Terence Blacker: Artists have a duty to cheer us all up

Claims for the life-saving powers of art are braver than they seem in times of austerity
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The Independent Online

At first glance, a speech made this week by Lord Puttnam of Queensgate would seem to suggest that his lordship has been spending too much time recently in a darkened theatre, watching films with high emotional content. Our future looks "increasingly bleak – almost a form of war", Puttnam said. It is the arts, and the way they are taught to children, which can help us retain our civilisation, our empathy and our understanding of others. There will not be much of future at all, he believes, unless "we're prepared to become significantly more imaginative".

As an example of the power of the arts, he cited his own production Chariots of Fire which, according to letters he has received down the years, has dissuaded at least a dozen people from committing suicide. "It gave them exactly the kind of lift they needed in a time of crisis."

In 2012, this kind of claim for the power of art and culture is braver and more revolutionary than it may seem. The last two governments have been in thrall to a depressing, business-obsessed view of the world. Arts funding has been cut to the quick. The suggestion that we all need to become more imaginative and open to creativity tends to play badly at a time when politicians, and the rest of us, are repeatedly reminded of the importance of living in the real world.

There will be even louder scoffing at the other end of political and intellectual spectrum. The idea that a film like Chariots of Fire – what the critical establishment sneeringly calls a "crowd-pleaser" – can change and save lives is hilariously unfashionable. In the snobbier echelons of British culture, optimism tends to be equated with triviality. It is widely accepted that, in miserable times, the job of writers and film-makers is to deconstruct that misery, analyse it for the rest of us to understand. The plays of Sir David Hare, the state-of-the nation novels of Sebastian Faulks or John Lanchester, are taken with all due seriousness, while, joyous, celebratory work – the National Theatre's production of She Stoops To Conquer, for example, or the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – tends to be patronised by the critics, dismissed at best as middlebrow entertainment.

The last great depression showed that the best creative talents not only had a responsibility to reflect their times, but also to bring much-needed joy and hope. To help people through hard times, a John Steinbeck is needed, but also a Cole Porter. The snobs and sneerers may talk dismissively of escapism, as if art which focuses beyond the gloomy present is by its nature inferior, but David Puttnam has provided an important reminder of what the best film, music and writing can do – provide the kind of lift we all need at a time of crisis.