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.