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Arts and culture cannot masquerade as a safety blanket of tea and sympathy

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David Pountney, head of the Welsh National Opera, waxes eloquent in his defense of government arts funding in a recent blog entry.

He reminds us that “survival mode” during cutbacks and hard times is not an option:

All culture is in some way the expression of a surplus – despite all the romantic tales of frozen garrets, not much culture was created by subsistence economies. And however dire the economic language, it’s important to realise that we are still a wealthy society dealing with surmountable economic problems. In that context, if culture gives up on its fundamental mission to surprise, stimulate, and provoke and instead masquerades as a safety blanket offering reassuring tea and sympathy, it is doomed. Culture is expensive: no-one wants to spend a fortune on a blanket.

This is high-blown rhetoric entirely appropriate in these times.

Toronto city council’s executive committee may have staved off cuts this year, but what of next year’s deficit-slashing budgets from the city, the province and Ottawa?

By coincidence, I’ve been reading an excellent brand-new translation of Cicero’s speeches by Siobhán McElduff that gives his eloquent defense of the Roman republic, of virtue, of leadership, of poetry and all-’round civilization the punch and immediacy of last night’s news. It makes it much easier to see how greed, corruption, power-hunger and boorishness have been with us since the beginning of recorded history (and puts Silvio Berlusconi into context).

By extension, the book also serves as a reminder how (comparatively) few have been the eras that have treasured collective experiences of something greater and more lasting than next week’s power grab.

After serving nobly as Roman consul, Cicero had his Palatine Hill house seized and demolished, he was exiled and, in the end, assassinated in 43 BCE by orders of the Emperor Octavian. But we can still read Cicero and be inspired by his eloquent defenses of a disintegrating respect for collective responsibility and care.

It all fits in with the arts today.

I’ll leave the last word to Pountney:

Here I am an unreconstructed, antediluvian pre-Thatcherite idealist believer in the concept of Society. Society is the pact between human beings to create communal governance which offers security and the rule of law and… something more. Society with an economic surplus — which still includes us! – recognizes a fundamental need to celebrate that which is beyond the necessary. That is the definition of civilisation: the acknowledgement of values beyond material necessity. The acknowledgement and celebration of these non-material values in public art and architecture is one of the cornerstones of the communal belief that we as a Society are about more than mere survival. We have, collectively, through our history fought for and won that status and we are entitled to it. Those who don’t want it are condemned to wait for the barbarians: they may not be here yet, but given a vacuum of will, they will come.

Here’s some soundtrack for my musings — inspired by the Toronto Symphony’s latest disc (review to come shortly). Here is André Previn leading Japan’s NHK Symphony at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in a gorgeously shaped performance of the third movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5:

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