Louise O'Neill: Art has the ability to shape the way we see ourselves

I was asked in a recent interview what I thought the ‘secret’ to success was, and I replied that, in my case at least, I believed hard work was key.

I had made certain sacrifices in the early part of my writing career that might seem unpalatable to others. But while I worked hard, I must also remind myself that I was extremely privileged.

I had parents who not only encouraged me and believed that being an artist was a viable career, but who fed and housed me while I pursued that dream.

If they had refused to do so, or if they had simply been unable to accommodate another mouth to feed, maybe I would have been forced to give up on my ambitions, dismissed them as foolhardy fantasies.

It is easy to say that art is something that can be done before or after your ‘real’ work, that it is something that can be pushed into the margins of your life when in reality; it is something that demands space and time to breathe.

I am in awe of people who hold down full-time jobs and produce extraordinary pieces of work (Donal Ryan, I’m looking at you), but for many frustrated artists, their careers are so demanding that they don’t have enough energy at the end of a long day to sit down at the desk or go into the studio and be creative on demand.

But the bills must be paid, the mortgage must be paid, and children must be fed, and so dreams wither and die. Incredible voices are lost to us all.

In order to combat financial barriers that preclude people from becoming practising artists, a grassroots, volunteer-led movement called The National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) is working with the arts community and politicians in order to ensure that the Arts are recognised as a vital part of contemporary Irish life.

The Government has promised to increase expenditure on the Arts over seven years, starting from last year, so that we can bring funding back to the 2008 level of €82 million.

Crucially, it is essential that the majority of this goes towards the Arts Council, where the lives of artists themselves can be directly impacted.

Having been the beneficiary of an Arts Council grant myself, before Asking For It was released, I can personally vouch for how helpful such assistance can be, especially in an industry which is notoriously poorly paid and where you are often asked to volunteer your services for free — ‘for the love of it’ — of course.

I think part of the reason why we can be reluctant to increase funding for artists is that there is a feeling that in Ireland, artists are born, not made.

For a country of such a diminutive size, we punch far above our weight culturally and have produced some of the best playwrights and authors and musicians and actors and visual artists in the world.

We seem to believe that these artists would have survived under any circumstances, that they didn’t require encouragement and support, not to mention expensive lessons and equipment. The Irish are story-tellers and folk-artists by blood and by birth, the myths go.

Past governments have been far too eager to exploit these myths for tourism purposes without taking the necessary steps to ensure that our tradition of artistry to adequately funded. (Honourable mention for the Artist’s Exemption here, which is, as The Irish Times wrote in 2003, the tax break that makes art possible.)

There will be many people reading this who will feel uncomfortable with the idea of increasing spending on the Arts, arguing that money should be funnelled into social welfare or the health service or the charity sector.

I agree that all of these areas need more money, and our state services should be run in a far more efficient and productive manner.

It would be nice as we pay our tax bills to feel as if our taxes are being used appropriately. But this is not a zero-sum game, and we are capable of caring about mental health services in this country and hoping to ensure that artists will be given adequate assistance to continue with their work. Because of the Arts matter.

A perfect example of the impact they can have was demonstrated in a study conducted in an Italian University in 2014.

This study found that children reading passages in the Harry Potter books dealing with prejudice showed greatly improved attitudes towards immigrants after only six weeks, while the test group given more neutral passages from the series reported no attitudinal change whatsoever. It makes sense.

When we read a book or watch a movie, we are obliged to see the world through someone else’s eyes, which makes us more empathetic human beings.

Isn’t that important? Don’t we want to live in a compassionate society? As the NCFA says, the Arts can bring essential qualities of awareness, emotion, truth, and creativity to everyday life.

Art is powerful. It is not just a mirror, showing us our true selves, but it has the ability to shape the way in which we see ourselves. It has the power to transform the world that we live in. Culture can change culture.

For more information, see ncfa.ie

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