The Worth of Art in Modern Society – by Annalisa Jackson
The worth of the arts in modern society during a worldwide pandemic
In 2020, during the first wave of the coronavirus, a series of advertisements were released by the National Cyber Security Centre backed through the Government, for a programme called ‘Cyber First’.
They were to encourage more young people into technology related careers; the campaign was titled ‘Rethink, Reskill, Reboot’. One of these adverts featured a young ballet dancer called, for the purpose of the advertisement, Fatima, suggesting that Fatima’s next job ‘could be in “cyber” but she just doesn’t know it yet’.
There was an almost immediate backlash in the media and the creative world, as the advert was widely condemned. It was swiftly removed and taken down to be replaced with an image of a baker. Although not before the memes had begun circulating. Even the Culture secretary stepped in to condemn the image
Whilst many outside of the Arts sector may have seen this as artistic histrionics or a ‘fuss over nothing’, for a lot of creatives this was a disappointing but unsurprisingly characteristic view of the creative sector and its relative worth to society.
At the same time the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was criticised in an interview for not putting enough help into place for the creative sector, for people working as musicians, actors, freelancers in the arts and others in the creative arena. Whilst he defended the Government, citing 1.5 billion pounds being pumped into a culture recovery programme, when pressed he suggested many would simply have to retrain and seek other job opportunities outside of those that they had been dedicating their lives to.
The arts sector has seen a steady erosion over people’s view of its relative worth over the years, and this has been compounded and accelerated over the period of the pandemic as it is seemingly not a ‘real job’ which provides worth in the eyes of many in society. Unfortunately, messages like the Rethink campaign or Chancellor Sunak’s comments will only worsen this process of erosion, and the view of a person trying to make a living in a creative career will be further seen as wasteful and unproductive.
These comments discount the fact that many people who aspire to be actors, writers, musicians and similar already have to support their creative work with second jobs, a necessity that only compounds the confusion.
People seek work often as baristas, supermarket workers, bartenders and such, with these being common roles filled by those who are forced to supplement their income in the so called ‘gig economy’, but find these secondary roles are seen as their prime occupation, with the creative work shunted to one side as a luxurious extra.
And whilst thousands, if not millions, are feeling the hardship wrought by everyday modern life, where families struggle to live on one income alone, made worse by two years of devastation wreaked by COVID, is it right to dismiss the work done by the arts sector as some kind of decadent extra? Is it right to consider this area of employment as not important to society in the way somebody who can teach or work on a computer is? Is there a hierarchy of worth in the careers market nowadays? It certainly feels that way to many. The fact is that eventually these thought processes will lead to a situation where only certain affluent sections of society will be able to supply the next generation of performers and creatives; a class division between those who can afford to treat it as an optional extra and those who cannot and will see their talents wasted.
On an individual level I get it. I really do. I have walked the path in both directions. Despite always being creative, when I left school I took a traditional career path. During university, I worked in my local hospital as an auxiliary nurse, before finally qualifying as a registered nurse. Before my career ended, I did fifteen years as an Emergency Department nurse. By society’s standards what I did had worth, and I loved my job and the difference I could make to others.
I spent years as part of a team who saved lives. I even delivered a new life into the world once, but I also sat many times holding the hand or talking to somebody as they died. That’s an honour in a way maybe some people wouldn’t register. I washed, dressed, and fed people who were unable to do so themselves, argued for their needs and rights and supported others who did the same. I cried more times than I can express, both from happiness but also indescribable sadness and stress; I worked long hours and missed family occasions. The touch on society is easy to see in a career like this; you actively enter people’s lives and leave a mark.
But when poor health dictated that I couldn’t keep up with the job anymore, I was forced to medically retire. Now in some ways I am truly blessed in having a small medical pension that contributes to keeping my family and I going after the loss of my salary. It also gave me breathing space to start to recover and decide where the hell I was going to go at forty years old, having given half my life to one career. It meant I could re-evaluate and decide I wanted to go in a totally different direction; I chose to follow my creative side and become a writer and photographer.
Whilst this is still in progress, it did open my eyes to the worth of the creative in a broader societal sense. After all, where was my ‘worth’ now? What did I produce that contributed to others? It’s entirely possible some psychiatrist somewhere would roll their eyes and diagnose me as having a form of White Knight Syndrome, but I found it ridiculously hard to come to terms with not being able to see the difference I was making to people.
However, with time, I found clarity. I have written about struggles with weight loss and had people write to me telling me my candour made them feel less alone or motivated them to keep going. I have written with brutal honesty about my own struggles with mental illness and self-injury and had more than a few people reach out to me asking me to help them understand the self-injury that was occurring within their circle of loved ones. I also managed to photo blend a photo so that the client’s son could be incorporated into a photo of her grandparents, a photo she never thought she could own. In my own small way, I am beginning to feel more like I can hold my head up and feel like I am meeting my own needs to help others.
I am not the only one. If you have found that, before or during the pandemic, it was easier to keep going through music, movies, or tv box sets, then you have had your life touched by someone creative. If you have been able to bury yourself in a book, or taught your child to read one, maybe even coming away with a life lesson for them, then you have had your life touched by a creative. If you have family photoshoots on your walls providing happy memories, then you have had your life touched by someone creative. Now if you were to imagine all of that going away as they decide to stop pursuing their passions and work purely in a traditional role, you would find no tv, no movies, no music to listen to, festivals or concerts to attend, books to read, computer games to play, a wall bare of photos, no toys for your children to play with.
By any measure of society there is worth in creative endeavour. Financially, music alone contributed five billion to the UK economy in 2018 and there are just under 300,000 people working in music, performing in visual arts across the UK. (1) If the contribution of the creatives to the population continues to be eroded or ignored, the world will be a poorer place without it.
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