In Praise of Creative Arts

I came across an article in The Guardian newspaper the other week which stated that, in Britain today, there are 160,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students studying creative arts courses, that is, courses in drama, dance, fine art, music, film, photography, design and creative writing. Apparently, this number is greater than the whole of engineering, or maths and computing combined.

To be honest, I was rather surprised and not a little uplifted by these statistics, especially given that public funding for the Arts in Britain has fallen through the floor in recent years, and the fact that youngsters these days are so relentlessly bombarded with the propaganda that only science and mathematics-based subjects are worthy of higher study as only they will be a shoe-in to employment after graduation. What a sad state of affairs that 18-year-olds expected to choose the career path they are to follow for the next 40 years.

Ibra HouseAs I read this article, I was transported back in time to the March day thirty-six years ago when I stalked into my father’s workshop, heart pounding, intent on laying waste to his fanciful notion that I was going to follow in his illustrious footsteps through academia and study Mathematics.

“Dad, I have applied to study Fine Art at university,” I said with all the force I could muster. “I have been called for an interview next week.”

“What did you say?” my father said as he very slowly looked up from the lawnmower engine he was rebuilding. As far as I know, my father never visited an art gallery, took a photograph, read a poem or attended a classical music concert in his whole life.

“I said I have applied to study Fine Art at university,” I repeated, then added, “In England.” My father winced, as if I’d just punched him in the solar plexus. England, apparently, was an even greater iniquity in his view of the world than Fine Art.

“In England! And what’s wrong with the art college in Dublin?” he said, wiping his hands on a greasy rag as if getting ready to tie me into a straightjacket and send me to Monaghan, the location of the regional secure psychiatric hospital.

“They have priests teaching there,” I lied, shamelessly exploiting my father’s rabid hatred of the Roman Catholic clergy.

“And what about Belfast? Is the art college there not good enough for you?”

“The art students in Belfast like to cavort about with no clothes on,” I said, making reference to a very lurid piece of performance art I had witnessed on my exploratory visit the previous month, and at the same time shamelessly exploiting my father’s rabid aversion to public nudity.

“Well, I see that your mind is made up,” he said. “If that’s what you really want to study, then you have my blessing.” With that, he turned back to the lawnmower engine, which was just as well as my eyes were tearing up.

Of course, it is not only the parents of arty kids who can have their hopes cruelly dashed. A few months ago, I met up with my old school friend Dominic, a bassoonist by profession, in a coffee house in London. We hadn’t seen each other in ten years.

“And how’s Finbar?” I asked after a while, referring to Dominic’s only son.

“He’s at Oxford on a full scholarship. How’s life going in Oman?” Dominic said.

“How wonderful,” I gushed. “What’s he reading?”

“Do you want that biscuit?” Dominic said, eyeing the complementary finger of shortbread on my saucer.

“No, you have it. What’s he reading?”

“Oh no, look. It’s started to rain and I’ve left my umbrella at home,” Dominic said, looking out of the window.

“Earth to Dominic, come in please! What is Finbar reading at Oxford?”

“Economics,” Dominic mumbled, pretending to check his phone for messages.

“You’re joking! What happened to that boy I once knew who painted, wrote poetry, played Chopin and acted in plays?” I said.

“The usual story. When he moved up to secondary school, he fell in with the wrong crowd, started listening to pop music…”

“Pop music!” I gasped.

“… going out with girls …”

“Girls!” I exclaimed.

“… playing rugby …”

“RUGBY!” I shrieked, causing the other customers in the coffee house to look round and scowl at me. “Why didn’t you write and tell me? I could have sent you a camel whip from Oman.”

“I tried to reason with him, but it was no good. He’s a very strong-willed boy.”

“But Economics, for heaven’s sake! What sort of a dead-end job will he get with a degree like that?”

“He’ll become a merchant banker, I suppose. Or worse, an economist at the IMF. He says he wants to own his first Ferrari by the time he’s 30. I’m so disappointed.” Dominic looked as if he was about to burst into tears, so I thought it best to adopt a consoling tone.

“Oh well, I suppose somebody has got to do those kinds of demeaning jobs. What about Iona?” I said, referring to Finbar’s younger sister.

“Oh, she wants to be a novelist,” Dominic said, perking up slightly.

“Well, at least she has some sense,” I said.

Science and maths-based disciplines have their own apologists, so I am not going to discuss here what benefits the study of such subjects at undergraduate or postgraduate level might bring. No, I carry the flag for the Arts, in case that wasn’t already obvious. So what justifications would I give for encouraging young people to study a creative arts subject at university, assuming they have the passion and aptitude for that subject?

First of all, I might say that the world is always, perhaps now more than ever, in need of new ways of looking at things, of new ideas, of thinking outside the envelope, which are exactly the kinds of skills you learn on a creative arts course. Divergent thinking is fundamental to all creativity.

Perhaps I would also point to recent research that strongly indicates arts graduates have a broader skills base and so are better equipped for a wider range of jobs. Furthermore, they are more flexible in changing careers later in life.

I might also state the obvious by saying that arts graduates care more about the personal happiness and well-being that creativity naturally brings them than they do about money and possessions.

Most emphatically of all, though, I would no doubt quote those famous lines from the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope — “The proper study of mankind is man.” Reflection on the human condition is fundamental to creative art (as well as several science subjects, such as Archaeology and Psychology). Surely it is obvious to even the most slow-witted individual that what the world needs at the moment is more human understanding, more empathy and more thinking outside the box.

So if you are the parent of a teenager with a strong aptitude and desire to study a creative arts subject, then at least consider giving them your blessing and let providence take care of the future. After all, I studied Fine Art at university with my mathematician father’s blessing and look how well I turned out!


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