Suffering for your art: Creative work under capitalism

By Eoin McCaul

Just a few weeks ago, artists in the UK were faced with the very real and terrifying prospect that up to 90% of venues may not reopen their doors after lockdown. For those reliant on gig work – musicians, actors, and creative workers of all kinds – this scenario was catastrophic, as many already struggle to put food on the table, relying on temporary contracts, constantly searching for the next job.

The £1.5 billion bailout package that has saved the sector from total collapse was delivered not through the generosity of the Tory government, or through their appreciation of the arts. It was partly due to the pressure imposed on them by the creative workers who compose the industry, but also due to their vested interest in keeping the business alive, and salvaging what remains of the tourism sector. It has provided a lifeline for venues and cultural institutions, while preserving the gig economy that currently defines the arts and entertainment sector. Sure, without these venues, artists would be without anywhere to perform and share their talents with wider society, but being at the mercy of businesses with the sole purpose of generating profit has already left many artists in a precarious situation.

Gentrification undermines grassroots arts

None of this is a new problem. Over the last decade, we have seen nearly a thousand pubs shut down each year – businesses which often function as a hub for the local community. In Edinburgh, for example, a trip from the city centre down the road towards Leith feels like following a progressing infection of gentrification. Small businesses owned by locals and pubs filled with character have been slowly replaced by row upon row of Starbucks and similar soulless, corporate ventures. It is simply not profitable to allow the soul of the village to survive when globalisation incentivises every city to look the same.

For gigging artists, this means a vastly diminished pool of work available, one that was already very scarce. For lovers of music, arts and culture, this means a watered-down selection to choose from, which often seeks to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The nature of the society we live in often shuns those who choose to follow their creative dreams, with schools pushing students to study STEM degrees or other fields which for many may be unfulfilling, but ultimately pay better and serve capital. Even the most well-established musicians often end up enslaved by their record companies through exploitative contracts – from the top to the bottom of the field, artists are seen as mere hobbyists by society and, like all other workers, ripe for exploitation.

Precarious work the norm

The whole sector is based on temporary contracts, with those employed in it constantly searching for the next job. Many are also employed in the hospitality sector, for example, as a necessity for paying their bills until they can find the next job. Many artists haven’t seen a paycheck since March, or else have been forced to use welfare such as Universal Credit, if not lucky enough to have received furlough payments for second jobs in other industries. On top of this, they are expected to somehow adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances while simultaneously juggling life’s responsibilities.

A survey by a theatre forum in 2018 found that a third of workers earned less than the minimum wage, and that four out of five jobs in the performing arts are precarious. The lack of organisation of workers in the creative field and the precarious nature of the work allows for abuses of power – the most prominent example of this is, of course, the sexual harassment and abuse exposed by the #MeToo movement. Even here, in Northern Ireland, the local music scene has recently had its own outing of prominent figures taken down for abusing their power. This is hardly a scenario unique to the music industry, however, as the nature of capitalism makes speaking out against your employer a risky move as you are putting your means of survival on the line.

Initiatives have been created in many countries throughout Europe to support artists who have suddenly found themselves unable to pay their bills as a result of the pandemic, but these are, of course, funded primarily from donations as governments are wholly unwilling to give any support to workers in the creative fields – only businesses. These initiatives show the solidarity that fellow workers can use to help each other out when the state is unwilling. Creative workers can and should seek to go beyond mutual aid to organise collectively for better conditions, linking up with other sections of workers also fighting poverty pay and precarious conditions.

Artists vital but undervalued

I’m sure many of us couldn’t imagine how the last three months of lockdown would have been to endure without TV, movies and music to pass the time. Yet the people who dedicate their life to this essential part of the human experience are dismissed by the capitalist economy. Instead of trying to live a fulfilling life by experiencing and creating art, exploring what it means to be human, career fields which emphasise profit are encouraged at every level of education. Go to university and get a degree, but not an arts degree which is only deserving of minimum wage or less, get a degree which serves capital instead.

The role that art plays under capitalism is reduced to a mere commodity, alongside the emotions it provokes. Entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator takes precedent as nothing but a cynical marketing tactic. Capitalism strangles the true potential of art as an exploration of the human condition and seeks to reduce it to a mere middle-class pass-time.

Socialism will liberate human expression

Only through socialist change can artists be free to express themselves without the financial constraints that capitalism imposes and see the true fruits of their labour without being forced to sell it to survive. Often, as I’m sure other musicians are aware, performances are unpaid or underpaid by venues who promise nothing more than exposure. Even at the top level, your favourite artist is likely heavily in debt to their label despite the façade has become their image. 

Every artistic idea or development that is spawned from our society is plagued by the system that it was grown in. The poverty-stricken artist, living out of their car, is such a well-known trope in our times due to the scorn in which our economic system holds such people – despite that fact that every single human on this planet benefits from their output. 

A socialist society based on solidarity and collaboration would elevate the arts to another plane – a far greater level of significance and development than that which is possible in our current, profit-driven system.

“Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key.” – Leon Trotsky

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