Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

The government seems hell-bent on destroying arts education in this country.

During the recession of the early 1990s, schools had their funding from government funding amputated and a musical education became a sign of a middle-class upbringing. During this latest period of financial austerity, the arts have once again been summarily dismissed as superfluous in straitened times. Conductor of the Bedforshire Youth Orchestra, Michael Rose, says music services in his area, Central Bedfordshire, are set to have budgets and teaching staff cut to zero.

More broadly, the arts are facing annihilation at the hands of a government that can only comprehend social goods in narrowly economic terms. The professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, A C Grayling, has urged the arts and humanities to "put up a fight" against these cuts, or else face destruction. But the coalition seems hell-bent on reducing policy formulation to a cost/benefit analysis, with the axe it has taken to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) being a case in point. Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said that we need to stop viewing the arts as simply costs to society. Rylance told the Times:

On the cuts issue, it seems to me that the mind shift we have to go through is to stop thinking about these things (funding higher education) as costs and start thinking about them as investments, because we are not going to get growth and a healthier society unless we invest in these things.

How are the arts of value to society? Several studies by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have explored the effects of art and music education on young children's learning. These studies showed that music instruction can help build intellectual and emotional skills, facilitate children's learning and strengthen numeracy and literacy skills.

A forthcoming study produced by the neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus concluded that schools that fail to give music a central role in their curriculum are making a mistake. Music "fundamentally shapes" brains, and can help combat the learning difficulties associated with dyslexia and autism.

The report concluded that that "long-term musical practice strengthens cognitive functions and that these functions benefit auditory skills. Musical training bolsters higher-level mechanisms that, when impaired, relate to language and literacy deficits. Thus, musical training may serve to lessen the impact of these deficits by strengthening the corticofugal system for hearing."

Not only does music aid brain development, but it also instils discipline. Many people complain that children today have short attention spans. Learning a musical instrument helps them to learn to concentrate over long periods of time. Playing in orchestras encourages team work, which is deemed by most employers to be an essential quality. Learning a musical instrument gives children a sense of achievement. Acquired self-worth could have knock-on effects in other aspects of a child's life.

The government must re-evaluate the value that it places on the arts, for we are at grave risk of losing them. Sir Thomas Carlyle's critique of utilitarian man seems particularly apt:

Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did; till the Soul is nigh choked out of him, and only a kind of Digestive, Mechanic life remains. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else: the world would indeed grind him to pieces; but cannot he fathom the Doctrine of Motives, and cunningly compute these, and mechanize them to grind the other way?

"In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism..." Britain is at risk of becoming a society that only values that which can be crudely accumulated. Must this be an inevitable consequence of the financial crisis?

 

Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue