6 August 2020

Artists affected by COVID-19 deserve our empathy, not scorn

| Zoya Patel
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Artworks on wall

Artists can make a significant contribution to community resilience in difficult times. Photo: File.

When the reality of COVID-19 started sinking in, and the impact it would have on live events, galleries and theatres started to become known, a troubling rhetoric began to emerge about the validity of the arts as a career.

Artists who were suddenly facing their commissions drying up, their planned events being cancelled and their funding being rearranged (and in come cases not renewed), were confronted with the sneer of the collective Australian public saying, “Well, it’s about time you got a real job anyway”.

The implication is that choosing a career in the arts is an indulgence. That those of us who have ‘real’ jobs – that is, jobs that are not connected to our creativity or passions, but instead are built around the value of having secure employment with fair remuneration in exchange for very little control over the way we spend the majority of our waking hours – are practical in our approach to life.

Artists, on the other hand, clearly see themselves as being above the mundane drudgery the rest of us engage in, and now they’re paying the price (or so goes the narrative).

I noticed this ugly attitude early in the pandemic and recognised it as the same one I had witnessed my whole life, that made me choose a ‘safe’ career in communications and marketing rather than pursuing a full-time career as a writer of literature which would have been my preferred option.

Many of my friends are full-time artists. I have friends who are painters, playwrights, authors, costume designers, musicians, theatre managers.

They all lost work, some had to move from overseas back to Australia, many are uncertain if the commissions they had locked in for 2021 will proceed, and all are having to forge ahead despite very little in the way of targeted support to the industry from our government.

Those who have managed to cling to the edge of financial security are having to watch as beloved arts organisations and venues struggle to keep their doors open, which has major implications for future work for artists.

The attitude that their careers being shattered is really just something that was going to happen sooner or later, and that they should acknowledge their luck in being able to live off their art for this long, and quietly accept a transition into some other industry that better fits into our capitalist framework of employment, is one that speaks volumes about the way we value art in this country.

It is predicated on the notion that the meagre salaries and payments artists can expect for their work is genuinely representative of the value of that work. But that is, of course, not true – our society chooses to devalue the arts because the focus of all of our energies is money.

And we’ve defined money’s value in relation to very specific, tangible things, a mix of resources, services and products that are ‘necessary’ in contrast to the ‘unnecessary’ frivolity of the arts.

Except the arts aren’t an indulgence – they’re fundamental to not just our human nature, but to the entertainment that mainstream Australians expect to have access to daily.

The movies and television shows that have kept us sane during lockdown are art, the product of many years of combined arts practices from the actors, writers, producers and designers involved.

The podcasts we download, the music we turn to, the books we read – all of these things we value and rely on to support us emotionally through these strange and difficult times are products of the work of artists.

We consider art an indulgence because we have accepted the doctrine that accessing the resources we need to survive is difficult, and that only those with considerable privilege – the wealthy, the educated, the elite – can justify pursuing the arts as their sole occupation because their immediate needs are otherwise taken care of.

If this is the premise we accept to begin from, then yes, artists affected by COVID-19 deserve less sympathy than other workers who have lost jobs that could be considered less enjoyable than a career in the arts.

But this hierarchy of worthiness, when it comes to our empathy, is a construct of the unequal economic system we’re in, and one that we do not have to accept.

Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in the ACT and was the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year.

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I can see both sides of this issue. There is indeed some complete crap masquerading as public art, and I’m not always pleased to see the results of it. Having said that, one of the purposes of art and culture more broadly is to make us examine the society we are living in – even when it’s about topics we’re not comfortable facing. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that liking any individual piece of art is highly subjective; what I like, you may not, and vice-versa.

It is also potentially true that a handful of artists really shouldn’t be there. If they’ve historically been propped up by the bank of Mum and Dad, and that funding dries up (as it should), then yes, maybe it’s time such people faced the music.

But I’d argue that being an artist is actually a really brave act. I’d reckon going through art training in its various forms helps to sort the pretenders from the contenders pretty effectively, and if it doesn’t, then the first year out in the real world will.

Beyond that, Zoya’s point is well made. Imagine the world without murals, Disney cartoons, recorded music, Youtube, and photography. What if everything in public was dry chunks of text written in line with the Commonwealth Stye guide.

For those who see themselves as “adults” for having a crack at artists, I’d argue you’re in your comfort zone – and just maybe, if you’re unhappy in your work – you might be envious of the courage artists show to step beyond their comfort zones creatively and financially. Just a thought….

The sneering goes both ways with narrow minded views from some of the arts community that somehow “mundane” jobs or infrastructure i.e. road signage does not have any creative aspect.

Wow, who would have thought that choices have consequences.

One of the key hallmarks of a functional adult is recognising and accepting the consequences of our own actions. Not doing so is the actions of a petulant child.

This entire article boils down to a whinge at the unfairness of other people not valuing the same things she does.

Seems to be a common refrain.

“But that is, of course, not true – our society chooses to devalue the arts because the focus of all of our energies is money. “

Perhaps the artists should take heed of your words and stop devaluing their arts with such a focus on money.

They are free to live without money and focus on their pure arts. But when they complain about our materialistic society while at the same time putting their hand out for our materialistic money, they are hypocrites.

Many, if not most in the arts community have long shown utter contempt for us in the broader community and made a living out of mocking, scorning and denigrating the society that sustained them through grants and lucrative public funding. Now, as the economy is collapsing they will have to share the pain. Let’s see the real creativity of starving artists, experiencing hardship for the first time in their pampered lives, instead of the subsidised, self-indulgent junk masquerading as ‘public art’.

Chris Endrey10:06 am 07 Aug 20

Who is most immune to hardship, who is pampered most, living the life that even the Gods would envy? The answer, clearly, is the artists of Canberra. Oh to be a part of that gilded tier of the immune elite!

Did I mention I was dropped into a vat of texta ink as a baby and drink nothing but seawater?

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