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Career Creativity Music

Why do I want ‘work artefacts’?

I sometimes wonder if the reason it’s difficult for freelance live performers to motivate themselves lies in the lack of a tangible product of the work. A sculptor can point to their work with a certain satisfaction and say: there, I did that, that was the direct result of my work. An author can look over a day’s worth of pages and feel that something has been accomplished. But the product of the live performer is intangible: a rehearsal, a performance, a moment shared (or none of the above, as is more likely at the time of writing).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the process of recording CDs. Not only do you get the intense focus of working on something with other people and making it as perfect as possible – that true feeling of team effort – but at the end of it all you have a product, an artefact. You can send it to people, as if to prove that what you do is real work after all, because it had a physical product.

While there are may things I would do differently a second time around, making my first CD as a conductor in 2019 was a fascinating and rewarding process for many of the above reasons. Add to those the post-production process – going over and over tracks, track order, booklet layout, album art, &c – and you had the feeling of polishing something until the final product gleamed. (I would be remiss not to acknowledge the patient expertise of Convivium Records who guided me through it.)

However, that process is very much the exception in my life and career as they’re currently configured. There are rehearsals and services in their hundreds (2020 excepted), concerts and workshops and recitals – but they’re over in a flash, leaving only a memory. Of course, that’s what makes them precious – the thrill of the live, the electricity in the air, the limitless potential of what might happen. But I do occasionally struggle with the lack of some kind of longer-lasting artifact, one that can prove to me that all those things weren’t just a dream but something I did.

Workism

In doing so, I am probably succumbing to a little workism. If you’re unfamiliar with the coinage, start with this article in The Atlantic. Workism is the idea that we define ourselves solely or principally by our work, by producing things endlessly, keeping our economies chugging along and our money-machines going brrr. In the article, Derek Thompson writes:

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.

He goes on to point out just how damaging this view can be. If you don’t succeed in work, your whole being becomes suspect. My desire for some tangible outputs to show for my work probably stems from a desire to join the class of people with that sense of meaningful work.

But, to quote Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. After all, the goal of human society shouldn’t be 100% employment, but 100% unemployment, with humanity doing what it wants, and the machines doing all the things we don’t want. It’s another reason I’m uncomfortable with the economic justifications for creative work – creativity is a human good.

That doesn’t help me with my dilemma – where is my artifact? Take today, for example. The ‘work’ content of my day consists of the following: learning some music; programming music for some upcoming services; thinking about the structure of next season’s programmes; processing some invoices; preparing for and then leading an online session for a choir. At the end of the day, although plenty of work will have been done, I won’t be able to admire it hanging on a wall, or observe it like a half-finished sculpture in the middle of my workshop.

In having this problem, I find myself somewhat surprisingly aligned with the information-economy workers of my millennial generation. Thompson again:

Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible.

My output may not be as economically useful as a programmatic advertising campaign, but it’s just as invisible most of the time. Thompson argues that one result of this is that we feel the need to prove our accomplishments by preening our images on social media and making what we have done in a given day seem meaningful.

‘You are what you do’

‘Career as life meaning’ might be a relative newcomer to the workforce at large, but we in the so-called ‘creative’ professions have been haunted by it for much longer. We’re constantly told that what we do is meaningful, and, if caught complaining, will invariably be rebuked with something along the lines of ‘yes, but you get to do what you love/follow your passion/etc’.

Our careers have been expected to be our life meaning for a long time, probably since the 19th century elevated artists to the lofty plane of suffering genius, and persuaded people that being creative wasn’t a career but a calling. Artists succeed, we are told from a young age, because of their burning and unquenchable passion. But we didn’t undergo some Pokémon-like evolution from the travelling court musicians of the Renaissance into beings with a higher calling; we are still crafts-people, and if for some reason I’m not so ‘driven’ as to stay up all night thinking about Brahms, it doesn’t make me a lesser musician.

Combine this already damaging view of art and artists with contemporary millennial workism and you’ve got a toxic, if not lethal, combination. TwoSet Violin are perhaps the most successful classical music YouTube channel in the world, and their message strongly parallels hustle culture: practice, practice, practice. You can even get a hoodie with it on. I’m not about to say they haven’t done a great deal for classical music’s reputation with young people – and we all know we need to practise – but the fact that they might have worked themselves into the ground doing it doesn’t fill one with confidence.

In their haste to prove that artistic work is just as much work as anything else is, some turn to workism. ‘Today’s office’, as a caption on a picture of a beautiful concert venue, is ubiquitous among musicians on social media, and I think the intent is to make the reader recognise that art can be work too, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the privilege of occasionally working in beautiful spaces. However, it also feels a bit like workism – not only is this work, it seems to say, but it’s meaningful. I’ve almost certainly done this myself over the years. Who doesn’t want to prove that they’re a useful, productive member of society?


I think the pendulum might be slowly swinging away from workism. Personally, I’ve begun to stop idolising workaholic musicians and instead contemplate the people I respect for being curious, creative and chilled-out. The social-media grift-porn is wearing thin. There’s a better and healthier way.

Back to those work artifacts. Perhaps it’s a realisation of the need for some kind of product to show for my day that I’ve tried to use my non-work time to produce something more tangible. No sculptures, mind, but at least one or two drawings, and, if I finish it, the very blog you’re reading now.

Categories
Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.