In March I attended the Van Gogh Alive experience during a trip to Edinburgh. As I sat on a bench, surrounded by artwork, quotes and information, I had never felt more at peace. However, this time, I was learning and experiencing something multi-sensory, music and scents filling the air to create a fully immersive event. Following that was a room filled with sunflowers and mirrors to mimic his famous painting, and although this was the more Instagrammable of the two rooms, I preferred the peace-filled sensation of the first.
It reminded me that places of art and culture have a certain kind of power. That power when you leave a cinema feeling like you could conquer the world, or when you leave a concert and feel such happiness that you do not mind your throat hurting from all the singing.
These places are incredibly moving and have an impact on us as a society.
For one, it aids in our health and wellbeing. During the pandemic, I missed my weekly trips to museums and National Trust sites, where we could rewind time and transport ourselves into cultures long lost and almost inhale history. The arts illuminate our inner lives and can enrich our emotional world, teaching us compassion. Apart from being a tool to destress, it is a way to express yourself and is a form of therapy. I am sure that throughout your life you have invented your own songs and dance routines, even if those were more in private than on a public stage. In a time of social isolation, arts and culture can provide a sense of community and belonging. This is true for care homes, where art activities help to increase social interactions between residents and staff, which can improve mood, well-being and even memory. In 2013, for example, researchers from Newcastle University found that viewing contemporary visual art had positive effects on the personal lives of nursing home-bound elders.
Arts and culture also have a significant societal impact. One billion people tuned in to view the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, and 68% of viewers said that it made them proud to be British. In addition, children from low-income families who participate in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree. (These facts come from the March 2014 infographic from Arts Council UK.)
Art influences society by changing opinions and instilling values. It translates experiences across space and time and is the repository of society’s collective memory. Art preserves what records cannot; the emotions of those in different places and times. In that regard, art is a kind of communication, through sounds, stories, and images. It gives a voice to the socially disenfranchised and those who cannot verbally express themselves. A song, film or novel can inspire emotions in those who encounter it, causing them to seek new ideas or rally for change.
Arts and culture are important, and we need to ensure their survival. As our digital culture progresses, how we view arts and culture will evolve. This was especially the case during the pandemic when everything became virtual. But viewing through a screen is quite different from physical experience. Sure, I have read about Van Gogh throughout my entire life, but sitting in that room in Edinburgh, I felt like I could stand in the fields he did and feel the inspiration he felt in the stars.
Arts and culture allow us to display our talents or even discover new ones. Every one of us has a set of talents, and unfortunately, we tend to lock them away. But arts and culture allow us to find our true calling. Some people discover their talents in their later years thanks to art and new experiences. You are never too old to discover something new. In addition, there is no set timeframe for life. You can write a novel, go back to school or learn a new hobby at any point in your life. If you feel lost, consider devoting some time to art and see what happens next.
Try your hand at everything that art and culture can provide. Even if you do not have an artistic eye, it is still therapeutic to throw paint at a canvas (there is a place in the Rage Room at Newcastle where you can do that literally), dance around the room like no one is watching, or try to pick up a new skill in theatre or music.
Support your local theatres. There is Newcastle Theatre Royal and Hexham’s Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, which have everything from pantomimes to emotional rollercoaster performances. Museums are scattered across the country, as well as art galleries. Events sweep through local towns quite often, for example, Tyne Valley’s Film Festival in March which toured Forum Cinema, Forum Books and Hexham Community Centre. There is even a poetry festival coming to Newcastle in May, which hosts Simon Armitage and many more. The weather is picking up, so you can walk amongst the fields at National Trust sites such as Wallington, Seaton Delaval, Cragside or Gibside, learning the history of magnificent stately homes as you walk between flowers and waterfalls.
Although National Trust sites require money to enter, most museums and art galleries do not and are accessible to everyone. However, consider donating or taking up a subscription so that these sites can continue to enrich our lives.
To conclude, arts and culture make us better humans. Spaces which offer arts and culture should be protected, and from a personal point of view, you should try your hand at them if you want to. There is a whole new world to discover; you just need to look for it.