What’s the point of art?

What’s the point of art, eh?

Does society owe artists a living?

Such were the topics for debate on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ today. I listened while hanging out the washing on the multitude of radiators and clotheshorses jam-packed into the tiny flat I share with one daughter, two large pets (having had to say goodbye to our very lovely house-bunny earlier this month), and several hundred books, DVDs, and CDs.

Shelfie.

Shelfie. (The book I’m holding is ‘Jar Baby’ by the very awesome Hayley Webster… which I have been too busy – writing my own paltry novel – to actually read yet… Such is life.)

I carried on listening while various callers rang in to explain the point of art, or to moan that their hard-earned taxes were being relentlessly frittered away by men in tights, or frizzy-haired women sculpting vaginas from plasticine and nasal hair (these may not have been the actual words), or to point out (as if it was axiomatic) that art is a middle class affair for people whose wallets are bristling with fifty quid notes. If art can’t pay for itself, why should we?

Why indeed?

Because of people like me.

I grew up in a seventies house with wood chip walls, and salad cream (instead of mayonnaise), and a packet of dried spaghetti that sat at the back of the cupboard, unused, for at least five years. My dad got drunk in the pub every Saturday. Mum did the ironing in front of the telly. Pot Noodles were treats. As a kid I waltzed round in my brother’s handed-down jeans (which were awesome, with crossed swords on the knees). I never got the Play-Doh hairdresser’s I begged for. When money was tighter than usual I sat, aged seven, concocting a plan: I would cut all the grass in the garden with scissors, thus saving… electricity, I suppose (even though, as I seem to recall, we had a push mower). It seemed like a very good plan at the time.

I was far, far poorer than all of my friends. They had houses with hallways. Their parents owned classical music. They went to the South of France for their hols.

By comparison, we were poor as church mice. I still am as poor as a church mouse.

But I loved to read.

More than that, I excelled at reading. In fact, I was better at reading – and writing – than lots of the wealthier, middle class kids. I mean, look at me: I use words like ‘axiomatic’. (Actually, I don’t, very often. I heard Lou Reed use it in an interview twenty years ago, and looked it up.)

Because of that love for reading, I managed to do well in school. I did well enough in school that I went to university (the first person – the only person – to do so in my whole family). My brother loved drawing, and ought to have gone down the art school route; but didn’t. Didn’t feel able. Wasn’t encouraged at school (because he was less academic than me) and has wound up in one job after another that he doesn’t really like. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last few years, it’s the value of having a job that you like.

Shall we pause for a moment and think of a world without any literature? Music? Film? Television? Perhaps, now and then, a few shillings are spent on the sort of esoteric, elitist work that’s never going to set the world alight, and perhaps, yes, you could say it’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money when people need hip replacements, heart bypasses, chemotherapy. But the money for hip replacements and heart bypasses and chemotherapy exists a hundred, a thousand, a million times over in the purses of the wealthiest one percent of the country who live, parasitically, off the worker-bee efforts of millions of minimally-rewarded Britons. It isn’t a modern-day restaging of Tristan and Isolde that’s eating into the NHS budget; it’s the fundamental unfairness of the capitalist system. And if you accept (as everyone seems to) that communism – although sensible and fair in principle – inevitably gets effed-up in practice, then let’s all understand the same about capitalism. The cream on the top of the milk is going to fat cats with private planes and plastically-altered wives (or husbands, of course), not frizzy-haired ladies and their plasticine vaginas.

And even if it was… so what? For every plasticine vagina there’s a Rembrandt. For every overly-ambitious Metal Machine Music (sorry, Lou) there’s an Emperor Concerto.

Imagine a world without Beethoven's music... (subsidised, like Mozart's, by the patronage system).

Imagine a world without Beethoven’s music… (subsidised, like Mozart’s, by the patronage system).

A crucial part of art is failure. Another crucial part is waste. If you don’t want to subsidise art – any art – then I hope you like sitting alone in silence with nothing to look at and nothing to read. If you want people to excel in their artistry then you must fund their failures as well as their successes. Of course I wouldn’t choose art over life-saving surgery. But art makes the life-saving surgery worth having. From cave paintings and tales told round campfires to men in tights and plasticine vaginas, humans need art.

What’s the point of life without it?

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