Friday, 10 April 2015

Creativity and work

A few days ago on Twitter, I spotted an ask to Carrie Hope Fletcher, who plays Éponine Thénardier in the West End’s production of Les Misérables. The asker was wondering why she described her job as “work”, as having a career in the West End is a dream, and the word “drags it down”.
First of all, I saw Carrie in Les Mis the other day – and bloody hell, that is work. It’s amazing work. Although the word is associated with toil and difficulty, it also means “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something”. And that is exactly what they do in the West End. Not only do the performers sing their hearts out, but they also pour physical and emotional effort into their acting, run and climb their way around the stage, and play multiple roles in each performance. I can’t imagine how exhausted they must be after doing that twice in one day. It’s clear that they all love what they’re doing, but I now have even more respect for how much Carrie does on top of it, like her videos and writing. 
I didn’t want to criticise the asker specifically, and I’m really straying away from their original point with this ramble – but I suspect this mindset is part of the larger reason why people in the creative industry, especially if they’re freelancers, find it so difficult to get paid a decent wage for their work. Even though we all love the theatre, paintings, comics, music and books, and we’d be devastated if they disappeared, it’s always seen as strange if any creative job is actually described as “work”, or people who do them ask to be paid fairly for their time. 
The results of this mindset can be seen everywhere. Non-professional artists who do commissions charge well under the industry standard, presumably because people don’t consider their time worthy of decent payment, and because they should be enjoying it. (See this chart for the huge disparity.) One of my best friends is an artist, and I remember how long it took for her to be confident in charging more than about $5 for hours, days, or even weeks of work. She thought that, because she was self-taught and had no qualifications in what she was passionate about, she was unworthy of asking for asking for anything more. Most likely, she preferred the idea of a tiny payment to putting off the commissioner with what she saw as a daunting sum of money. 
Authors are often expected to do appearances at literary festivals and school visits for free, because we should do it for love of literature and learning. We are criticised for getting angry about piracy, because we should be grateful that people want to read our books, and that we got published in the first place when many people don’t. And we should do anything else for free, too, because it’s great exposure. No doubt the same applies to musicians without a massive record deal. And we do it, because we love our jobs so much, and we feel so lucky to have them, and we do want to make ourselves available whenever we can – but we also need to pay the bills.  
Meanwhile, in the UK, the arts and humanities have suffered terribly in recent years. I doubt many politicians have said out loud that they think the arts have no real value – except, of course, for Eric Pickles, who memorably called Tristram Hunt a “luvvie” for being concerned about the decline of culture in the country. Meanwhile, reading charity Booktrust has lost its Northern Irish funding for Bookstart – a programme which provides free “start up” packs of books for babies and children – and Soho, a district with a long and proud history of supporting upcoming actors and musicians (and the LGBTQ community), is facing the closure of several venues on flimsy grounds. This assault has been so obvious that a campaign, Save Soho, has been kicked off to preserve the area’s character, and has rightfully been supported by some big names from the industry. No doubt this same government wants creative people to keep up the jolly good work, old chaps, because they enjoy the industry’s success, but they’ll be damned if they support the places that encourage young creatives, especially if they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds. The same government also wonders why the literacy rate in the UK is lagging behind other countries in the developed world, while merrily closing libraries and making cuts to the arts and Special Educational Needs (SEN) under the banner of austerity.  
My point, in illustrating all of these things, is to highlight the deep contradiction in the way we think about the creative industry and the people who work in it. We love authors, but although we pay other people who are involved in a literary festival, we don’t always think they’re worth the money, despite the fact that without them, there would be no festival. (It does seem this is slowly starting to change.) We love the theatre, but the performers aren’t “working”. We love art, but don’t value it enough to always believe the artist should be paid fairly for their time. We’re making draconian cuts to the arts and humanities in the UK, despite the fact that in 2014, the creative industry – arguably the result of people being able to learn about, and practise, arts and humanities – was found to generate an astonishing £8 million per hour for the country. Per hour.
So do we value art or not? If so, we need to start showing it in our language and our attitudes towards it. Creativity is a form of work – perhaps the perfect response to the definition “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something” – and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. We can love what we do and think it’s worth something. All creativity produces something, whether it’s a play, a painting, or a novel. All creativity accomplishes something, whether it’s catharsis for the creator or a deep emotional response in the spectator. So yes, creatives: call it work, your work, and be damned proud of yourself. 

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for this I recently just quit my job to give more attention to my Work but I have been getting down on myself because I am not trained in what I love but also because I thought that no one would take me seriously. But after reading this I now have a bit more courage to press on with my dream. Thank you

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  2. Unfortunately, the phenomenon you describe is not restricted to the arts and humanities. I posit that it is spreading throughout all "academic" or "intellectual" disciplines; the cultural backdrop of the developed world changes and the large majority of the population seems to be oblivious to it. I am not fear-mongering; just look at the reality-TV line up pushing out any sensible content and steeping the minds of the populace in utter idiocy. But, I am digressing....

    While so much of the personal worth has become entangled with the personal wealth, our academics (both teachers and researchers) are getting to be increasingly poorly compensated for their talent and effort. It is not clear why this is the case; as with all complex phenomena, there is probably a number of parameters involved. The dominant one, in my opinion, is closely related to what Samantha so eloquently described in the above blog entry. The majority of scientists and scholars have spent their youth (many of them starting in childhood) honing a particular skill. Their Holy Grail is to simply be left at peace and let to do the work. If intelligent and curious students are thrown into the mix after you finally land an academic post, this is just another reward. It appears to be borderline impolite to try to negotiate better pay; one thinks of oneself as greedy, and needy, and arrogant, and immodest, and goodness knows what else for asking for a better office, let alone better pay. I have never met a day-trader or a business executive with similar scruples. It's uncanny how this goes ... I have the privilege to occasionally bump into a Nobel laureate at a local grocery store or in the lift at work -- he is happily wearing his sky-blue, polyester suit dating from 1970s. Meanwhile, the "hipster-light" couture is all the rage in the NBA. It's ridiculous. Maybe the remedy would be for academics to get agents, just as movie stars or athletes do? Would it work? Probably not! My colleagues have been told that we should not complain since we "actually work a 10-hour week anyhow". It's as blatant a lie as there ever was: that's the number of contact hours with students. It's like saying that an author spent exactly the number of hours needed to "re-type" a manuscript to actually write the book. The cruel reality is that your brain or your creativity *cannot* be switched off. There is a class of people who never get to punch the proverbial time-card to get off work. The "work" is a part of the individual's fiber.

    If you are interested, do look into salaries of British academics. They are absolutely insufficient for one to even live in, say, London (even if the post is actually in London). Oxford is a similar story. Quality candidates are declining job offers for this particular reason. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is the "adjunct crisis", labs are getting closed, and all we hear of in the news is how overpriced undergraduate education is.

    I hate to play Sybill Trelawney, but if we are not careful, we might see the demise of public academia. Research and scholarly achievement will suffer. Science and literature may regress back to being the pass-time of the landed gentry "du jour", sentencing the rest of us to merely wait for a genius to be born in the appropriate social (and financial) class. Even if such a serendipitous event should occur, is there anyone wealthy enough to single-handedly finance the Large Hadron Collider? Indeed, I did not think so ...

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  3. I love this post! When I first read it I wanted to comment right way, but I couldn't until now, because of a particularly busy week of work as a professional singer. Whenever I see or hear some comment about performing or any form of art not being work, I'm torn between wanting to shake my head or laugh derisively, because that person clearly has no idea what goes into being an artists, that, or they're just naive.
    I'm a classical singer, mainly in opera, which has a lot of similarities to musical theater (although thank goodness we don't do 8+ shows per week). Though a singer, I've always felt kinship with other artists, be they musicians of any instrument and genre, actors, writers, painters, etc, because we all know the amount of work, dedication, sacrifice, joy, and vulnerability that goes into creating art.
    It is interesting how western societies say that the arts are so important, but the people creating art aren't quite viewed as professionals providing a valuable service that they deserve to be compensated for. I even run into the idea that creative professionals, specifically performing artists in my experience, are immature, selfish, or somehow lazy because they don't have a "real" job. The "work" of being a performing artists for example isn't just the actual performance, but the hours for weeks on end of rehearsals, commuting to said rehearsals, studying our roles/music, looking for auditions, going to auditions, and doing a million different administrative tasks in support of our career, not to mention the years of training required to become a professional-quality musician.
    I think another huge factor at play is the idea we have about work in many cultures. There is a prevalent mentality nowadays that we're not supposed to enjoy our work, that work is inherently bad and not fun or uplifting. It seems taken for granted that we're all just supposed to sleep-walk through our days with the aim of getting the biggest paycheck we can (so that we can buy all the stuffs!) and live for our limited downtime. I see this mentality all the time, and people don't even realize they have it. It's probably not possible for everyone to "follow their dreams" all the time, but I feel that if we could start to embrace the idea that it's important to do work you enjoy, the world would be a better place.

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  4. ‘All too late, all too late, when the wain is at the gate.’

    It’s appalling that the question arises. Someone starting their adult life has roughly 90,000 hour of work ahead. Those 90,000 hours should not be endured only in order to exist

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