Portrait of the Artist as neo-liberal: a date with the dole
The 14th of February hit this day last week — 12 hours (or 24, depending on how good your stamina is) during which capitalism and love combine in what’s known by disaffected cynics like me as Hallmark Day, and by others as Valentine’s Day. This year was to be a little bit different for me because I had a date — but with the dole office.
At mid-day on February 14th while you were being surprised with breakfast in bed I climbed the stairs in the dole office and sat opposite a civil servant to exchange pleasantries and sign forms. There were a lot more forms than pleasantries, however. This wasn’t your average date. The civil servant and I were separated by a clear glass screen, punctured with holes so she could breathe and perhaps catch my cold germs that I was trying — unsuccessfully — not to breathe in her face. There was a gap in the bottom of the screen so we could pass forms back and forth across the table. “I’ll just need your signature here” she would say as she passed me a form with two kisses on it. And I would sign, snottily and red-eyed — from the cold. She was very demanding; she wanted proofs of my worthiness and of my parents’ assets— at one stage she nearly asked me if I had road frontage. Coyly I told her she could ask the Revenue and she said she’d look into it. Then she asked me for more forms and proof I’d left college. Ah, college. Now, here was where things had the potential to go belly up. I had to tell her. I had to own up to the fact that here I was, a big independent-dependent-lump-of-twenty-two with not only an undergraduate degree under my belt, but a postgrad also, and I still couldn’t find a job.
It’s not me, it’s you — the system, I wanted to say. (I know I sound like a cross between Otto from The Simpsons and a whiny child but hear me out). The system doesn’t value people like me; I have an arts degree and an MA in Drama and Theatre — neither of these qualify me to work in the prosperous STEM sector (think science, tech, engineering etc) and even if I wanted to I don’t have that type of intelligence. I’ve always loathed business and been bored by science and maths, and because I’m stubborn and independent I’ve never bothered to work at them. Instead I perked up in history, geography, english and art classes in school. (There was no theatre class, and I could have used one for confidence which is arguably more important then bloody accounting). When you’re thirteen you don’t care about where the jobs are; you just like whatever subjects you like and if like me you are unlucky enough not to love the STEM subjects you look on as your science-y friends get labelled “super-smart” while you languish at the back of the science lab wondering if you could persuade your mate to make you some meth and doodling cats on your F grade test. (Actually, that’s not strictly true because if I’d known then that you could make meth in a lab I’d have beaten Jesse and Walt to it and it wouldn’t be a dole date I’d be having in 2017 but a trial date… I’d have gotten caught obviously, being awful at business).
But I digress. What I want to say is that we as a society — or a system, dude — don’t value people with humanities degrees. We also don’t value our artists and our writers. I’m beginning to wonder if we are afraid to. Are we afraid of what they might tell us about ourselves? People who like the arts are labelled “creative” or “artists” and we are generally more lateral thinkers. We think about the bigger picture. Competition, exams, and bureaucracy — i.e. all the things one needs to master to “make it” in the world are a pain in the hole to us. The neo-liberal economic system drums it into us from an early age that our value is relative to our activity in the market. Money begets more money! And because art doesn’t really focus on making money as the be all and end all it simply isn’t important to a lot of people. Rust in peace Thatcher. In fact, art costs money because it takes time to create — and time to consume too. I think the main reason lots of arts professionals resort to going on the dole is because they see it as a way to pay them for putting time into their art. A lawyer, for example, gets paid a salary for his or her job but an artist does not get paid until they come up with a ‘product’, and even then that ‘product’ has to be ‘marketable’. It’s ridiculous to hold art to the same standards as economics because the notion that art should be paid for in order to be appreciated actually devalues its role in society. I am sure I speak for most when I say the government does not owe arts professionals a living, but they do need to address this problem, and perhaps re-examine this neo-liberal system that’s forcing us to work for free to build up our CVs and claim social welfare to pay our rent.
I could make other suggestions as to how the government could help struggling arts professionals — other than actually caring about us as much as they care about the STEM nerds — but, ironically, I don’t know enough about economics. Thanks to my MA in theatre I do know a lot about postmodernism, which I doubt your average boring accountant does. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief! (Arty people always demonise accountants — it’s just our way of bitterly reminding you all we exist and we don’t have company cars or complementary office staplers). Creativity and the love of learning for its own sake have been replaced by an education system resembling a machine, whose purpose is to produce the next generation of workers. In the 1960’s postmodern individualism was still forming so we had Woodstock and chemical highs, but when the eighties brought us Thatcher and Reagan and neo-liberalism we soon stopped having fun and being an individual became less about smoking joints and sticking it to the man and more about competitive self interest and selling your soul to buy a house. Not exactly an artist friendly environment that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is an unhealthy environment for society as a whole. We need our artists just as much as we need our accountants and our doctors and our scientists but until the government — globally and nationally — respond to this fact by actually doing something about this big fat neo-liberalism problem then people like me are going to have no choice but to make a date with our local social welfare offices.