James O'Brien stresses the value of the Arts amid Chancellor's £1.57bn package

6 July 2020, 12:53 | Updated: 6 July 2020, 12:59

By Seán Hickey

In a passionate moment, James O'Brien explained that culture and art are not made for upper classes, but benefits everyone.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Monday announced £1.57 billion for the culture and arts sector to stay afloat during the tapering off of the coronavirus lockdown. James O'Brien was elated by the news, as someone who believes strongly in the power of culture.

He scoffed at the idea that culture is something reserved for the upper echelons of society, claiming that being well versed in one's culture is a humongous personal benefit to people of every social class and this should be seen more widely as the case.

James argued that culture "not only provides an antidote to poisonous politics, I think it also provides mobility, intellectual and social mobility."

"The fear I have, is that by corralling culture as a middle-class pursuit, people are slamming doors in their own faces – and they're not just doors that would allow some social mobility, they're doors that would make you a happier, more rounded person. Culture and art feeds our soul."

"I can wax lyrical about almost any aspect of culture, it's part of me, it's intrinsic to me. I can usually find a quote or a poem that expresses how I feel better than I can do myself."

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £1.57bn package to support the arts
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £1.57bn package to support the arts. Picture: PA

James went on to point out the importance of the arts for people's mental health. "Anxieties and depressions are often built upon an inability to articulate our feelings. The smaller your vocabulary, the less ability you have to express yourself."

He couldn't wrap his head around why there is an "inverse snobbery" around the culture sector for all these reasons, but accepted that the phenomenon is not exclusive to the arts. "I also see it with books and amazingly with food" he said, referencing the backlash Jamie Oliver had while campaigning for healthier school meals.

"Jamie's campaigns – passionate, beautiful campaigns to make children healthier got tarred with this bizarre brush of middle class." James was baffled that there are "many corners of this country where you say the word risotto and people look at you like you're Liberache."

"I think culture has fallen in recent years into a similar hole" James feared, "and it's terrifying in a way, partly because of that relationship between imagination, empathy and politics."