Comrades in Arts: ‘Don’t extinguish our creative fire’

A call to my fellow artists: let us wield our weapons of mass creation aloft and refuse to reboot and retrain

Imagine working towards something your whole life – practising as a child, studying as a young person, building your career as an adult – only to be told you and your chosen profession are useless. That there’s no point to you, that you add no value to society. 

Artists need not imagine; since COVID-19 barrelled into our lives, there’s been an ever-brightening spotlight pointed at people’s professions and more scrutiny than ever before into which are ‘essential’ and which aren’t. If 77.4% of the population took some part in some form of the arts (like going to an exhibition or performing in a play) in 2018-2019, why are we now being deemed worthless?

‘Rethink, Reboot, Reskill’

Then, of course, came the now infamous ‘Fatima’ advert. The image, from a government-backed campaign, features a young woman of colour lacing up her pointe shoes alongside text that suggested she give up on all that dance nonsense and retrain in cyber security. The image, understandably, caused mass outrage from artists and supporters of the arts alike. Turns out, there are quite a lot of us (who knew?).

The horribly misguided ad popped up online following an awkward interview in which the Chancellor Rishi Sunak seemed to advise – in a very vague, classic Tory ‘I’m going to disguise this distasteful statement in a load of waffle the same way you might bury pills in a dog’s food’ kind of way – that musicians should ‘adapt’ and snatch up a ‘fresh and new opportunity’ instead of bemoaning the government’s lack of support for those in the arts or who are self-employed (many of which are the same people).

Socially and economically undervalued

We shouldn’t be surprised of course. Lest we forget this is the same government that suggested that we should be clapping for bankers the same way we clap for the NHS – “because in the end it is their willingness to take risks with their own money that will be crucial for our future success” –  which may offer some insight into what our illustrious leaders truly value. But we should take umbrage. LOTS of umbrage. 

Not least because while painters and drummers and dancers might not be the wealthiest of folks – the ‘starving artist’ is a popular trope for a reason – the arts industry itself contributes literally tens of billions to the UK economy each year. Those working in the arts – whether salaried or freelancing – pay taxes and National Insurance just like everybody else. Additionally, many self-employed creatives are in full- or part-time employment as well, contributing significant hours across multiple industries simultaneously. 

But – brace yourself Boris – it’s not actually about money. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us many things, but the most positive by-product of the whole situation is surely the increase in creativity. Our social feeds are awash with people taking up art, learning the guitar, hula-hooping in the garden, bottling their own hot sauce. Parents and kids, walled in at home, have been painting rainbows and dancing to YouTube videos. A lot of people – myself very much included – attribute the arts to helping them retain some sense of sanity during this dumpster-fire of a year. 

The dream job: working in the arts

We’ve been taught all our lives that a career in the arts is aspirational. Have you ever seen Fame? Or Center Stage? Or Glee? Or Moulin Rouge? Or Save the Last Dance? Or Dirty Dancing? ‘Making it’ in the arts is the shiny fairytale ending we’re all thirsty for. The media presents careers in the art world as glamorous and cool; a survey of 2,000 Americans revealed four of the top ten ‘dream jobs’ were in the arts. Working in the arts is about following your dreams, your passion. Who wouldn’t want that?

Passion is perhaps the most important element, because despite the media representation of art careers as nothing but painters living lavishly in airy lofts and young starlets performing to packed-out theatres, the arts industry is an extremely hard nut to crack. If you want to be a professional artist, ballerina, or musician, often your ‘training’ starts before you even get to school. It’s not part of your education, it’s in addition, so your passion is what fuels you to sacrifice your time to continue doing it. 

That same passion drives you to take on commissions and rehearse for performances alongside a ‘regular’ job as an adult. If you’re exclusively self-employed, you’re on a constant hustle for jobs. Imagine, if instead of getting a Tesco delivery to your door, you had to hunt down a gazelle every day to feed yourself. That’s what freelancing is like; you have to work twice as hard for financial stability, with no sick pay or holiday pay or other employment perks. In short, those in the arts industry have it hard enough, without the Sunaks and the Johnsons of this world telling them that all their sacrifice has been for nothing and they’re better off retraining as accountants. Especially if they’re waxing concerned about non-essential expenditure during a pandemic, whilst using taxpayer money to give BoJo’s plane a new makeover (yes, really). 

The essence of being human

It’s very easy to dismiss these woes with a simple “get another job then!” But that’s not a solution. We need the arts. I’m not suggesting we need the arts the same way we need doctors and supermarket cashiers, but we still need them. Without imagination, creativity and expression, we’re merely surviving; the arts are what make us human. There’s a scene in ‘The Walking Dead’ that so eloquently and succinctly explains the matter, it seems in retrospect eerily prophetic of our current situation. In the zombie-strewn wasteland, the only doctor in the only functioning hospital keeps a real Caravaggio, found whilst scavenging, in his office. Asked why, he explains: “Art isn’t about survival. It’s about transcendence. Being more than animals. Rising above.” 

He goes on to lament that there’s “no place for it anymore”, but I disagree. The arts are the very essence of humanity and culture. When our own future looks uncertain, contrary to popular opinion (or readily available funding) it’s even more imperative that we keep that connection alive. Otherwise we may as well not be.

Graphic courtesy of Ruth Mary Annie

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