Is ART work – or survival?

  19th October 2020

Sam Richards

It isn’t hard to understand why the current slogan “Art is Work” has gained approval in the UK’s arts communities, especially as a meme on social media. In these fragile times when almost everyone has a hand beseeching in Rishi Sunak’s direction artists fear, not without reason, being ignored and impoverished. So they mount an argument for themselves – and hopefully some funds being channeled towards them. “Art is Work” implies that the arts are not simply a leisure-time option or icing on a social cake, let alone a personal indulgence. Artists work, it says. Thus, by implication, they contribute to the economy and are as deserving of support in uncertain times as – what shall we say? – those working in industry, businesses and companies many of which have received bailouts, furlough systems, loans or whatever.

The slogan includes a defense and an attack. The defense aims to rebut the Philistine assumption that the arts are a mere add-on. The attack asserts that they are as valid an area of endeavour as any. Work is the key factor in both cases. If the arts are “work” they are to be taken seriously; they are as valid as construction work, making automobiles or being a CEO. This pitch is aimed – ultimately – at Rishi Sunak and a government that cannot be assumed to have any particular sympathy for artists and what they do. Sunak, of course, would no doubt reply that in the summer he announced one-and-a-half billion for theatres, arts centres, independent cinemas, concert halls, galleries and the rest, although – as was immediately pointed out – this leaves out in the cold most artists themselves, freelance, solo and vulnerable and favours visible institutions.
As if this were not bad enough many artists more recently felt slighted by Sunak’s widely reported assertion that musicians and others may need to retrain for other jobs. You wouldn’t say this to the owner of an airline, the boss of Tesco or, for that matter, the Governor of the Bank of England. In point of fact Sunak’s statement has been widely misreported. The interview in question was for ITV News on 6th October when he reminded us that “between 2.5 and 3 million people have been able to access our self-employment scheme” (the implication being that could include artists), yet “I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis”. Many in the arts community heard this as insensitive. It seems to reduce their calling and vital social position to the status of a mere “job”. After all, it is fair to say that many artists are “called” to music, writing, acting or whatever. Or let’s say they gravitate towards the arts and, for many, this is non-negotiable. They commit themselves to long periods of training and learning that continues throughout life. They are neither willing nor able to retrain or reboot their skills and interpret any suggestion that they should as an indication of no faith nor understanding of what they do. Art is Work appears to hit back at all this Philistinism.

The concept of work is the nub of the matter. As long ago as 1976 Raymond Williams listed it as a “keyword”; indeed it remains so although it’s limited meaning of “regular paid employment” is becoming historical; the nature of work is changing radically as the 21st century progresses. Williams saw the historical narrowing of the word, which originally simply signified activity and effort, as a result of industrialism: work = paid employment as in to be in work or out of work.
Words carry historically rooted meanings whether everyday usage knows it or not. Cultural residue is central to language and meaning. We build discourse from it. Complex words such as “love”, “art”, ‘culture” even “family” or “democracy” face two ways. They have present day applications but also historical inherited resonances constructed and accumulated according to need and morés of particular times. Work became more than simply toil or expenditure of effort. It was undertaken to earn money, to survive, of course, but there was more to it than that. Work as productive labour was that which served the economy. To this day this is not the same as what you do in your leisure time even though you may work hard at hiking, running, sailing or learning a musical instrument. You do not ordinarily earn money at such activities. You earn money at your work, your job, your labour.

A critical response from social media to the ‘Fatima’ government campaign

Shades of meaning inherited from the construction of work at the emergence of the Industrial Revolution have by no means deserted us. Pre-industrial forms of work, mainly those based in the rural scene, were responsive (to nature), flexible (with the weather perhaps), often based on a shared access to land and commons, and were concerned with subsistence and reasonable survival. Yet as industry became dominant labourers were uprooted from the land by force, by impoverishment or new laws, and compelled by circumstance to work in the new factories, mills and industrial workshops. This implied a transformation into uniformity, taking orders, routinization, methodical habits, punctuality and factory time. Given the harshness of the new ways of working it is hardly surprising that external compulsion was not enough. Internal compulsion was provided for many by religion, with the added advantage that it blunted the edge of revolution that, at the time, was not considered unlikely after America and France had shown how established regimes could be upturned.
Established and nonconformist churches alike, Sunday schools and religious tracts, preached a doctrine significant elements of which persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries. Work – of the type you did as a job for money – was part of the moral machinery of capitalism. It may have been unpleasant in the immediate sense but virtuous because suffering and sacrifice would be followed by the reward of a better life hereafter. It was inconceivable, material compulsion aside, that anyone should not want to work. It was a moral obligation. Being too infirm or elderly to work were misfortunes to be pitied. Being out of work was a shame. E.P. Thompson once wrote: “Work was the Cross from which the ‘transformed’ industrial worker hung”.

In some important ways this changed in the last century. Reward in the hereafter was replaced by secular reward in this life. It was still a deferred reward. Consumerism was another kind of Heaven. The American Dream, although in an ostensibly religious land, is a secular proposition. The more late 20th century idea of work as self expression only works if your particular self finds something expressive in its work otherwise it is a meaningless bit of myth making. Still, however, work as a core and indispensible element continued as magnetic north on the moral compass. “Scroungers” are despised because they are lazy and feckless and – since the Welfare State – kept by the rest of us who do work. Foreigners either come here and take our jobs or draw on our welfare. (Either way they lose…) Those who can’t work, for one reason or other, are still to be pitied, and those who somehow manage to work through health misfortune are often seen as “marvelous”. Living on benefits is not unfortunate, however. It is a sin of Biblical dimensions. Most children who do well at school, on the other hand, still get positive recognition for working hard rather than for “merely” enjoying themselves.

Artists of all kinds have periods in their lives when they survive by one of two ways: either on benefits or by taking jobs unconnected with their art. There was a time when it was much easier to live on benefits as an artist but the rules and checks have been much tightened up since I was a young musician. I remember my outrage when some DHSS clerk asked me if I was looking for work. I told one that I was working all the time. He didn’t understand. Practicing the piano was not work. There is still an assumption at large that practicing, developing or making one’s art is not working. Work is productive labour; art is not. Productive labour (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx et al – including all Chancellors of the Exchequer) contributes to a nation’s wealth although it has been a continually expanding concept since the 19th century. Neither is a neutral – a concept that includes Marxism and management clearly requires some non-neutral interpretation. At the core, however, there is some commonality.
Work is something you regularly get paid for; that is not always the case in the arts. Work is necessary (even when it isn’t); art is not (even when it is). Work is something you put your back into; art isn’t (even though it is). Work is not necessarily pleasant; art is self-indulgence. So the art-is-work slogan aims to correct these misconceptions, but – and here is the problem -does so by invoking work as a moral force. It says, in effect, “We work as hard and are therefore as virtuous as anyone in the more obvious world of work. We’re not layabouts. We contribute – even if you can’t see it or have any means of measuring it.” By so doing it reduces art to one concept – work – and an antiquated one at that. Art may be work, true, but it is also a whole host of other things: invention, discovery, play, encounter, philosophy, culture, exploration, social or community glue, education…potentially a long list. So why single out work? The answer is clear: work is still the height of virtue (even when it’s making weapons), work is a social good (even when its lords and masters are cheats), work is the moral economy, work is the élan Vitale that keeps things going. And this fluid and sometimes dubious concept is what the arts ally themselves to in the slogan.

It is just about feasible to envision art without economy but not economy without art

But the slogan is actually way out of date. New forms of work have been coming into being in more recent times and widely discussed as responses to energy and climate crisis long before the pandemic actually made them necessary. Take working from home: the old conception of virtuous work was that you went to a place of work that regulated your hours, your breaks, and all your obligations. If you work from home, on the other hand, all this is in your own hands. If you need a break – take one. Fancy a tea? Make one. If you don’t feel like it today – do it tomorrow. If you’re working for a boss all you need do is fulfill your given tasks. If you’re working for yourself – likewise. In your own time. Most importantly, home is your own environment – nice comfy chairs, chosen décor, where you watch TV, cook nice food, make love, play, read, listen to music, even play music. That’s not a work environment. It’s too nice! Or, at least, you chose it. Designating a special space or a study as your work area hardly alters the case. Perhaps the most important factor is that there is nobody there watching you, aware of your movements, maybe keeping time. That is work.
In addition it is quite clear that we should now be preparing for the coming crisis of work – the breakdown of stable jobs that has been happening for some decades and will most likely exacerbate – and soon, for more unemployment not less, for a reduction in working hours, for surplus populations, for the collapse of work as a disciplinary measure to hold society together – as predicted as long ago the 1970s in response to automation. (See the Clive Jenkins and Barrie Sherman book of the same name.) Work as we knew it is declining. It is precarious, there are decreasing job protections; many of the self-employed are exploiting themselves and living off poverty money. Work, or the lack of it, not longer produces security. There are zero-hour contracts and other insecure arrangement. It has led to depression, anxiety and suicide, not to mention the jobless recoveries that follow each economic crisis. And this is what art-is-work allies itself to.

Radical demands, and certainly not only on the political left, now call for more automation, AI, a reduction of working hours down to anything from three to twenty hours a week, a universal basic income and a massive shift in attitudes to work. Indeed the left is sometimes uncomfortable with this change. And this is what the slogan allies itself to.
But what of the arts in all this? They too have a history with shifting attitudes and values. What we can say is that, popular and folk arts aside, the arts of music, painting, writing or whatever gradually moved beyond dependency on church, court, bourgeoisie and engineered their own developments as independent expressive activities. This was part of the Romantic-modernist story. As such the arts embodied all those qualities listed earlier (invention, discovery, play, encounter, philosophy, culture etc. – add rebellion, alienation and political ideas…) and, to be accurate, work rarely figured although it was self-evident that skills needed to be learnt and worked at. Examples of art-as-work are most easily found in the arts of totalitarian states in which external control was at its most compelling. Artists under Stalin, if they wished to survive and thrive, worked, as it were, under a limiting instruction. Nazi art was likewise constrained – Leni Rieifensthal, for example, turned from expressionist dancer to Hitler’s favoured propagandist film maker. Outside these somewhat obvious examples the arts throughout the 20th century, especially from the 1960s onwards, have had negotiated relationships with the concept of work. When conforming to the conditions of a sponsor or funder there may well have been strong elements of functionalism, of arts fulfilling a preordained purpose determined by those other than the artist – funder, sponsor, commissioner. On the other hand, great advances and strong statements have come from individual artists exploring their own imaginations. The socially critical, or even deliberately divisive currents in the arts, drive another nail in the art-is-work coffin. Situationism, as one obvious example, foregrounded the politics of play and disruption as core qualities, not work. To reduce this spectrum of relations to work to just one element is a travesty.

Leni Rieifensthal

If Art-is-Work is problematic is there any generalization, one which might be valid, less problematic and yet usable to convince a Rishi Sunak? It is important that there is – artists should represent themselves honestly and with integrity, not merely pragmatically. A tiny deviation can send you miles off course as the folk wisdom goes – although this is indeed what has been happening for some decades since artists have been forced into fictional accounts of themselves and their work for the sake of funding schemes and recognition. The key is the central position of the arts in all known human cultures. They are not and never have been add-ons or leisure practices separate from the functional business of material living. To assume these falsehoods amounts to a Philistinism typical of the same capitalism that gave rise to the sacralisation of work as a moral obligation perhaps for all but the most wealthy who, on the other hand, saw art as decoration. And maybe that is where it comes from. Art-as-Privilege sees art as a form of power, control and yes, decoration reserved for those who benefit most from its social position. Yet there has never been a human group without its arts however they may have been conceived of. Shamanic societies, peasant societies held together by ritual and ceremony, monarchies, religious communities and enclaves, industrial societies, modernity and consumerism – for all societies the arts represent a meeting of the substantial world and the insubstantial, the manifest and the hidden, the functional and the redundant, the concrete and the affective.

The slogan with which to approach the likes of Rishi Sunak as well to inspire ourselves and others is more profound, more truthful, less contentious, less simplistic, and far more relevant than Art is Work. It is just about feasible to envision art without economy but not economy without art. ART IS SURVIVAL. If an economy collapses hard time follow. Chancellors of the Exchequer have their work cut out, but the immediate effects will still be felt. If a culture were to lose it arts it would atrophy – perhaps over a longer period but inexorably and unavoidably. Motivation, rationale, vision, psychological resilience, inner feelings and understandings, communities, the ability to relate to the non-material world – all would be lost. ART IS SURVIVAL.



John Walter – 19th October 2020 – Art is Survival and an artist does not really have a choice. The most painful periods of my life have come when I succumbed to the “get a proper job” voice in my head.

Here is my artistic response to the whole crazy dance.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Walter
11 months ago

Art is Survival and an artist does not really have a choice. The most painful periods of my life have come when I succumbed to the “get a proper job” voice in my head.
Here is my artistic response to the whole crazy dance.