Austere times have in the past been paradoxically creative periods. In responding to the Great Depression, FDR included the arts in the Works Progress Administration alongside roadbuilding. Keynes made the formation and generous funding of the Arts Council in 1946 a central thought in rebuilding the UK after the horror of war, and just as its enduring financial and physical costs became fully apparent. Of course, good times are good for the arts as well. The economic Golden Age of the later 1950s and 1960s were the most generous period for funding the arts, and stimulated great innovation and experimentation.
But I’m not thinking about the production of artistic works so much as their ‘consumption’. When a society experiences difficult times, shared artistic evaluation becomes important, for several reasons – as a conversation about what people are experiencing, as a means of escapism, as a symbolic statement of values. This essay by J.B. Priestley in his 1949 collection Delight, put it very aptly:
“What is the use of our being told that we live in a democracy if we want fountains and have no fountains? Expensive? Their cost is trifling compared to that of so many idiotic things we are given and do not want.”
The creation of the arts can be funded either privately or publicly, and the act of creation may take place inside one person’s mind in inescapable privacy; but any example of art that is not experienced jointly and debated is really consumerism, not creativity. I was struck by the importance of the social context reading this very positive review of Jonah Lehrer’s acclaimed new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. The book is about the neuroscience of creativity, what happens in the individual brain. But societies as well as individuals create. Recognising that social outcomes are greater than the sum of individual outcomes was Keynes’s true and enduring legacy.