If you were going by the various public handshakes offered by some arts organisations and individuals in invariably tepid and polite statements with the automaton tone of “we are looking forward to working with you”, you might be forgiven for thinking the appointment of Nicky Morgan as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport heralded a new era of possibility, rather than the latest reshuffle of party ideology that is, at its core, at odds with everything artists are.
Charities and arts organisations have to work with whoever is in power, I know. Realistically, they have to be non-party political, civil and willing to both open and pursue dialogue. Some comments have been welcoming but pointed, a few have been surprisingly gushing, mostly from personal Twitter accounts of high-level staff.
Of course, brief public statements don’t show the real machinations of how organisations interact with government ministers, or very likely, the weariness and worry behind the scenes. But at a time when artists’ incomes are depleting and community arts projects are being cut, to a backdrop of rising poverty, homelessness, and hate crimes, it’s difficult to look at the dance of social niceties when it feels that humanity in general is being stripped back, and is likely to worsen under Boris Johnson’s right-leaning administration and those who cravenly serve it, as well as a looming no-deal Brexit.
Culture may be a devolved matter, but what happens elsewhere has ramifications for artists in Scotland, chiefly in creative partners and opportunities available throughout the UK. Arguably, wider social and fiscal policy has even more relevance to the life of an artist than whatever Morgan will do with her remit. Arts organisations have a duty to represent their members and some have identified as a lobbying point the unfair and maddening visa rejections that have prevented a number of artists from entering the UK to work creatively and attend events. The Creative Industries Federation, active mostly in England, proposes a ‘creative freelancer’ visa as just one example. These Home Office decisions manifest themselves in specific ways for the arts sector, impacting book festivals when each year invited speakers aren’t allowed into the UK to discuss their work, and some galleries, like the Manchester Art Gallery, have left spaces on their walls blank to show the impact on visual artists who have been barred from entry.
But when it comes to taking a stand and applying pressure, I feel deeply, deeply uncomfortable when any focus on immigration problems faced by professional artists does not more broadly acknowledge that harsh immigration policies are penalising people from all walks of life; our neighbours, family, and friends, squeezing personal freedoms and hostile to the wider cultures our art comes from. As artists we can beg for crumbs for ourselves, or bread for all. Only the latter will truly sustain us, culturally and economically.
How bad do things have to become, and how dark the omens, for lukewarm manners and deference to station to be replaced with a sense of urgency? For the British sense of self to reorient from the drudging, terrible politeness some artists’ organisations offered to Johnson’s new hire to something a bit more toothsome and challenging? There is a fine line between targeted lobbying and sidestepping widespread problems.
I think about the William Carlos Williams poem ‘To Elsie’ very often these days, which was written about America in the late 1930s. It is despairing about the direction society is going in and ends with the lines “no one to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car”.
Surrounding Brexit there is still a lack of authoritative acknowledgement about what is proactively occurring to unpick social networks, undermine community work, and decimate industry, all of which, of course, also impact artists, and particularly those who have fewer advantages.
Labour, maddeningly, have done little to reach out in any direction in response to Brexit impact reports, to the arts and culture sector or otherwise. But doing so might actually demand Corbyn fronts up a coherent strategy in decisively opposing Brexit, rather than letting the doom and gloom unfold at a distance, as though it were all taking place in a universe separate from the one in which Labour’s policies might come to fruition, like drafting up plans to mould clay, ignoring it will already have cracked in the kiln.
So now that Nicky Morgan has arrived, what to expect? She certainly hasn’t projected an innate understanding of the arts and culture sectors before now. In 2014, during her tenure as Education Secretary, she said: “If you didn’t know what you wanted to do ... then the arts and the humanities were what you chose because they were useful, we were told, for all kinds of jobs. We now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. That the subjects to keep young people’s options open are STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.”
She did a u-turn in 2015, commenting that a young person’s education should include the arts, still far from the informed and passionate insight that arts workers need on their team. She has previously taken an interest in the self-employed, saying growing numbers of workers need to be addressed from a tax perspective. Many problems arts workers face today centre around access to arts careers, fair pay, and long-term sustainability. These are age-old problems exacerbated by many social factors that can’t be divorced from contemporary Tory policy, and a rich-poor gap that is widening.
So, Morgan might throw out a bone to artists. Maybe industry lobbyists will get a win. Something shiny to mark her new remit in the form of a sceme or grant. It might even pay lip service to some of the fiscal inequalities or diversity issues that plague the sector.
But if such a gesture comes – it will be just a gesture. Conservative policies of austerity and cruelty are the biggest threat to artists.
Artists do not exist within a bubble that can be sectioned off and polished up, but live in and engage with society. Artists need time and space to think and create, they need encouragement to hone their skills and talents, and they need structures that will support them.
They need a society that is receptive to ideas, curiosity, and imagination. But artists also have money problems. Artists need welfare. Artists have children after being raped. Artists need healthcare. If we really want to advocate for artists, we need to oppose the erosion of individual freedoms and dignity under a Conservative government.