As precarity for artists worsens during COVID-19, Maeve McGrath looks at who pays the artist, the impact on creativity, and the need for a society which cherishes the art that enriches all of our lives.
As the 2020 European Capital of Culture, Galway was not blessed with the most fortuitous year to hold this title. Due to the Coronavirus lockdown measures, the Galway International Arts Festival was cancelled (“postponed until July 2021” is the official line) and the Film Fleadh moved to an online-only event. A multitude of other smaller events happening under the Capital of Culture series also had to cancel.
Yet, against this trend, the cash cow that is the Galway Races went ahead.
For those unfamiliar with the gombeen way the Irish State works, this may appear odd. But it is just business as usual.
Typical of this is Micheál Martin lauding the hit series Normal People, and at the same time treating those on welfare – which currently includes many from the arts sector – like criminals if they attempt to go on a foreign holiday. Tourists from countries with high infection rates like America may travel to Ireland to visit the scenes where Marianne and Connell smouldered at each other but the industry that could create many more such productions is being let atrophy.
There have been more serious injustices to the way the lockdown was managed: stopping cancer treatments but allowing hairdressers and pubs to reopen being just one. But the point remains that when it comes to art and artists, the Irish government is skillfully adept at speaking out both sides of its mouth.
The last five months have shown that there is an unquenchable thirst from locked-down audiences for music, film, poetry, theatre, and the visual arts. The National Theatre in England streamed a selection of its performances to nearly 15 million views in 173 countries. Streaming giant Netflix gained over 10 million subscribers between March and June. And social media feeds were littered with all sorts of artists sharing their work, to great appreciation from people stuck indoors.
The value that art was able to provide to people’s lives during lockdown should not be underestimated. At a time when the things we do to enrich our lives were restricted, artists taking to social media to deliver their creativity ‘their way’, unrestrained by demands of this or that patron, delivered an uplifting experience for many.
It was also a very enlightening experience for those unaware of the precarity faced by artists in pre-COVID times, and the indifference of the state towards ongoing issues facing artists.
Who pays the artist?
There are some that argue that art truly flourishes under the constraints of censorship. Perhaps those that espouse that never had to worry about not being able to meet a looming rent payment.
The reality is that when an artist’s hand is tied by the yoke of their patron, they are merely a mouthpiece. From the ancient monuments in Rome to the minimalist sculptures in banks and board rooms – these artworks serve their buyer’s ends.
Even the National Gallery of Ireland’s much beloved The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio was fulfilling a very specific purpose. Intended to be glimpsed by candlelight in a dim Catholic church, the realistic and dramatic scene was designed to stop visitors in their tracks – and scare them away from flocking to the less corrupt, newly founded Protestant religion. The painting is gritty and realistic because the Catholic Church wanted to convince people that this was a true story and that burning hell fires were awaiting them if they converted to Protestantism.
Sometimes in our society select cultural items will trump human and climate needs. We saw this last year when close to a billion euro was raised within two days to restore Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris; whilst the Amazon forest was also being ravaged by fire.
In part the funding was spurred on by a long-standing rivalry between two billionaire families: the Pinaults and the Arnaults. Their bids were the latest in a long line of competitive demonstrations of philanthropy that seems to be the mega-rich version of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle and her show of insistent selflessness when she took a friend to a cafe. The Pinaults and the Arnaults got the ball rolling but other donors such as oil companies soon piled on.
The Notre-Dame donations were also about snobbery. Donating to a recognised cultural landmark is a more acceptable boast at a bougie dinner party than, say, criticising far-right Brazilian president Bolsonaro and his role in the Amazon fires. Moreover, the original medieval construction of Notre Dame was enabled by the labour of the poor. Their role is wilfully ignored. Even the identity of the master carver is forgotten. The names of the patrons are remembered. Notre Dame is a symbol of a white, Christian elite that many on the right feel is under threat.
Related to this is the recent debate over the statues removed from the front of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and the removal of statues throughout America and Europe following the Black Lives Matter movement. The images we are confronted with on our streets are not without motive and have in the vast majority of cases up to now been controlled by the wealthy. For the first time populations are having a say in what is memorialised and this gets up the noses of those that previously controlled these spaces.
The only way we can advance from this point is to free artists so that they can create without relying on pressures from patrons or worrying if they have the finances to meet basic needs. One solution touted is a basic income.
There are the usual clamorous objections raised to this: that people are inherently lazy and would become gelatinous masses watching boxsets on widescreen TVs; and the eternal ‘how would we pay for it?’
But in places that tested basic income such as Finland or Manitoba, Canada the results were all favourable, especially for the participants’ health and stress levels. And like any other state support, the money is there, if only we consider capping the massive wealth of others.
And while the debate around universal basic income versus universal basic services is an important one, a basic income may make sense for those in a profession that is unpredictable and reliant on outside factors such as gig dates or a filming schedule.
Many artists in Ireland are unable to afford to dedicate their time to their talent and instead pursue it in their free time – surely the polar opposite of what a couch potato would do? Those with creativity know that there is an irrepressible internal drive to use their talents to express themselves.
Of course, we should be mindful that replacing today’s patrons with the state could make patrons out of establishment Ministers who could decide which artist is worthy of payment. Ministers whose indifference has neglected the plight of artists in precarity for far too long.
Like anything, when we’re talking about rooting out inequality, surface level reforms are important stepping stones, but if we are to truly consider a society which cherishes artists, allows art to flourish and enrich and educate our lives, it becomes easy to recognise that we are talking about a society without capitalism.
Celebrity in Art
Banksy is a beacon of hope to many as he comes from a tradition of art that eschews private property and reclaims cities for the people. His works are powerful and make excellent political points, like his pieces along the Gaza wall speaking truth to apartheid, or those in London which highlight the depravity faced by many in the UK’s richest city
Yet the prices his art works now command show such a gap between him and other street artists. Instead of giving one man millions, we could promote a multitude of artists.
Modern society has made celebrities out of a small clique of actors, artists, and musicians – instead of giving us the benefit of a broad range of work from the legion of talented artists out there. Those that are amongst the chosen few are there for a reason. Andy Warhol was a more palatable figure to the ruling class and mainstream media than contemporary pop artist Corita Kent who produced very similar works but also attended civil rights and anti-war rallies.
Banksy illustrates the inherent problem with the system. Capitalism works to buy off leading voices of dissent and pull them into the fold of the mainstream – be they artists, trade unionists or activists. It has operated this way for centuries and there is no reason to expect it to change at any time in the future.
We need a fairer society that supports people rather than grinding us down to make bigger bonuses for CEOs.
The system also gives an unfair advantage to the wealthy – if you don’t have financial worries then you can benefit from the best tuition, resources, connections and have the luxury of plenty of free time. Working-class artists are often excluded from this world before they even realise that it could be an option for them.
If we want to honour the proud tradition of Nobel laureates, world-class metalworkers, manuscript illustrators, and musicians that have inhabited this island then we should create a system that supports struggling artists, and doesn’t give back-handers to millionaires like Bono.