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The arts teach us how to be human

20 December 2013

The arts cannot be measured by their economic potential, argues Peter Graystone


HULL is to be the UK City of Culture in 2017. Only those living in the other shortlisted locations can fail to be delighted. The announcement has been a splendid Christmas present for the north-east of England, and a formidable achievement for a city assessed by a television programme in 2005 as the worst place to live in the UK.

The award is richly deserved. Hull is the city where the poet Philip Larkin made his home for 30 years. The bands Everything but the Girl and the Housemartins were nurtured there. Hull Truck Theatre has a 40-year history of bringing new audiences to funny and fast-moving plays. Tom Wells, one of the brightest of a new generation of playwrights, is from Hull, and his Jumpers for Goalposts is currently playing in London.

The idea of a City of Culture dates from 1985, when the Greek MP Melina Mercouri argued that the economic benefits of the European Union had been stressed so forcibly that the potential of its culture to enrich people's lives had been ignored.

She proposed that, each year, a city should be nominated European Capital of Culture, a focus for a range of outstanding arts events. In 2008, it was Liverpool; it will be 2023 before a UK city is next chosen. It was a year so transformational for Liverpool's identity, however, that the then Secretary of State for Culture, Andy Burnham, instigated a quadrennial UK City of Culture. The first to be selected was Derry/Londonderry, and this has been a year of exceptional art and performance.

By mid-December, the present Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, had not visited Derry during its festival year. She had, she told the BBC, been "too busy". She did, however, congratulate Derry on the economic impact of 600,000 tourists who have visited. The government press release states that it "has already seen the economic and social benefits. For every £1 invested, [the] UK City of Culture is expected to generate £5."

What can have so occupied Mrs Miller's time that she could not attend the UK's most important arts event? Did she perhaps miss Derry's "Humdinger!" festival of children's books because she was busy defending libraries against closures by local councils? Apparently not. Did she forsake the city-wide Fleadh because she was opposing the collapse of state-funded music education during governmental reforms? No, evidently. Neither libraries nor music lessons generate an economic return of 500 per cent. They have been left to wither.

Culture is not a commodity. Its worth cannot be measured by its potential to make money. The arts teach us how to be human. They define our place in the order of things - in relation to each other, to the rest of creation, to eternity. Culture is about wonder and worth. I confidently predict that residents of Hull will be talking about those benefits at the end of 2017. No one will have lasting pride because they made a few quid.

Our Secretary of State for Culture reminds me of Simon the Sorcerer, whose story is told in Acts 8. Dazzled by what the Holy Spirit was doing to uplift the converts of Samaria, he spotted a money-spinner. He made the apostles an offer to purchase it. Peter's furious response was: "May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy a gift of God with money. You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right."

Peter Graystone develops pioneer-mission projects for the Church Army.

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