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At 17, the young should learn the truth of great art

Cultural exposure must begin during school years


Tom Vaughan Lawlor sent a letter of thanks

Tom Vaughan Lawlor sent a letter of thanks

Tom Vaughan Lawlor sent a letter of thanks

Some years ago, the Arts Council used to provide bursaries for drama students. For many years, as a member of the council, I chaired the adjudication panel. The applicants were from full-time drama students at third level, hoping to earn their livings as actors/directors. I always made a point of asking the students what plays they had seen in the previous six months, and what had they thought of them?

Almost none of them had gone to the theatre; it was "too expensive". Seeing red, I would ask what they had done the previous weekend. Friday and Saturday had been spent pubbing and clubbing, almost without exception. (One of the exceptions stands out in my mind: an Irish student at RADA, by the name of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. He also remains in my memory as the only student out of hundreds who ever wrote to me, thanking the council for the bursary, and saying it enabled him to stay at RADA for his final year, where he won the outstanding student award.)

All that came into my mind while reading an ESRI report funded by the Arts Council, about young people's "participation" in arts and culture, specifically at age 17, by Dr Emer Smyth, who found a significant decline in participation in arts and culture pursuits at school when people reach 17. Participation in other activities, including sport, declines as well at that age. (The research was carried out before Covid hit.)

Participation outside school in structured arts and cultural activity also declined in the age group, although overall such activities were regarded as more important than religion or politics, while girls placed more importance on them than boys did. Equally, young people from more highly-educated backgrounds placed more importance on arts and culture than those in disadvantaged groups, except, interestingly, less so among the highest income group. (That led me to a mental picture of the irresistibly foul-mouthed Honor O'Carroll-Kelly, daughter of Ross and Sorcha.)

But on a serious note, Dr Smyth's research endorsed earlier findings that life satisfaction levels are higher where young people regularly make music, go to the cinema, and are involved in drama clubs or lessons, while life satisfaction and self-esteem are lower where young people play computer games regularly.

The most common "cultural activity" for 17-year-olds was "listening to music" (87pc), while just 14pc read for pleasure. Cinema attendance was "occasional". Going to the theatre and/or drawing and painting weren't even covered.

For politicians (and for some arts administrators, who should know better), the arts are to be treated as part of the social services, something for community activity, to keep people off the streets and out of the pubs. And while the ESRI research didn't cover theatre, it has been frequently noted anecdotally that people involved in amateur drama seldom, if ever, go to professional theatre performances.

The Arts Council should be fighting with all its might against this dissemination of a watered-down definition of the arts, rather than colluding with it. For "community arts participation" read "hobbies". For most politicians, the wider and thinner funding is spread, the happier they are: it means votes.

Young men and women need to be exposed to professional art of a high standard, and the great art of the past in galleries, theatres, museums, cinemas and concert halls, when they're forming their adult tastes. And to ensure equality of access, it needs to be provided through the school system from an early age.

That is where the Arts Council should concentrate its resources, rather than caving into its political masters who curry public favour with the lazy mantra that "everyone is an artist at heart". Artists are rare people. They make art because they can't help themselves: it's not a hobby for Tuesday night at the community centre.

So however valuable Dr Smyth's research may be as providing a depressing picture of teenage preoccupations, its findings should be directed at the Department of Social Employment and the Department of Education. If the Arts Council wants to fund more research on the place of art in our society, it should highlight the reality: art is a lonely calling, and full-time professional artists, not politicians, are the natural custodians of the soul of the nation.

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