“The question of why we don’t value artists or their work the same way we do other jobs is not a new concern. But we seem to find ourselves in a unique moment where there is a real possibility of change.”
Matthew Braga is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. A former senior technology reporter for CBC News and editor at Motherboard, he covers technology, science, and culture.
For months now, the global pandemic has meant I’ve spent most of my days at home. With nowhere else to go, and only so much to do around the house, I’ve been consuming movies, TV shows, books, and games far more than usual. When there’s little to separate work from leisure, save moving from desk to couch, I’ve eagerly looked to the work of artists to keep me sane. The irony, of course, is that the same artists helping many of us fill our days—while we’re comfortably paid to work from home—are among some of the pandemic’s hardest hit.
For the CBC, Amanda Parris wrote about the pandemic’s dire impact on artist incomes. In Canada, where the arts and culture industries contribute billions of dollars to the country’s economy, the median artists’ income is well below the poverty line. The pandemic has only made matters worse. “Lockdowns around the world have forced tours, performances, book launches, festivals and film productions to cancel,” Parris writes, calling on all of us to finally “stop devaluing artists’ worth” and show them the support they deserve in our post-COVID-19 world.
And make no mistake, this is a societal concern. In times of crisis, “artists are expected to reinvent themselves, turn to crowdfunding, and hustle their way out of their predicaments,” wrote Miranda Campbell for Jacobin in 2015. “But we cannot crowdfund our way to broad public support for culture or to more sustainable approaches to cultural production. We need to move from narrating individual struggles to discussing community-wide challenges and collective solutions.”
“While governments were quick to talk about bailing out cruise operators and airlines, what does it say about art’s value to society that we didn’t move as swiftly or generously to bail out artists, too?”
The question of why we don’t value artists or their work the same way we do other jobs is not a new concern. But we seem to find ourselves in a unique moment where there is a real possibility of change. Max Haiven has argued that artists reeling from the pandemic share a common cause with other undervalued workers—from sex workers to restaurant servers—who have not benefited under capitalism. “Artists should in this moment be joining radical and ungovernable movements to demand, at very least that the emergency responses of the pandemic, which removed the economic coercion of capital, be extended widely and forever: basic incomes, rent suspensions, free high-quality public services, the nationalization of critical infrastructure, and more,” Haiven writes.
Numerous studies in countries around the world have shown the cultural, economic, and educational value that the arts and artists bring. While governments were quick to talk about bailing out cruise operators and airlines, what does it say about art’s value to society that we didn’t move as swiftly or generously to bail out artists, too? In the world we’ll build next, it can happen—if we want it to.