The Relevance of Arts to Practical Living

INTRODUCTION
For the avoidance of doubt, the concept of the arts can be viewed from two perspectives. On the one hand, the arts could be understood to mean the subjects one can study at school or university which are not scientific, which do not employ scientific methods. Subjects such as history, languages, religion, literature, and so on, would be appropriate examples. On the other hand, it could be interpreted to encompass a wide range of creative activities bordering on the skillful and imaginative expression of ideas, feelings, actions or events. Music, literature, theatre, and art (in the sense of painting, drawing, sculpture, etc) are what make up the arts in this sense. For the purpose of this discussion, however, our focus is on the second understanding of arts as proffered above.

The arts can then be classified into literary arts (poetry, prose, and drama), performing arts (music, dance, theatre) and visual arts (encapsulating the entire creative activities covered in the field of fine and applied arts: drawing, painting, sculpture, graphics, textile, etc).

WHY THE QUESTION OF RELEVANCE?
In developed economies of the world where the basic necessities of life seem to have been met, the question as to whether the arts are relevant or not to practical living is no longer an issue. Thousands of American citizens would troop down to the auditorium in Bard College to hear Chinua Achebe’s reading of his Things Fall Apart, not minding that they have heard the same reading over and over again, not minding that the book is over fifty years old; the same way the English audience would cluster at The Royal Theatre in London to watch the presentation of Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero or any of the plays of Shakespeare, not minding that Shakespeare wrote centuries ago. In the same vein, even though Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo are long dead and gone, Italians would pay their very last lira to watch an exhibition of their paintings.

In our own context, economic hardship and the search for basic necessities of life have meant that only a few have had the time to appreciate the arts for what they are worth. In other words, the problem is not whether the arts are relevant or not, for it is not in doubt that the arts are relevant to practical living as much as any profession, or even more so. The real problem lies in the fact that people are too hungry or too busy to see the real worth of the arts. A man who lives on a monthly salary of paltry ten thousand naira, with seven mouths to feed, and so many other family problems to solve may not easily pay five hundred naira just to watch a drama presentation; a Nigerian graduate who has walked the streets of Abuja, Lagos, or Port Harcourt in search of a job for three years without success would know what to do with money rather than spend it on a piece of landscape paintings; likewise, a young man who has had nothing to eat for days, and has no hope of where the next meal is coming from, would not possibly be coordinated enough to read, not to talk of appreciating, works of poetry. If arts cannot satisfy hunger or thirst, can they still be said to be relevant?

THE RELEVANCE OF THE ARTS
The word ‘relevance’ presupposes usefulness and value. So the right questions should be: are the arts useful in any way? And our answer: yes, they are. Do they have value? Our answer again: yes, they do. If the arts have use and value, and those are the things that relevance implies, then we can say that the arts are relevant. That conclusion raises another vital question: in what ways are the arts relevant? The relevance of arts can be found in the following areas.

Entertainment/Relaxation: The various forms of the arts mentioned above provide one form of entertainment, amusement and relaxation or the other. In Biblical times, when the spirit of God deserted King Saul and he was tormented by evil spirits, David was employed to play his harp. The sound of music produced by David’s harp kept Saul’s mind at peace, for whenever David was not around to play his harp, the evil spirits came back. In ancient Mali too, court poets/historians called Griots were known to entertain the audience during national festivals by reciting long narrative poems recounting the heroic achievements of their forebears. At a time in history, court jesters were employed to entertain the king or the queen and their visitors by telling funny stories and jokes (as can be seen in most of Shakespeare’s plays). In traditional African societies, moonlight tales were a veritable source of both entertainment and relaxation for both old and young. Praise singers and dance groups entertained the crowd during communal ceremonies.

In modern times, in the not too distant past, the late Sani Abacha was alleged to have employed the famous comedian, Chief Zebrudaya, to provide entertainment for him and his cohorts through his funny jokes and stories. It was also reported that the former Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a great patron of stand-up comedy. Besides, at least one out of every three people in the world today find peace of mind in music; one out of every four Nigerians relax at home at the close of work to watch a home video; and one out of every five relax in bed with a literature book. Since the advent of stand-up comedy in Nigeria, even though hardship has continued unabated, a lot of Nigerians have begun to look at the lighter side of things. Mere listening to a single volume of ‘Nite of A Thousand Laughs’ would drive away sorrow in people’s hearts. Since these developments began, I bet that had the medical practitioners started taking stock, they would have discovered that high blood pressure and other stress-related conditions have reduced by more than half over the past decade.

Financial Value: The arts are equally a very lucrative venture for serious-minded artists. All arts practitioners who are worth their salt make a living out of their practice. So many examples of such people could be found around us. The famous Osuofia (Nkem Owoh) is a living example. The majority of the practitioners in the movie industry today were not even originally artists. Their professions could not provide for them, and so they switched over to the arts. Besides, works of art, especially paintings, are considered very highly valuable intellectual property that can be accepted as collateral the same way that gold or diamond or buildings would be accepted.