Wayne Brown’s threat to the arts as a publicly-funded good flies in the face of wide research showing art makes the everyday struggles of urban living more bearable, writes Peter O’Connor

It is hard to know if Wayne Brown is nervous about being described as a philistine, or secretly delights in it. I can assure – or reassure – him that he is clearly a philistine, but that is probably one of the milder terms I have heard used in the last week from friends and colleagues in the arts sector.

Many have used terms like vandal and lout. These terms are perhaps more apt, as they describe someone who deliberately damages things of value rather than someone incapable of understanding the preciousness of the arts. Friends in South Auckland settle on the term patronising when they read that he thinks galleries and the arts aren’t important to them.

The arts are soft targets for right-wing politicians like Brown who have a sense that value can only be measured in financial terms. For them, life is just a series of business transactions, so people become consumers and customers rather than citizens. I’m not sure how you argue for the value of the arts, of community building with the vandals in charge of the council purses. It feels like the clash of values is too extreme for dialogue that might be meaningful.

* Wayne Brown and controlling the message
* An ode for …. Wayne Brown 

As an academic I can, however, point to the research and evidence that speaks of the value of the arts.

Over 3000 research studies inform a World Health Organisation report published in 2020 that clearly links the arts to individual and community health. Some of that research makes it clear that the arts are cheaper and more effective interventions in mental health than medical therapies. Research shows the arts helped many people cope with lockdowns. It seems ludicrous then, as we recover from Covid, in the barren wasteland of cones and $2 shops in the CBD, we have a mayor who threatens the existence of the arts as a publicly-funded good.

Research demonstrates that the arts are lifelines for many of our young people in this city. They provide the reason to get out of bed, to mix and meet with others. To cut community youth arts programmes will feel like further abandonment for those who have used the arts as gateways to return to meaningful purposeful lives. The proposed cuts in this context are both cruel and short-sighted.

Research shows that the arts bring people together to mourn, to remember, to celebrate and question our history. They construct our identities as individuals and communities in a way that nothing else can. The arts breathe life into a city, give it colour, soften the ugliness of everyday living in a cost-of-living crisis, by reminding us that shared joy and laughter makes a city liveable. Literally hundreds of studies worldwide report on this vital role of the arts in making the everyday struggles of urban living more bearable.

Neuroscience teaches us we are all born creative and that the arts in every culture are central to what makes us more fully human. A denial of that and leaving the arts to only those who can afford them is elitist. Paradoxically the argument used by the mayor is that publicly-funded arts are a form of elitism. The simplistic and nasty attack on Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki last week and the arts community is taken from the Trump playbook.

The mayor attempts to justify these personal attacks by identifying with the common man (sic) in South Auckland who he says has no time for the arts. He claims bizarrely that the arts are a luxury item only the rich should have access to. Yet, it might surprise him that the most vibrant arts in the city are found in the south. On the streets and in homes and in the beautiful galleries and performing arts centres across these suburbs, poetry, music, storytelling and traditional and contemporary art forms are cutting-edge and world-leading.

Fifty years ago, Gough Whitlam was creating modern Australia through investing in the arts.

At his funeral, Australian actor Cate Blanchett quoted him:

Of all the objectives of my Government, none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts … I would argue that all the other objectives of a Government – social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities – have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish.

If only we had such vision now in our leaders. Auckland deserves better than this.

Peter O'Connor is Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland. He has created and researched theatre in prisons, psychiatric institutions,...

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