OPINION: I was just thinking...is culture the best route to enlightenment

Emily - the Making of a Militant Suffragette will be performed at Ashwell School on April 5

Emily - the Making of a Militant Suffragette will be performed at Ashwell School on April 5 - Credit: Archant

I WAS JUST THINKING...about culture. Even the very word has connotations of elitism.

It brings to mind the over-articulated and slightly superior tones of art critics, the ‘you-wouldn’t-really-appreciate-it’ condescension of Oxbridge-educated theatre directors wearing silk scarves and that indefinable smugness of those for whom a preoccupation with culture appears to be little more than an escape from the realities of life. You will not be surprised to learn that such a dismissal of the central importance of culture in our impoverished society is something that I deplore.

I was pondering this as I trudged the streets of Ashwell delivering leaflets through the letterboxes of each and every house in the village. The subject of those leaflets? A performance at Ashwell School of a play not so pithily entitled Emily – the Making of a Militant Suffragette that visits on April 5th.

It is a peculiar anomaly when a society that prides itself on its heritage feels able to dismiss an essential component of that history, namely its culture, as the preoccupation of a load of ‘luvvies’. In times of austerity culture gets hammered. Grants that have been supplied by local and central Government tend to get cut as the ever-increasing focus on ‘value for money’ is calculated by numbers. Numbers of people who are affected by the cash. Numbers of the disenfranchised who are touched by the activity. Numbers of pounds sterling that can be generated by the economic stimulus provided by investment. There is a helpless shrug of the shoulders from decision makers when, paying lip-service to the vital contribution played by culture to our species’ DNA, they take money away and give it to hospitals, schools, flood relief, transport and other infrastructure.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t for a minute suggest that these things are not important. My contention is that culture is equally vital. It is impossible to think of a society at whose heart art and heritage do not sit. Imagine a world in which access to music, theatre, dance, literature, historic buildings, art collections and their like was restricted by decisions made in the interests of economy. We are already finding that libraries, galleries and theatres are closing because they are unable to afford to continue to struggle on. The very argument that is often put forward, namely that these institutions should charge the economic price for access, like football, militates against open access for all. It plays right into the hands of those who level the accusation of cultural elitism. And while we’re at it, look at football. The working class game is now the preserve of the affluent middle classes. Point proven I think.

It’s the mindset that needs changing. We pride ourselves in being a bastion of many things. Democracy is one of them. We celebrate the enfranchisement of every part of our community. We look at the atrocities being perpetrated upon the population of Syria and congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment. Our children have grown up with a sense of entitlement. Do we forget to tell them that it is but an historical blink of an eye since fifty percent of our population had to endure force-feeding, ridicule, vilification and even death in pursuit of their ideals? The movement for Women’s Suffrage was, relatively speaking, only seconds ago.

And how better to tell people about that struggle and to ask them to question why they take that entitlement for granted? Why, to tell them a story about it. To use culture to as an educational tool to illuminate the present day in the light of past struggles. We are told daily how we are disillusioned with our politicians. We have stopped listening to them. Even if we do listen we do not believe. So perhaps it is not too ridiculous to suggest that culture is a far better medium for enlightening a population than the interminable wrangling in the political bearpit.