The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the performing arts. The need for physical distancing and other public health measures has put a stop to all but a few performances.
Most actors, singers, musicians and other performers in the sector are freelance. Offered only 20 percent of their previous earnings by the Tory government, many of them face penury.
Asked about the position of performing artists in an interview with ITV earlier this month, chancellor Rishi Sunak said he couldn’t “pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job” they were doing pre-Covid.
He went on to suggest that retraining offers “a fresh and new opportunity for people”.
Just what he meant by “retraining” became clear when artists accessed the National Careers Service’s new skills assessment website.
Artists found themselves being advised to pursue an array of ridiculously inappropriate professions.
Artists aren’t suggesting they are “above” certain occupations, but they have been astonished by some of the jobs suggested.
For instance, a choir conductor in Scotland was advised to retrain as a colon hydrotherapist.
Sunak denies that he’s abandoning the arts, pointing to his “£1.5 billion cultural recovery programme”.
Firstly, that money is going directly to venues across all art forms, not to performing artists who are losing their livelihoods.
Secondly, given the scale of the crisis for the arts, £1.5 billion is far from enough.
To put it in perspective, the arts contributed £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018. The cost of renewing Trident is at least £205 billion. On the same day that Sunak gave his interview, 400 musicians staged a poignant, physically distanced protest performance in Parliament Square in London.
Playing 20 percent of the ominous Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, they drew attention to the danger facing their careers and the entire future of the performing arts.
The Tory government’s refusal to prioritise the arts should come as no surprise. For the most part, the Tories and their ruling class paymasters are hostile to artistic expression.
Sure, some of them might enjoy the occasional night at the opera or, in the case of former chancellor Kenneth Clarke, a jazz club. But they’ll be damned if they’ll allow everyone access to the arts, either as participants or audience members.
That’s why teaching of art and music is given such low priority in state schools. It’s also why the Tories’ “independent” review of higher education funding, led by ex-City financier Philip Augar, described arts degrees as “low value”.
At base, the ruling class is suspicious of the arts because, firstly, they involve the kind of free expression that can lead people to challenge “conventional” ways of thinking.
Most capitalists are also unsympathetic to human activity that is motivated by a desire to feed the soul, rather than merely make money.
For socialists, every human being should have the absolute right to a full and rich engagement with the arts. As the great painter Pablo Picasso said, “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”