Arts are the barometer of civilisation
Spending on film and the arts gives good value. Cuts will pose a huge threat to the nation's social and cultural wellbeing
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 8 July 2010 09.29 BST
A historian once said: "The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in congress." If you consider this in the context of the British government's recent spending cuts in the arts (with more to come), then our prospects are likely to be grim indeed.
But the truth of the quote also lies in what art can tell us about other lives and cultures from around the world. What is art other than a view or interpretation of life by the artist? And why does it exist other than to challenge or interrogate the status quo?
The late, much loved, Anthony Minghella used to say that watching a film was like seeing the world through borrowed eyes. As we sit in a darkened auditorium along with hundreds of other people all silent in anticipation, we reflect on a truth perhaps that we hadn't considered before; we are encouraged to dream, to wonder, to think about things and people and other cultures and histories in different ways.
Film has the power to move people, to stretch their imagination and see beyond their own existence for a brief moment. Look at how many people engage with it. It engenders understanding and tolerance of other cultures; it exercises and nourishes the mind; it feeds the soul.
Britain's wonderful cultural landscape is rich in this soul food, but these cuts coming down the line will cast a blight on that landscape like a bulldozer making way for a new bypass. And yet it is futile lying down in front of that bulldozer in the hope that it will turn around and go away. The financial situation is simply too severe, too pressing. We've all seen it coming – the government has warmed us up for this since before the election. These are incredibly difficult times and incredibly difficult decisions have to be made. Somehow, though, seeing the percentage in print has still sent a shockwave through the arts community, no more so than through the British Film Institute.
In June the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced cuts of £73m, of which £47.5m in promised funding is being clawed back from the BFI, primarily from an essential new home to replace clapped-out buildings that would enable the BFI to meet audience demands for a better cinema experience, more and better access to the BFI national collections, greater digital engagement and a home for the film industry. This centre would be a physical manifestation of the importance we as a nation place on film – culturally, artistically and economically.
This case still stands strong. Britain is, after all, arguably the third most important centre for film in the world and yet the current home here is tucked under a bridge in a building that will reach the end of its life within the next five to 10 years, and will cost more to maintain and renovate over that time than to replace altogether. It is a project so important that even if the nation cannot afford to support it right now, then we must find alternative ways to go forward, to make sure that film has a visible presence and a voice every bit as loud and inspiring as the other great art forms. That means being brave and radical and entrepreneurial.
Film is everywhere. It is very persuasive and can like no other art form speak to the hearts of many. When Tim Burton released his much feted Alice in Wonderland this year, the BFI was there, on YouTube, with the first-ever film version from 1903. Not to compete, but to add context. It caught the public's imagination and was downloaded 800,000 times in less than a week.
Hours after the young and talented Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, accepted his Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival, he was in London to open an exhibition of his work that had already been pre-commissioned by the gallery at BFI Southbank. For years the BFI has made short films available for mainstream literacy teaching – they are now used in one in four schools and film education is now part of the curriculum in over half of the UK's local authorities.
Great civilisations are not remembered for their spending cuts, but for the cultural legacies they leave behind. In terms of overall government spending, the arts are cheap to fund, yet they punch well above their weight. The effect socially and culturally to the nation's collective wellbeing is enormous.
What is at risk here is a loss to our sense of identity, that source of hope, inspiration and simple joy. That means a real loss to the soul of everyone in Britain and right now, let's face it, our souls need feeding more than ever.