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The Inside Life: Jeanette Winterson on arts funding

Read Thursday, 19 May 2016

Claims that the arts are elitist or unnecessary reflect a denial of our creative selves, argues author Jeanette Winterson, in this excerpt from her talk this week in Melbourne.

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The arts aren’t a luxury activity. They are central to life. Art is the part of us that is met, and that can’t be met in the outside world. 

Life has an inside as well as an outside, and everything in this crazy modern world is focused on the outside, because you’ve got to go to work, pay the bills, watch the TV news – all of that. But what happens to the dreaming world, to the imaginative world, to those parts of us that need a response and need a recognition that we can’t have simply by living always at face value? That’s important – the imaginative life really matters.

The imaginative life is not a luxury, and if you think about it, it’s there in all of our children. Kids want to play. You give them a set of pots and pans, and they make a kingdom; they paint a picture and you stick it on the fridge; you sit them in front of an instrument and they’ll start tapping out a tune and do a little dance; they tell a story, you tell them a story, they say, ‘Tell it again, tell it again!’; they make up little plays. This hard-wired creativity is the inheritance of every child ever born across space and time, and for some reason, later on, we knock it out of them – usually at school, and then even later on we say, ‘Oh, no, the arts are elitist, we can’t afford to fund them, it’s obviously a luxury activity.’ 

But it is the core of being human, because creativity is the core of being human and everybody here is on the creative continuum. There are different doses and dilutions of creativity, and not everybody needs to be or wants to be an artist, but everybody wants to be in the zone of what’s creative. You make a beautiful meal for your family – that’s creative. You sit down and have a conversation where the ideas and the sparks start to fly – that’s creative.

So much of what we do is about our creative self. We shouldn’t be in denial of that, and the people who want to make art in all its shapes and forms also need support, recognition, and a place to be – and they need audiences who aren’t embarrassed and slightly guilty about wanting those things as well. 

Politicians come out with all kinds of crap about, ‘You can’t have hospitals and health care and childcare and Meals on Wheels if you want theatres and libraries.’ Why can’t you? How much do we spend on fucking weaponry? Look at the choices that we make – all of these things are choices all of the time. Think of much money every year people spend on crisps, how much money we spend on perfume, how much money we spend on advertising. 

‘We’re caught in binaries which are nearly always false – I don’t know why we have to have them.’

You guys are going to have a plebiscite costing a hundred and sixty million to see if gay people can get married. You could do a lot of arts funding with a hundred and sixty million. What we shouldn’t do is have false questions and false choices. When I was leaving home, after falling in love with a girl, my mother said to me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She always thought it was personal to her, and I said, ‘Look, it makes me happy.’ That’s when she said, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ She was a violent philosopher. And I left the house thinking, ‘Happy/normal, normal/happy, is that a real binary? Is it like cat/dog, good/evil, black/white, male/female?’

We’re caught in binaries which are nearly always false – I don’t know why we have to have them. And it’s one of those not real questions: ‘Happy/normal, normal/happy?’ It’s like saying, ‘Well, we can’t fund the arts if we want to have any health care or if we want old people to be warm in the winter or to have one meal a day’. It’s just not true. This is our money and we should have more say in how it is spent and I believe that people really want the arts in their lives. I think we know that it’s central, and I think we know that it matters and it’s not doing any good just cutting all this away from people’s lives. 

You go to the theatre: it’s real. You read a book: it’s real. You go into the art gallery: it’s real. Why? Because it speaks to your soul and you don’t have to believe in God to know that you’ve got a soul. We know what we mean when we say, ‘This is soulless’ or, ‘I’ve sold my soul’ and we know what we mean when we say, ‘This has got soul’ – and arts have soul because we have soul.

This is an edited transcript of Jeanette Winterson’s response to an audience question at her Wheeler Centre event, which took place this week at the Athenaeum Theatre.

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