progressivism, and passion. All things that ignite something so emotional and pure that words won’t do it any justice. I would not like to live in a society that does not truly respect and appreciate the arts. If we don’t let the arts thrive in a safe environment, we’re neglecting our duties as human beings. Only together can we stop this violent austerity to our beloved arts – now is the time to stand up for what is right.
Written by Louisa Howells Vessey and Jon Paul-Berry.
Illustration by Sanni Pyhänniska.
Looking for more? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.