In ‘The Arts under Socialism’, published in 1947, in the aftermath of another global crisis, the author J B Priestley argued that the role of governments was not to direct art but to ‘create the conditions most favourable for the self-maintenance of artists’ through planning measures that enabled but did not dictate, that ‘cleared the ground’ sufficient for workers to produce their own ‘flower of art’. Fast-forward to the current pandemic crisis, and the arts are in danger of withering on the vine.
The crisis can also be an opportunity to show how cultural workers – mostly low-paid and many quite precariously employed – should be treated as vital contributors to our wider social and political life.
Across Europe and more widely beyond, things look less than rosy. As Covid-19 continues to linger and mutate, arts and cultural workers remain unable to return to work in any significant or sustained way. The anticipated effect has moved from temporary shock to metastatic crisis. Many hundreds of thousands of workers are unlikely ever to return to professional arts and cultural work. This is not only because audiences for theatres, venues, galleries have disappeared, so forcing organisations out of business, but that the prospects for future return have been permanently affected by the piecemeal and indifferent ‘bailouts’ provided by national governments. In most countries only certain elements of the arts and cultural infrastructure have been protected – usually the ‘nationally important’, symbolically significant ‘flagships’ of cultural authority – and the majority of ordinary, mainly freelance, workers have been left to gain what they can from national schemes of wage subsidy. Given the often complex and convoluted ways in which artists derive an income, this has led many to fall outside of the net of state support. It would be wrong to claim that cultural workers have been ignored – but accurate to suggest they have been quite ineffectually supported and their needs often wilfully misunderstood across even the most advanced and economically developed of nations.
Why is this? Certainly, the sector is complex. As the OECD put it recently, it is structured in a unique way in comparison to other sectors. Public cultural institutions and big private players alike rely on an interconnected and interdependent network of freelancers and micro-firms which provide creative content, goods and services. This “ecosystem” is vital to the sector.
This complexity, and the proliferation of freelancers, short-term contracts, low-paid internships, ‘slashers’ – all these present challenges for those rapidly improvised pandemic relief packages. Their success also relies on a well-resourced arts and cultural sector. Germany and France saw intense, well-informed exchanges between the sector and different levels of government. In Australia, where Federal per capita arts funding has been cut by almost a fifth in the last decade, and the dedicated unit in the Australian Bureau of Statistics was closed, there was little coherent, informed response by the sector, nor structured dialogue with government. Those countries that have relied on a ‘creative industry’ approach to advance their case for culture’s public policy relevance also found that it was the big players – public and private – who could make their voice heard, and they rarely considered the needs of the small fish on whom the health of the ecosystem depends. The pandemic saw many arts and cultural advocates pivot to ‘public service’ and ‘essential needs’, a case which the last twenty years of ‘fastest growing industry’ arguments had worked so hard to undermine.
That arts and culture make life enjoyable and fun is not disputed, but they also provide us with ways of imagining life differently, as well as challenging established authorities.
What can we do now to make the case for culture and for cultural workers? Certainly, Covid-19 has given us grounds to re-shape the case for culture as valuable public good. Not only have we seen cultural industries come to the aid of society, by providing home entertainment and respite in lockdowns, we have seen artists and cultural producers contribute to fund-raising and benefit concerts, screenings and events to support those struggling to cope with the health and social consequences of pandemic. That culture is a vital part of our communal life – and should be supported and valued as such – has been amply demonstrated. But the crisis can also be an opportunity to show how cultural workers – mostly low-paid and many quite precariously employed – should be treated as vital contributors to our wider social and political life.
That arts and culture make life enjoyable and fun is not disputed, but they also provide us with ways of imagining life differently, as well as challenging established authorities. In the pandemic those arguments have somewhat been overlooked – partly due to the perception that the arts are there simply to provide comfort or distraction from any bad things that might be happening more widely. That may be true to an extent – but the arts do so much more, including providing us with the imaginative resources to creatively contest and challenge some of the cruelties and indifferences of governments, such as those who fail to adequately protect their populations from the pandemic.
Governments may of course be reluctant to revive culture as a multi-faceted public good – after all, cultural producers can often be a government’s harshest critics. But the pandemic has shown us that there is more than enough money to fund public services – including the arts – when circumstances demand it. Unfortunately, whilst in some countries and at the EU level, the pandemic has been an occasion for governments to restate their commitment to arts and culture as an essential part of our democratic life, in others it has allowed long standing antipathies to surface. In the UK, a now notorious government advert showing a ballet dancer with the caption ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ was hastily withdrawn. The Finance Minister, Rishi Sunak, had previously said that “musicians and others in [the] arts should retrain and find other jobs”. Whilst ‘creative industries’ is on a list of priority industrial sectors, this does not prevent it from cutting funding arts education in universities by 50 percent. In Australia, the only OECD country without an arts and cultural policy, the open hostility to the sector is a central part of their ‘culture wars’ against the inner city ‘elites’. They too have increased the cost of arts degrees.
There can be little doubt that we are in an interregnum. The dominant neoliberal settings of the last forty years are in retreat everywhere, as the US and the EU launch large scale stimulus programmes that would have been deemed fiscally insane a few years ago, and these are linked to various ‘green new deal’ packages. The arts need to find a role and a voice in this potentially progressive re-balancing of social and economic priorities. Yet, conversely, on the Right, the corrosive consequences of neoliberal globalisation – inequality, job insecurity, erosion of public services – have been ‘weaponised’ into forms of nativism and nationalist neomercantilism that pit the ‘excluded’ against the liberal ‘elites’. Arts and culture are now targets, and the relative autonomy and ‘arm’s length’ principles established in the post-war era, are being gradually eroded – not just in openly authoritarian countries like Poland and Hungary, but in ‘liberal democracies’ such as the UK and Australia. Many people in these countries fear for the survival of a pluralistic arts sector. For those arts workers still feeling the immediate fall-out and costs of the disappearance of incomes and livelihoods, focussing on the future might seem less of a priority than current survival. But both short and longer-term survival relies on solidarity in the now, and organising collectively for the future. The cultural sector’s minimum aim must be to find a new role for itself – or even a viable language – in a new progressive or centre-left landscape of state-driven social infrastructure spending and sustainable development agendas.
The arts need to find a role and a voice in this potentially progressive re-balancing of social and economic priorities.
We need now to make a new case for the public value of arts and culture, to reconfigure their position in public policy, and at the same time to radically reframe our understanding of their ‘mixed economy’. The default position of the private sector owning the commanding heights, with the state intervening only in the case of ‘market failure’ (that is, the very expensive ‘high arts’) has served the public badly and has left ordinary cultural workers exposed to precarity and a corrosive lack of self-worth. For all talk of ‘ecosystems’ most of the time this is deemed to be taken care of by the self-regulating market – and we know what that has done to the actual planetary ecosystem. Taking care of the ecosystem will demand precisely more of such care – and in this way begins to align arts and culture with the new thinking around protecting the social foundations of our common life on the planet.
The pandemic has hit the most disadvantaged and marginal cultural workers the hardest. A re-establishment of support for local arts and cultural sectors, incentives for mutual and co-operative organisations, and appropriate regulation and administration of the wider media and cultural landscape to both nurture and protect diversity – these are all key challenges for the future. We would also like to see arts and culture as integral to any genuine Green New Deal aspirations, and the range of political strategies to ‘build back better’ from more progressive and heterodox economic perspectives. A Green New Deal will need to avoid using the arts to promote ‘weak sustainability’ or act as decorative window-dressing. The arts are not there to greenwash corporate initiatives that seek to maintain the status quo. Putting the economy in service of society – and not the other way round – must now be the goal, and the art and cultural economy is no different. Only then might the arts – and artists – be able to flower again.
 OECD (2020). ‘Culture shock: COVID-19 and the cultural and creative sectors’, URL https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/culture-shock-COVID-19-and-the-cultural-and-creative-sectors-08da9e0e/#section-d1e3151.