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.
Didactic: The arts are known to teach practical moral lessons. The old folklores about the tortoise and his craftiness always ended with one moral lesson or the other. The story of the feast in the sky where the tortoise claimed that his name was Mr. All of You, for example, ended with the lesson that greed always landed one in disaster, just as the story of the beautiful girl who refused to marry all the young men approved by her parents only to finally fall into the hands of a ghost taught that it was not good to disobey one's parents.
Exposing and Correcting Societal Ills: All aspects of the arts are deeply involved in the crusade against societal ills like corruption and bribery, ritual killing, etc. They have all been involved, for instance, in ridiculing the excesses of political and religious leaders as well as the gullibility of the followers who fall victims to the whims and manipulations of the tricksters. This they achieve through satire. By so doing, offenders who had earlier thought that their activities were unknown would begin to retrace their steps when they discover that their so-called secrets have been exposed. Intending offenders would think twice, while would-be victims whose eyes will have been opened by such exposition would come to terms with reality and become wiser. Cultism on our university campuses has been fought to a reduced rate through the instrumentality of the arts: music, drama, novels, etc. All these have made society a better place to live in.
Aesthetic Value: The arts have beauty and face value, in addition to their intrinsic qualities. We talk about the beauty of a poem, a play, a story, a piece of music, but this beauty applies more to the visual arts, the ones one can see and admire their physical outlook, like drawing, painting or sculpture. People go to art exhibitions to discover, behold and admire the beauty of art works. Those who can afford them buy them and use them for interior decoration. How wonderful it is to walk into a well furnished sitting room to behold art works exhibited on the walls! They equally serve as status symbol for those who can afford them.
Preservation of Culture: The arts serve to preserve a people's culture. Art itself is an integral part of culture, that is, culture in the sense of customs, beliefs, practices, art, way of life, and social organisation. So many aspects of Nigerian cultural practices, for instance, that would have been lost and forgotten are recaptured through the arts. Before the appearance of Things Fall Apart in the world literary scene, Western writers like Joseph Conrad and others had led the world into believing that the African continent was one long night of darkness and that Africans themselves were uncultured and barbaric monkeys who had tails and lived on tree tops, and who had no souls worthy of salvation. But Things Fall Apart and other works after it joined in the crusade and changed the world's perception of Africa by presenting the true picture from the inside. Africans, the world came to see, were after all a reasonable people with heart, body and soul, created by one and the same God. They had culture and a mode of worship guided by norms and regulated by the principles of human relations even before the advent of the Europeans. Continuously, African poems, novels, plays, music, paintings, and so on, as much as possible portray life in both traditional and modern African societies. The rest of the world has continually shown increasing interest in African arts and culture. Some of us with a sense of history would remember that during the early colonial period, some of Nigerian artifacts were stolen by the colonial masters and taken to the British National Museum. An example of such is the Benin bronze mask.
Fame: It is incontestable that the works of Chinua Achebe and the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, have brought more fame to Africa than the achievements of all the African political leaders put together. It could be argued that before the emergence of these men, the continent was only a dot on the map of the world. But their works and the works of others after them proved to the world that something good could after all come out of Nazareth.
The challenges facing Nigerian artists are multifaceted: lack of encouragement and patronage at both the home front and outside, disparaging comments about artists, the neglect of the arts by the government, among others. Many homes today discourage their children from going into the practical arts simply because they do not believe that a man can feed his family just writing literary works or just drawing and painting. Until recently musicians were seen as wayward people and children who opted to sing were disowned by their parents. People still see actors and actresses in the light of the roles they play in movies or stage plays. One particular actor was nearly mobbed at Aba in Abia State of Nigeria for his role in a movie: a wicked man who killed his brother.
For the literary artist, it is really a trying time. Reading culture is at its lowest ebb. Students of literature would rather watch a half-cooked film version of Shakespeare's Macbeth than read it in print. Many of them do not even know the recommended texts. So, for those who write, they face the lowest patronage. The books never get bought. Even when the books eventually find their way into the syllabus, pirates quickly swing into action. The same predicament faces movie makers and musicians. The government on its part does not help matters. The dilapidated state of the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, is a pointer to this fact. Since FESTAC '77, no concerted effort has been made towards the promotion of the arts or the encouragement of artists. Concerned citizens and corporate bodies have been crying out, but the government has turned deaf ears to all the yells.
In the face of all this, I still believe that arts practitioners in Nigeria could make a head way the moment we begin to look inwards. The sooner we begin to see the arts as a serious business, the better for us. Names like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Enweonwu, John Munonye, J. P. Clark, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Chimalum Nwankwo, Chimamanda Adichie, and so on became household names because they believed in the arts and in themselves and took the arts seriously. No one can save us but ourselves. At a time when Communist Russia faced one of its greatest trials, when the nation was far behind the West in technological advancement, Stalin rose to the challenge. 'We are more than fifty years behind the rest of the world', he told Russians. 'We have only ten years to catch up with them. We either do this or they will exterminate us'. Pious pronouncements were backed up with positive actions, and within the next ten years Russia was on the verge of being pronounced a world power.
In the same spirit, arts practitioners, both established and intending, should stand up to the challenge and not be discouraged because those who question the relevance of the arts are themselves among the greatest patrons of the arts, one way or another. They must hold their heads high, and hold their own against other professions. They must begin to think of who to replace the Achebes, the Soyinkas, and so on. They must always remember how esteemed above other professions they are because they are co-creators with God, who himself is the foremost artist. Until this is done, people will continue to question the relevance of arts to practical living.