There used to be a phrase that transferred from a rather mundane tv ad into everyday parlance. The smooth, comforting speech of the voice-over artist insisted that this company wouldn't "make a drama out of a crisis". But of course, dramatists have been doing just that for centuries. Taking the components of a crisis and connecting them in a way that amplifies their impact. The drama plays out and the input from the viewer, the audience, is crucial to any meaning making. The injection of pathos and bathos, redemption, tension, the balance between aesthetic and reality, message and representation are only a few of the formalities of artistic process at play in the dramatists portrayal of events.
For example Arthur Miller, the celebrated American playwright, described his artistic ambition as "the pursuit of truth". His work connected real events in his life and the lives of others, with historical events and pivotal shared histories, that together, connected through Miller's deeply affecting work, that could translate a deeper message for audiences, then and indeed now. Offering a deeper, more understood and "felt" truth.
Connecting to deeper truth is an essential and wonderfully powerful ability of the arts. That is why it has been so crucial in our understanding of hugely significant events, like wars, natural disasters, or social injustices. From Shakespeare to Stringberg to Stoppard, the relating of deeper understanding, or the divining of greater meaning or import, has been core to their craft.
But when one finds oneself in the middle of circumstances, as the "drama" is unfolding on tv, through reports and press statements, it is almost impossible to glean deeper insight. Our intellects struggle with possibility and implication, what is truth and what was palpably dishonest, false and treacherous? What motivated x,y or z to act as they did?
Creating that essential distance so that new understanding can be learnt is the key to defamiliarisation. This essentially reflective process allows for the new formation of perception, a deeper knowing, to emerge from the apparently familiar. In this phenomenological space, the potential for a deeper connection is to be found. But, the very act of reflecting, the artistic and intellectual space of framing images, often provides us with not only the core of meaning, but the shades and nuance as well.
As everyday there seems to be more and more dramatic revelations and tragic news stories, it is so hard to make sense. Not moral sense, nor perhaps logical sense, but just a recognition of circumstances. At the minute, as we continually read and hear of the dehumanising effects of labelling whole races, ethnicities and people as one thing or another, we begin to lose the human story, and the connection to a personal narrative, filled with meaning and emotion, can get immediately lost.
This is when we need the arts most - to channel our subjective emotions, to reflect our ideas about ourselves and the world and to disrupt our perhaps knee-jerk, superficial reactions with a more considered inner-worldliness. Ugly truths can be depicted in the art of dramatists, painters, satirists, cartoonists, poets, novelists, sculptors, muralists, songwriters - so that humanity might be rediscovered... or its loss commemorated.
Perhaps at this moment of global political, social and conflict-driven tumult, we need our arts the most - not least to offer some respite.
That's why it is so deeply worrying that we see the arts infrastructure further undermined by significant cuts in funding. Northern Ireland doesn't have to look to far for its tragedies, its crises and the outworking of a dehumanising conflict. The reverberation is still felt, in our streets, on our walls, in our communities and across our news reports. We are a world leader in prescription drug use, have higher use of anti-depressants than most western countries, we have UK’s highest claimant rates of incapacity benefits and Disability Living Allowance, and therefore economic inactivity. As people, we bear the brunt and the scars of the dis-ease of life here. We have communities desperate for support, reaching out to community arts programmes to assist them speak positively about their lives and offer alternative opportunities to local people. The great enabling and confidence raising ability that the arts promote, has been further undermined. For communities here, who face greater hardships than any other part of these islands, there will be less opportunity to access that supportive space of the arts. Indeed, N Ireland, falls further in the international league of arts funding, dropping like a stone towards the bottom of a barrel. Half a million pounds might not seem like much, but in 4 years we have been reduced to just two thirds of the funds we once enjoyed. And 4 years ago, we still struggled to support the demand from community.
Anyway...It may be that reducing arts funding is seen as a kick against elitism, but for any actual community arts organisation or disability arts organisation ( http://comartspartner.org/ fits both roles very easily) that may now be facing into yet anther year of having to make cuts to programmes, it serves only to reduce the access that the most vulnerable and marginal have to the arts. The elites still exist - and still retain the lion's share of funding - but cuts impact in a disproportionate way on those who need the arts the most - our young, our elderly, our physically and intellectually challenged, our vulnerable and our poor.
And it may not seem that dramatic, but surely after all the drama and upheaval that we lived through here, that we deserve that breathing space and that opportunity to reflect.
And, if the people who live here don't deserve the arts, well who does?
The arts matter