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Are the arts in trouble?

Art is something that many view as a luxury. In an economy where average families in New Zealand are beginning to view milk and cheese as a luxury it is hard to see how attending a play or buying a painting is going to be rationalised.

But is art a luxury? In relative terms - it is. Art, as in privately consumed art, is paid for with discretionary incomes - the money left over after essentials are paid for. It is the simple brutality of pure economics and economic perception.

I attended the award ceremony of the NZ Art Guild last week (Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna) which set me to thinking about this whole topic. Many of the entrants in this award show probably wouldn't be displayed in some of the more high-brow galleries. The artists would fall under the heading of talented amateurs or decorative artists. They fall outside the abstract bounds of 'trained' artists who are recognised as much for their affiliations with Elam or Ilam art schools as for the calibre of their work. Curators and gallerists deign to hang them because their academic chops are not at risk.

I think there is a genuine need for the talented amateur (I made my views about amateurs plain in the review of the book The Cult of the Amateur in Idealog issue 12). Amateur art is valuable as an expression of the individual's need to create and as an outlet for people who like to enrich their lives with objects of stimulus, beauty and individuality. They are an antidote to the garbage that populates homes and landfills up and down New Zealand purchased from the Warehouse.

Art for many is a release from the grind of their every day working lives. Creativity needs an outlet and there are few pleasures more satisfying than creating something monstrously naive in terracotta or paint. It is more productive than caving and only very rarely is a rescue team needed to be sent in to extract one from a life threatening situation.

Few things are more brutal to the human psyche than repetitive process work. I'd argue that people who create in their spare time are more likely to see an opportunity in the mundus of everyday work to make things better by doing things differently.

In the event of the winds of recession reaching these shores there is a genuine need for government to invest in artistic participation across the social spectrum. Rather than paying only for elite, professional arts alone (though there is a continued need to support pro-arts in all of its permutations) it may be time to wag the long tail of the arts as means of stimulating creativity across the board.

I'm worried that concepts such as 'labour shortage' will continue to get airtime - and it is important - but viewing the population as the means of production or units of labour to be consumed is vile and dispiriting.

 If the bureaucracy in New Zealand can swell like an aggressive cancer then I can see no reason for an Art Corps to be established too, a SPARC for the arts.