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Arts and the economy - uncomfortable bedfellows?

Razia Iqbal | 12:45 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009

President Obama's multi-million dollar recovery plan may be far removed from the world of arts and letters - but politicians with an interest in culture might benefit from examining one lasting legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal, so often quoted as the inspiration for job creation programmes.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of FDR's New Deal initiatives, subsidised writers, musicians, painters and writers. It was a far-reaching and far-sighted programme, out of which emerged a generation of American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Ralph Ellison.

"Why do people think artists are special?" Andy Warhol once asked, "it's just another job". And, during a recession, it is harder to plead the case for painters, authors, musicians and photographers.

But consider some statistics from the WPA. The Federal Art Project set up classes which were attended by 60,000 people a week and produced nearly a quarter of a million works of art. The Federal Music Project provided more than 4,000 concerts a month, with an average monthly attendance of three million people. The writers' project collated oral histories and, in the field of education, thousands of libraries were set up.

Jobs were created, but there was also a sense of culture being woven into the fabric of peoples lives, as opposed to a luxury, not to be thought about in hard times.

The arts in the UK have had a great decade, and though cultural institutions will be feeling the pinch in a debt-burdened economy, ministers must be aware that the so-called "creative industries" account for seven per cent of the national economy.

It may be low on the agendas of those in government, but perhaps it shouldn't be - given the potential rewards.

It is commonplace to see government embracing the arts because they have a practical function: Job creation, education or social improvement. However, they might want to consider Philip Larkin's point that there are many people, who, when faced with something uplifting, will "surprise a hunger in himself to be more serious".


  • Comment number 1.

    Shame this one seems not to have any taker.

    Good points made.

    Timberline lodge in Oregon was built by the wpa. still a tourist asset.

  • Comment number 2.

    if there were more artists there would also be less vegeing infront of the Box.maybe.
    a creative group rarely wants to go to war.

  • Comment number 3.

    Free Live Music sounds the best
    in all genres

  • Comment number 4.

    Warhol was partially right. Being an artist is just another job and its value rises and falls like other jobs. But, if being an artist is also a vocation - then whether the value rises or falls is irrelevant with respect to the economy as artists will continue to work regardless of economic circumstances. One need only consider late 19th century painting to realise this. The great depression of the 1890s was a problem for them all back then. Gauguin boasted, "I know I am a great artist because I have suffered". Those with money will continue to spend it on art projects. The real question is state sponsored art - does it require as much funding when other things seem more useful in a depression (as this event surely is)? It finds its value in proportion. Personally, I don't care, as the making of art will go on anyway.

  • Comment number 5.

    Funding the arts is hugeley worthwhile. It's one of the main reasons tourists come to Britain, it not only employs many many people directly in the arts but also all those who make their living from the tourist industry. It's also of massive cultural importance and if we allow our culture to be chipped away by the commercial power of foreign imports, it will be a huge psychological blow to people who no longer see themselves represented in the world reflected back at them. Giving people access to, and involvement in, the arts promotes mental and physical health, reduces crime, and gives people a much needed outlet for their emotions. It's just about the only thing we are a net exporter of these days and it is absolutely vital to our economic future.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's all fine looking at past incentives and ideas, but this is a far different age we live in. With the domincance of TV, DVD, Cinema, Computers I don't think you would get the same numbers through to the same activities as before.

    I'm not saying arts SHOULDN'T be funded...just the thinking of HOW they should be funded should be taken under careful consideration (as the entire funding of the economy should be!:D)

  • Comment number 7.

    Taldor83 seems to have missed the point slightly - whether we like it or not TV, DVDs and the like are where the 21st Century artist now delivers their work. Although it is hard to argue the quality of work being produced; film, TV, radio etc should all be included under the headline 'arts' and should not be overlooked when having this discussion. Indeed, it can be argued that the internet is the new distribution method for these mediums as lots of new and important work is being displayed there.

  • Comment number 8.

    A very interesting blog. If you were being narrowly financial about it, you'd say that a series of projects like this would be ideal because of the consequent increase in literacy, self-esteem and so on; it would also allow the government to inject funds into the economy without committing itself to long-term spending (which is a good reason for spending as much money as possible on the Olympics, too!)

    More importantly, it's simply the case that the arts, of all kinds, give people pleasure - very broadly defined. Those who do not learn to understand the various art forms (whether as performers or in the audience) are cheated of their chance of that pleasure. I'd love to see a Venezuelan-style initiative in music and beyond.

  • Comment number 9.

    I do understand where Warhol was coming from, but at the end of the day he was championing the idea of art as a consumer product as was his approach. I like to think that being an artist isn't just another job and that artists are on a par with sportsmen/women, in that they have a talent or gift for their craft which they then work very hard at developing before being able to reap the rewards of. Similarly an artist may have a very short time of 'being valuable', and like sport, given investment, the arts can give benefit to all in terms of national pride and an inperceptible yet important improvement in life quality.

    These things may well be luxuries, but for some reason the value of sport is never questioned, whilst the "value" of the arts is always brought up at times like these. Nobody talks about halting investment into national sports training (especially not when we're pouring money into the 2012 Olympics) during hard times - if anything things like these are more important when our 'real' lives are a bit bleaker, and if managed and valued properly can be investments in the truest sense.

  • Comment number 10.

    Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock ("Jack the Dribbler" to his chums) are extremely poor examples of the benefit of subsidizing the arts. Their work should have been strangled at the design stage.

    Why is it that subsidizing other branches of the arts - theatre, movies, opera, ballet - often produces fine quality works, while subsidizing artists usually produces tripe?

    Is art so impenetrable to those who control the purse strings?

  • Comment number 11.

    number 9 Neil

    the point about sport is one that gets me when I see this question raised.

    the assumption is. it is a way of channelling energy in a positive direction.
    which is rubbish it just as much creates confrontation.

    Art need not be "useless."
    the gates in hyde park by guiseppe lund work as gates as well a look nice( some disagree).

    albert Paley's Smithsonian gate.
    As a Blacksmith I see that there need be no difference between public art and functional stuff.

    "By hammer and hand all crafts do stand"

    And as to the performing arts

    there is already huge subsidies to that industry. get over it.

  • Comment number 12.

    art does not have to be transmittable on the internet to make it real.

    The huge emphesis on music and dance is OK but not Ideal (imo) .

    Hereford collage of technology does one of the worlds best blacksmithing courses.

    not a lot of people know that.



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