In solidarity with artists I don’t know

‘Hope is a virtue, not a mood’

Philip Pullman

There’s a lot to feel sad about, right now. The suffering caused by the pandemic and by the measures taken to contain it makes for grim reading. The arts are not exempt from that suffering, nor less important. A job lost, a future blocked is a tragedy, whoever is concerned. 

A few days ago, I read this blog post from Rash Dash. I’m not familiar with the company but if their performances have the same integrity and courage as this text, they must be very good indeed. Rash Dash didn’t get emergency funding from Arts Council England. That, and ACE’s new strategy, Let’s Create, has made the three members wonder whether there is a place for them in the world that is now emerging. 

We run a tiny organisation and change can happen quickly as long as all three of us agree, so it’s not Change that’s scary… it’s just a path that we’ve been going down suddenly doesn’t exist anymore. Not just because theatres are closed, but because missions and strategies are (quite rightly) changing. […] As we watch people talk about what comes next, about community venues and artists working in communities we wonder what happens to the work we make. […] We don’t think we fully comprehend all the suggestions being made, the ramifications of this, and how we fit in, if we fit in.

It’s worth reading the whole piece because it articulates the crisis that so many artists are now experiencing as they ask themselves how to keep going financially, how to honour their commitments to others, how to protect the creative work to which they have dedicated years or decades. It doesn’t matter whether they run the Globe or Rash Dash, whether they are admired musicians or teaching artists. It doesn’t even matter that some are better off than others because, if they cannot finance their work, anyone’s future looks thin. Whether it’s in the theatre, a bank or a florist, a job lost is a job lost, a person hurt, a family destabilised, a future in question. 

Things are getting hard, and sharp, and bitter. The Arts Council’s emergency funding is in the process of being allocated, and those who don’t get it will, like Rash Dash, face painful questions. Those who do will face them too, as they decide which staff members they can keep, for how long. Uncertainty reigns. No one can say when the activity of artists can safely resume, since so much of it is incompatible with social distancing. The arts and cultural world will change and it will not be easy: nor will it only be for the better. As that becomes clearer, camps are forming. Wagons are being circled. Everyone wants to defend their interests, their values. No one says it, but the implication of their advocacy is brutal: if there’s not enough to go round, the others should lose more than us.

I believe that art has fundamental value in human life. I respect human dignity and people’s right to decide what is good for them. I recognise the fact of human and cultural diversity. There are vast domains of art and culture in which I have no interest, but I know that other people do. I’ve seen one play at the National Theatre in my entire life; it was all right. But I want the National Theatre to survive because I know that it is very important to hundreds of thousands of people. Their connection with its culture is as legitimate as mine with community art. We can argue about policy, practice and resources but if we set up to defeat those who see things differently, we defeat also the very things we claim to defend: democracy, diversity, dignity and human rights. My conception of a cultural democracy ensures that everyone has the minimum capabilities to make their own choices of action, values, association, expression and culture.

When we get past this crisis – whatever that means – I hope for an arts and cultural sector that values Rash Dash, and the whole spectrum of creativity too. That’s what I meant when I wrote, at the start of this, that:

We must see the cultural ecosystem in which every person, every organisation, every cultural expression, has a legitimate place. We must prize mutuality and solidarity above sectarian interest. We must use what resources we still have, whether we lead a great institution or a neighbourhood arts group, to protect the most vulnerable. Those with the broadest shoulders should take more of this burden, and that might mean some redistribution to help those on freelance contracts and minimum wages, those on the margins, whose voices have not been heard, those who have always had less easy paths to the work, the stages and the funding. Let’s live up to art’s inclusive values. We have one shot. Let’s be our best.

Let’s use this breathing space wisely (25 March 2020)

Solidarity isn’t worth much if it is extended only to the people with whom I agree. It’s about responding to need, wherever it is: a job lost is a job lost. A door closed is hard to reopen. That’s why I was glad to give a bit to the crowdfunder set up to help Rash Dash. They deserve help: we all deserve help. But I also hope and work for change, so that the society (not just the cultural sector) that comes out of this catastrophe is better, more just and more sustainable. But how we get there will determine the value of the destination, and one good test is that we leave no one behind. 

And in the meantime, Rash Dash are making New Project:

It’s something we began because we want to stay creative and collaborative while working remotely and to give us a life line / outlet during this precarious and scary time. […] We look at what each other are creating but don’t comment. Occasionally we ask questions. We’re in a no judgement phase. We don’t know what these will become. Maybe some of them will make their way into shows, be the beginning of shows, disappear and never be spoken of again, we don’t know.

New Project, Rash Dash

Good luck to them. Good luck to us all.