The arts in their diverse forms have enriched human lives from time immemorial. While the scientific advancements have facilitated the development of productive forces leading to material development, the arts have enhanced the quality of life of human beings in numerous ways. One only has to look at the range of artistic work in traditional and modern societies and their appeal to large sections of the people to appreciate this fact. Music, drama, dance, film, literature, painting, etc. have contributed immensely to the social and cultural lives of people. On the other hand, neither the sciences nor the arts have been human endeavours independent of the economic and political life of the people. In other words, economic institutions and political regimes have significantly influenced the arts in human societies over time. Consequently, the liberal view of the arts, arts for their own sake, has not been the general rule across societies in time and space. For instance, in socialist societies, artistic endeavours were expected to serve the socialist cause. Similarly, in modern capitalist societies, the arts not only created space for the development of human creativity and free expression of ideas, feelings and emotions but also enabled many members of society to pursue their individual goals or self-interest. Yet, it would be erroneous to assert that the intrinsic value of the arts has not been important or appreciated. In fact, arts in their diverse forms constitute an important part of popular culture in modern societies. As is well known, various art forms have universal appeal and have the potential to transcend various divisions in society. Music, dance, film and drama are appreciated and enjoyed by people who could otherwise be divided into rival groups having hostile attitudes towards one another.
As is well known political independence paved the way for a cultural resurgence in post-colonial Sri Lanka. This resulted in a significant development of liberal arts in the country.
The development of the arts in the aftermath of political independence in Sri Lanka was not entirely independent of the post-colonial state. State patronage for the arts became increasingly significant by way of institutional support and official recognition of artistic achievements. On the other hand, the artistes in general were also affected by the emerging political currents of the time. So, artistes were as much segmented on ethno-nationalist lines as other members of society, though some of them remained independent pursuing their personal goals independent of politics.
As is well known political independence paved the way for a cultural resurgence in post-colonial Sri Lanka. This resulted in a significant development of liberal arts in the country. While the post-independence expansion of education helped sensitize and mobilize a large section of the population around various art forms such as drama, literature, language, dancing and music, newly established universities, in particular, the University of Peradeniya, became the catalysts in the promotion of the arts. The post-independence expansion of the state sector leading to the creation of broad-based literati and a sizable middle and lower middle class comprising state functionaries, teachers, clerks and professionals facilitated the creation of a significant clientele for various cultural products. So, by the 1970s, there had already emerged a vibrant cultural scene in the country. In other words, many artistes had already captured the public imagination and wielded considerable social influence on the wider public. Their wide public appeal had made some of them politically active and influential as well. In fact, many of them had begun to use their social and cultural capital to support their favourite political party or leader. It should be noted however that at the beginning it was mostly their ideological commitment to a particular political party that appeared to be the key factor motivating them to join political alliances. Moreover, at a time when national politics were still largely guided by significant public policy differences between major national political parties, differential political loyalties of artistes did not result in any significant public resentment or disillusionment. But, this situation changed in the recent past with more and more artistes having sought to engage in party politics, largely as a way of gaining personal benefits in return for political loyalty. The result is a significant erosion of the credibility and the public standing of the artistes concerned.
As is well known, the established artistes have caught public imagination entirely on the basis of their contribution to the arts. They have immensely enriched the lives of many people through their artistic work, be it in music or drama. Their work has the potential to create some degree of unity in an otherwise divisive socio-political environment. But, when artistes follow and reinforce the existing fault lines in society, they become as parochial as their divisive political collaborators, undermining the potential of their own profession to transcend deep social and political divisions. In fact, at a time when many people recognize the contribution that sports, education, religion, etc. can potentially make to the promotion of universal human values, it is a pity that the potential that the popular arts have for promoting the same is being undermined by a significant group of artistes themselves.
It is almost natural for self-seeking politicians to make every effort to win over popular artistes and others into their political camps to bolster their chances of winning elections. But the artistes whose life chances have depended as much on their talents as on the patronage of the general public have a larger social responsibility to remain independent and enrich the lives of the members of society at large. This could best be done by pursuing artistic endeavours rather than serving sectarian political interests, no matter how tempting high political office and associated perks can be. But, when we look at the behaviour of many leading artistes in this country today, they seem to have lost sight of the larger interest of their profession in favour of narrowly conceived self-interest. In the process, some artistes have demonstrated their willingness to engage in artistic work that, instead of serving the wider societal interest, rather supports sectarian politics. This is perhaps indicative of the nature of educational and social processes that have shaped the lives of many artistes and the kind of influence that the present phase of economic development has on the wider society, including these artistes themselves.