One of the tragic things about arts and creativity is that these activities have been monetised. Not in real terms of course, but in the expectation that they should earn profit, otherwise they are deemed “useless”.
Monetising creative activity is regarded as one of the major problems of creativity, particularly for those individuals who feel naturally inclined to create anyway, no matter what the circumstances. The received wisdom is that you shouldn’t do anything until such time as you have a deal in place. Then, the money assured, you can go to work.
But those who feel driven to create know that not practising leads to not creating. Creativity is not a tap that you can turn on and off in response to the vagaries of the economic system.
And that right there is the problem, not just for creatives, but for that aspect of humanity that is nurtured by creative works; which is essentially, everyone. Because creative works are a food of sorts. But in a system focused on the bottom line above all else, the very act of creativity becomes devalued to the point of inactivity by those who might otherwise practise a creative discipline.
Such people may eventually surrender to the cultural wisdom of getting a “real” job, ending up working in some oligarch’s factory where all respect for workers has been stripped away in the interests of profit. Places where the souls of creatives tend to wither and die.
Welfare Arts Grant
I happened to catch Tommy Tiernan’s show on RTÉ the other night. It’s not something I would normally watch, since I happen to know him personally, but I catch parts of it now and again. He was talking to Andrea Corr about the driven aspect of creativity.
He told her, a little boastfully I thought, that after he had earned his money and had plenty in the bank, that he still felt the urge to gig. He seemed puzzled by this outcome, endearingly failing to realize that he has just inadvertently admitted that he was only ever in it for the money.
His is an unusual story of creativity monetised. All the stars aligned and somehow made him an earner. The last time I caught the show he was telling a guest how he used to hang out on the “dole” in Galway doing nothing. I could see by the way he presented this that it was some kind of bootstraps legend he had created for himself.
The guest, horse-trainer Ted Walsh, said that Tiernan’s success was a great advertisement for the dole, but that under normal circumstances he would regard someone hanging out on he dole as a “a waster”.
Annoyingly, Tiernan’s “dole” narrative isn’t even true. Or is only partly true. I was an advocate for basic income in the 1980s, and I was one of the people in Galway who deliberately regarded the welfare payment as an arts grant. Tiernan is in fact a great advertisement for a basic income, particularly in the manner in which such payment might facilitate arts practise and production, as it accidently did in Galway and elsewhere in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Back then, when you worked part time on a CE scheme you could earn what you liked elsewhere. I and others used to do this and put our time into producing shows; in my case lunchtime theatre and late-night comedies.
Tiernan was part of this scene, which was absolutely entrepreneurial in spirit. Many of the people on the scene later went working in TG4 and in the Irish film industry, such as it is. Far from sitting around on the “dole” eating spuds, as Tiernan now presents it; he, like the rest of us, was gigging and learning his trade. He was appearing in theatre and comedy productions, including shows I produced, and even back then was getting regular RTÉ gigs in children’s television.
He is the product of what was a thriving arts scene in Galway, so it is disappointing to see him now airbrush out the scene that served him so well and replace it with a mean-minded, even neo-liberal “dole” origin story that makes it look like he monetised his art through sheer individual will. It is also a missed opportunity to make a convincing argument for a basic income, since, as Ted Walsh observed, he is a great advertisement for such a payment.
For anyone who manages to monetise an arts practise in a capitalist society, there are a number of factors that need to align for this to happen. Jordan Peterson goes into this in a YouTube clip “The Scary Truth About Success and Wealth Distribution”, where he looks at the Pareto Distribution curve and Price’s Law to describe the factors that go into achieving a success, and how success then begets success.
The upshot is that in a capitalist system the laws of distribution and chance combine to have the effect of all activity eventually being concentrated in one place. It’s a really interesting observation which makes even more problematic the need for social equality and income redistribution, since there appear to be natural laws that have the effect of naturally creating distribution imbalances and wealth concentrations over time.
But that’s getting away from the point of creativity, though such an observation is itself creative. Rather than trying to figure out how to monetize the arts by the rules of a distorted system that eventually and inevitably pulls all profits to one source, and leaves creative activities like a lottery, with very few winners, the question becomes: how do you go about nurturing creative activity?
The first step has to be in recognizing that creative works, both the creation and receipt of them, are as vital to human existence as food and water. The actor Ethan Hawke gives a good Ted Talk on this in “Give Yourself Permission To Be Creative”.
The next step has to be to decide how to ensure maximum productivity in the creative sector. Because monetizing an arts practice in the present economic paradigm, even before the pandemic, was always a long shot, with very few real economic winners.
The answer to the problem really is two-fold: social housing and basic income, allowing for those who feel so inclined to give their relatively limited resources to creative activities.
There is also a profound change of attitude towards the arts required here, seeing these “assists” not as handouts but as investments, much as investment in farming is justified on the basis of food production. Until these mind changes are achieved, the waste of talent will continue, at a time when, as the autistic savant Temple Grandin observed in her Ted Talk “The World Needs All Kinds Of Minds”: we need all kinds of different problem-solving minds, not just bottom-line economic pragmatists.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet