So I’m still thinking about money – interesting, how you’re more inclined to obsess about things you don’t have than things you do, but that, I imagine, is all bound up in the nature of desire. This time what got me going was a report from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) in the US that unemployment rates for artists were up. This ‘shock’ statistic comes from a study entitled ‘Artists in a Year of Recession’, which announces that unemployment rates for artists “have risen more rapidly than for US workers as a whole.”
I was trying to work out how they worked it out. Do artists wake up one morning and decide “gosh, I’m unemployed,” lay down their pencils, brushes, cameras and whatever else it is they’re working with, and head off to the dole office, desisting from all creativity while their payments last? No, I thought not. Some of these statistics come from the performing arts, where it’s obviously more easy to measure, but what struck me particularly was the difficulty in quantifying much of anything when it comes to the impact of the arts on the economy.
This becomes important when a case has to be made for the arts to government in times of funding cuts. How do you justify continued support when set against health budgets, education costs, and – yes – social-welfare payments. It’s a tired old argument, of course, but still one that can cause rancour.
In the recent debate in the US, the NEA was the focus of an editorial in the National Review. They are, wrote the editor, “in line for $50 million, increasing its total budget by a third. The unemployed can fill their days attending abstract-film festivals and sitar concerts." Meanwhile, in Congress, Jack Kingston announced, “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous."
There will doubtless be similar debates here, as we approach the Mini Budget – but instead of rehashing the arguments about the social, aesthetic, cultural, economic (in terms of tourism, etc) ‘good’ of the arts, I’d offer this one to Martin Cullen: fund the arts because the arts are one of the few economic arenas where people are prepared to work for half nothing, indeed are often happy to be allowed to work for free. It’s also an arena where, as a result of this work, far less talented people are able to bathe in the reflected glory of those whose paintings, novels, plays or installations – if you totted up the time – were made at far less than the minimum wage, and they’re very unlikely to strike. In other words, funding this form of ‘elitism’ is good for the economy; in fact it makes sound financial sense.