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What makes artists changemakers?

…and why does that matter more than ever during – and beyond – COVID?

During COVID and lockdown we have witnessed an explosion in both the demand for, and supply of, creative practice. Of course there’s an increase in consumption of Netflix, Spotify, Podcasts, and reading as we spend more time at home, that’s only to be expected. But I don’t mean *just* consumption, I mean the act of making, itself.

Zoom, Instagram Live, and online learning platforms like Domestika are overflowing with a miriad of creative workshops offered at varying price points (including free). Their associated communities are consuming, and cocreating, everything from playful practice for kids being schooled at home, arts therapy to support people struggling with their mental health, arts packs sent out to reduce isolation for those in temporary accommodation and homelessness hostels, and mobile photography and video projects to keep us all connected through lockdown. Arts practice has, for many, been the glue which has been holding us together during incredibly challenging times. Yet while all this creativity and connection multiplies on the ground, our leaders are once again cutting off our life support from above. 

Arts funding is always the first to be cut in austerity measures, despite it costing very little to a public purse which gains so much more in return on investment (economically and otherwise). These are familiar cycles to all of us who work in the creative economy; we are expected to give our skills and time away for free, then get called ‘champagne elites’ when we manage to successfully claim a portion of the funding scraps available in a highly competitive field. 

Funding preferences arts and cultural organisations (namely: buildings), with the same old neoliberal false-promise that this money will ‘trickle down’ to the independent artists and arts workers who form the ecosystem that they rely on to thrive. Without those indies, there would be no future paintings hanging in the historic buildings emblazoned with the branding of corporate sponsors, and there would be no future grand masters of the stage, screen or airwaves. Artists (and increasingly, audiences) step up to argue the case for culture, and are sometimes even successful at forcing Governments to find a few more pennies down from the depths of their backbenches. However those same privileged arts organisations very rarely step up to argue the case for the independents in return. 

During COVID, despite the massive hike in creative consumption and practice, we’ve watched the arts sector have to fight yet again to receive minimal dripfeeds of economic support. As an independent artist/arts worker you are most likely to be self-employed, and therefore even less likely to tick the Government’s boxes for economic sustainability, or even benefits. Yet, on top of all that, Governments have been increasing the cost of University fees for Arts and Humanities courses, making it even less accessible for anyone who isn’t from a wealthy background to engage in these careers. 

The cynic might question why we would want to reduce access to learning that encourages curiosity, expression, communication, connection, and critical thinking at a time when society is at its most divisive (with the gloomy backdrop of our greatest global challenges to date, in the form of not just economic decline but the impending climate crisis). And they would be right. It’s easier, after all, to control those who are less adept at challenging authority and more conditioned into compliance.

This all begs an important question. With all these new audiences joining the existing cohort of impassioned consumers in engaging with the arts more than ever… why isn’t the arts sector thriving? If we live in a Democracy, and we all get to have a say in how our lives – and society as a whole – functions, why is this vibrant demand for creative engagement (making and consuming) not erupting into a groundswell of support and advocacy for arts and humanities to receive more, not less, funding? 

I have a theory which may take a step toward answering this question (and it’s not just “well, dur, we obviously don’t live in a Democracy, silly”). It comes down to a fundamental difference between those who make and those who consume, and how ‘the system’ and those we laughingly call our ‘leaders’ have conditioned us to think and behave.

Makers ‘versus’ Consumers 

There are makers – the people who make the art, and there are consumers, or audiences – the people who consume the art that the makers create. It’s not a clear-cut binary, since many people who consume also make, and you’d be a pretty rubbish maker if you had never consumed anyone else’s work. Whether you graduated from a formal Art/Drama/Music School or The University of YouTube, the foundation for any personal creative practice is to learn about other artist’s creative practice first. Not to copy, but to learn from the immense diversity of technique, medium, message, and expressional form in order to find the ones which best suit you and the ideas, or messages, you aim to bring to life. 

When you create any piece of work you always start with an idea, something that you want to communicate. You find the medium that works best for you and is most suited for the message in your work to be meaningfully conveyed to the audience you aim to attract. You sketch out the idea so you can explain it to the other people you hope will help you bring it to life (be they collaborating artists, or the coproducing community, or the venue or host, and of course for your partners and funders who need to gain an insight into your intentions in order to deem it ‘worthy’ of production).

If you’re lucky enough (or rather, resourced/supported enough) to get your funding, you can then get going on the work itself. Depending on the work/message/audience, you then go through a process which generally involves a lot of admin and logistics preparation; marketing and social media/audience engagement; the creation and delivery of the work; documentation so you have an archive of what happened for your own records and the report back to your funders; and some form of evaluation of the audience’s experience. 

Evaluation is often added as an afterthought, which is a shame. While each work may feel like a standalone piece, your career as an artist is very far from that. Evaluation helps you understand how the work, and you as an artist, sit in the world. Did the work communicate the message you had hoped to convey? If it was socially engaged practice, did the work meaningfully engage the coproduction community and respectfully amplify their voices? Did the work call for action and if so what happened based on that call: did people act, and did their actions generate impact? (Sadly this feedback is incredibly hard to get – I mean, when have you ever enjoyed filling in a survey?!)

Then, when you’re done, you close it all down, thank everyone for their commitment, send your final report to your funders and partners, and (hopefully, if you can fit one in around the day job that actually pays for your rent and bills) you then get a few days off to collapse in a puddle of exhaustion. And then the whole cycle starts again.

There’s something in this pattern that I believe is repeatedly missed when we – so frequently – have to fight for the right for the arts to exist, never mind thrive, as a creative sector. 

This pattern is something that marks a clearcut difference between those we consider as makers and those who do not make or do not creatively engage with the making process. And it’s the reason that I believe all makers are changemakers (or have the potential to be), and why it can be hard for those who have never engaged with creative practice to simply not understand that changemaking is even a possibility. It also explains why Governments and those in powerful positions make it very, very hard for the arts to thrive at all.

Creating ‘versus’ Consuming

Our brains are like muscles. If we never exercise creativity, imagination and critical thinking, they eventually fall dormant. For far too many of us these practices were never even activated or supported beyond crayons at primary level. So few arts programs manage to thrive in schools which struggle to provide even the most basic course materials and maintain dilapidated facilities under the pressures of Government cuts.

When your norm has absolutely nothing to do with the creative world (where you may listen to radio or music, watch TV or movies, but have never once participated in the process of making), it tends to be an entirely passive experience. You just sit there and the proliferation of content comes to you, your only interaction is to flick through the menu and choose which item suits your mood. In this sense, art is a product just like every other product you pull off the shelf. You think no more about the creator or their process than you do about Heinz or how they make and supply the baked beans you eat on your toast. 

For those living in non-creative worlds, this probably applies across the board. You likely work in a job that pays you very little to just shut up and do what you’re told. If you entered a job like that with any creativity or critical thinking to begin with, the chances are that all the times you have asked “why do we do it like this, couldn’t it be better to try another way?” your line manager will have repeated the “just shut up and do what you are told” mantra, again and again, until you either surrender and comply, or quit. Given there are very few jobs at all, no one can blame you for surrendering… but we can all collectively mourn for the loss of spirit that brings with it. 

By contrast, when your norm is to imagine ideas from seemingly nowhere and then bring them to life for others to engage with and share, you naturally have to do a little dance. Twinkle-toes imagination involves stepping forward toward the tiny details, and away again to hold the big picture vision, then zooming back in again to tweak a detail, and back out again to see the ripples that change has made to the whole. You need critical thinking, not just to come up with the idea in the first place, but to research and explore how that idea might land with those who experience it (a skill which also requires a great deal of empathy – there’s a reason artists care so much about allthethings, our amygdala are very well exercised indeed).

So there we have a – very simplistic – divide. People who have been permitted to explore the joy and lifelong learning curves of creating something from nothing (with all the empathy, connection, problem solving, and critical thinking that comes from it), and people who have been beaten into submission, forced (by repetition and threats of destitution) to shut up and just do what they’re told. No wonder the latter believe that the former are elitists.

Artists appear to do what we want, and we actively shout very loudly from every rooftop we climb up and fall off that we deserve to be and do what we want, that everyone deserves to be and do what they want. That’s a significant privilege to see for those who have been told that their ideas are worthless and their only role in life is to follow orders and make money for ‘the man’. Of course mainstream media capitalise on this divide at every juncture. Their job is not to investigate, educate and challenge power as we once believed, but to promote the interests of those in power and ridicule those who dare to speak out against them. Their mantra is clear: “no one deserves to be or do what they want” (with a far quieter subtext of “except those of us who inherited money, fame and power, which we’re damned if we will ever give up, and we will use all that money, fame and power to destroy anyone who dares to try”).

Eradicating the ‘versus’

Artists have immense privilege, yet we rarely see ourselves as privileged. We know within our bubbles that we all work at least one (more likely three) other jobs just to meet the same exorbitant rents and bills as everyone else, while giving away our creativity for free, or very little economic return. Our privilege is not economic, it’s in our ability to vision other worlds, other systems, and in the grounded shared belief with our peers that things can be different – our collective futures can be different.

Perhaps if we can more clearly articulate that as we are building these courses to work with those new to creativity and critical thinking, we might reach more hearts and minds through the playful and messy painting, singing, dancing, and writing online workshops. Perhaps artists need to remember that we speak a different language to those who were never given the encouragement to dream. Perhaps it’s time to cocreate a new kind of imagination-incubator, one which starts not from our own idea or message, but which starts from an empathic compassion for the trauma that we all share: the destruction of our communities and our planet via the onslaught of capitalism. 

There’s so much talk of ‘us vs them’. There are so many conspiracy theories grasped tightly by those whose voices have never been heard, never mind amplified. There’s a reason the conspiracy machine appeals to them – it brings a sense of belonging for those who have only known disconnection. It is human nature to want to be seen, heard, and loved – to be connected, to belong. The creative sector overflows with noise, ears, and heart; we gush with interdependency and coproduction; we are found-families grown in collaboration and shared values. There is a role here, a job for artists and our creative communities, that can no longer be ignored – and that is precisely why these cuts to artists and hikes in arts and humanities course fees are so prevalent right now in these times of global social crisis. 

The arts is an ecosystem which (much like our planet) has been struggling to survive as such. We’re forever trying to wedge ourselves into a set of top-down business tickboxes which fit neither our values nor our practice, leaving us fighting ourselves for the crumbs scattered inside. Meanwhile those outside the artsworld bubble look at us with a twisted blend of envy and disgust. Us versus us versus them; humans fighting humans for a slice of the scarcity pie, while the rich and powerful gorge on our remains. It’s the wrong battle, in a war we can never win; a game rigged in no one’s favour but the already-powerful.

We have an opportunity here – possibly the greatest opportunity we have ever seen in history. In this moment – a time when our responsibilities to each other as part of a global social contract and the visceral exposure of systemic abuse and injustice have never been more visible. It’s time for all of us in the creative space to put down our arms against each other and turn them collectively outward. Artists are known for our well-developed egos, because we’ve been allowed (or have claimed, against all odds) the right to be and do what we want. It’s time to put to one side what we want and need as individuals seeking a career in the arts, or as organisations scared of retaining their historic buildings and financial reserves, and step up for what we want and need as communities, societies and systems – including the bigger ecosystem under which we all exist: the planet’s climate crisis. 

Artists know how to create visions and work backwards to turn them into action plans. Non-artists mostly don’t even know they are allowed to do that, and if they did, they most likely wouldn’t even know where to start. So when you teach your painting, remember to share your journey toward embracing your imagination. When you teach your singing, remember to share your pathways to an empowered voice. When you teach your dance, remember to share your embodied expression of pain and trauma through the release of movement. When you teach your writing, remember to display your story’s scars with honest vulnerability. Whenever you teach anything at all, remember you are not just teaching ‘what to do’, like a line manager delivering commands. You have the opportunity, the mandate, to teach why you do what you do, how you do it, and through those strategies help your students release their own creative imaginations out into the world. 

Artists make change. We don’t do it for the money or adoration, because those are transient and meaningless when placed against our values and ethics. We make art, make change, because we have to. We see futures others cannot dream of. Our job now is to show others how to begin to dream. Because – now more than ever – all of our lives depend on it. 

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