Studying the Arts – A worthwhile pursuit?

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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In times of economic instability, many people feel it their duty to forego the pleasurable in favour of the necessary. This affects course choices as much as anything else: pursuing what is deemed useful is preferred to pursuing what may only be regarded as something of personal interest. Arts-related courses are therefore more likely to suffer in such head-to-heads collisions, but only because their exact value is so difficult to pin down.

The value of the arts have been discussed time and again – in lecture halls, television studios, in people’s living rooms, and, perhaps with a tipple or two too many, even in bars. Opinions are both numerous and varied enough to make them almost redundant. In his 2005 book What Good are the Arts the literary critic John Carey put forward the following view:

‘A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person.’

If anything can be viewed as a work of art to anyone, it should then stand to reason that no single opinion can be placed above any other. All are equally valid. In theory this means that I could boldly declare that a tuna salad is a work of art, or maybe one of Vincent Browne’s many flamboyant ties, and still I would not be wrong – although it’d be unlikely that anyone would share my opinion. Carey’s point, of course, is that the value of the arts is relative and personal. They may relax or console us (the benefits of art therapy in prisons and hospitals have been well-documented), they can challenge or confirm our assumptions, they may occasionally infuriate us, or they may awaken our imaginations. How can we weigh up or quantify these benefits against more straightforward financial rewards Should we even try

Well, while it may be impossible to put a number on the arts’ more intangible qualities (and what they may mean to us personally), it is possible to weigh up the financial contribution of the arts to the economy. A report published earlier this month by the Arts Council showed that the wider arts sector supports 20,755 jobs in Ireland, with a tax contribution of 336 million euro. Arts also have a huge impact on the creative industries (such as advertising, design, radio and television, software development, libraries, etc.), which support 77,000 jobs and offer a tax contribution of 4.7 billion euro. When it comes to returns on investment, the report showed that the Arts Council provided 60 million in funding in 2011, with the funded organisations achieving an impressive turnover of 145 million.

What can we infer from these numbers That the arts sector represents a major source of employment and revenue Well yes, if you wish. But these are not necessarily the things any of us should use to justify our interest in the arts, or our decision to pursue that interest. Pat Moylan, the chairman of the Arts Council, drew a somewhat more appealing and insightful conclusion from the report’s findings. According to him, they showed that ‘The arts really matter to us in Ireland, they unite our communities in good times and bad, and they help define us as a people’.

So, the arts can be both deeply personal and publicly unifying; they are open to our interpretations while also helping to define us. That’s quite a lot to offer, and a lot for us to appreciate, admire, and benefit from. What an unbearable weight of expectation Vincent Browne’s poor stylist must bear…


Frank Bolger

From German to Yoga courses - a man has seen his 'better' side!
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