Here is a sports story from the past week. Fewer children are playing rugby. A Massey University report into sports participation in schools discovered rugby had dropped 29 per cent in greater Auckland: "By any measure an alarming number," the reporter wrote. Oh, boo hoo. (Neurologists treating rugby concussions may see it differently.)

Here is an arts story. The University of Auckland is planning to close the Elam fine arts library, as well as other creative libraries for music, architecture and dance. The university's breezy 15-page report says arts students will "benefit" from being forced to use the general library.

Bean counters jauntily declare getting rid of the library, which has been neglected for years while money has been put into a new science building, "will not be a big problem" for students.

So, there you have it my lovelies. Welcome to New Zealand. A country where we really really love sport and see the arts as kind of embarrassing nursery games; a second best for people who aren't good at grown up things we really value, such as business and science.


The suggested Elam library closure comes as the arts have been squeezed out of the school curriculum, the city's Art Gallery considers charging an entrance fee to overseas visitors and the Auckland Council releases a draft 10-year plan that has no reference to arts or culture.

And I'm thinking here about art in its simplest sense: not the esoteric art world inhabited by postmodern types in serious glasses who drop Foucauldian into breakfast conversation. All creative endeavours are missing out.

We are all familiar with the arguments about saving money. But as far as I know no one has suggested closing the law or medical school libraries.

So why are the arts particularly under attack? And why so much antipathy right now?

In troubled times, shouldn't we be taking the Churchillian perspective, that the arts and humanities are more, rather than less, important?

Like most things, it is worth examining it a little closer. Maybe there is something deeper going on, something of which we are not fully aware.

It is obvious, in our dominant culture, we admire pursuits that have clear winners. We like easy-to-see outcomes. We privilege people who are good at competitive endeavours, who are driven to achieve and acquire in ways you can easily evaluate.

These tend to be those horribly well-adjusted people who are comfortable in the real world and happy to accept prevailing social norms. They know the rules of the game and they want to win.


Maybe these people give us a vicarious sense of power and dominance, triumph and strength. I suppose that is a good feeling (also it can be creepily grandiose).

Whereas our best artists do the opposite. Artists make us aware of what we don't want to see.

The best artists cut us down to size. They show us we are delicate, we are vulnerable, we are all screw-ups. Who wants to be shown that? Frankly, we don't appreciate being reminded of the pile of crud we are already putting a lot of effort into avoiding.

And as the response to Taika Waititi's comments on racism showed, we will lash out against anyone who tries to hold up the mirror.

The truth is the arts miss out, not just because they are perceived as snobby and airy-fairy and not contributing enough to GDP , but because they challenge our collective defences. Artists carry our shadow. And we don't want to be reminded of the darkness that is in all of us, let alone fund it. We prefer to stay in denial.

You might say: so what? You can't pay bills and clean gutters if you're walking through every day with a full-blown existential crisis. You can't face the horror, the suffering and cruelty of the human condition every minute of every day. Sometimes you need a cup of tea and a gingernut. I get it.

Even so, the unconscious negativity towards the arts is destructive and does matter.

Law student Reilly Hodson argued on the Spinoff the Elam library was of value even if art "might not literally save people's lives". I really liked Hodson's article, but I vehemently disagree with him on this point.

The arts are as vital as medicine and running water. I'm not sure I would be here if I hadn't had Auden and Wodehouse at moments of my deepest grief and sorrow, or Schubert and Cave to get me through the most excruciating heartbreak. The arts teach us we are not alone. Someone else gets it. They literally do keep us alive!

Whereas our winner-takes-all culture prizes detachment. This makes me sad. Because I believe art, freedom and creativity bring people together and change society faster than politics. Or sport. Or business. Art scholar John Ruskin said: "Industry without art is brutality".

So please join me in being a stroppy agitator to keep the Elam library open. I used to go into the Elam library in my duffel coat and leaf through the glossy books and dream of the creative life. My father wouldn't let me study art at school because he said it was a waste of time. He did pay for the school to get new rugby goalposts though.