Whilst recently re-reading Michael Bird’s the St Ives Artists, I was struck by the challenges of being an artist in a post-1945 Britain. It is in many ways commensurate to being an artist post-Covid 19: the brutal economic forecast, the ferment of ideas in life and politics; the re-evaluation of work practices, and the renegotiation of our social practices. All are reminiscent of the post-war period.
Society’s tectonic plates are shifting. The eruption of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, not just in the wake of the death of one man, but the years of systematic undervaluation, neglect, and de-humanisation of whole segments of society, and most recently by the disproportionate deaths in the BAME community due to Covid 19, has led to actions and demonstrations which will drive change. The outcry about the increase in domestic abuse during lockdown, already underpinned by the rise of the the ‘Me Too’ movement, has highlighted sexual inequalities and mental health issues within the fabric of our society. Brexit (almost forgotten but about to re-rear its ugly head), the increasingly isolationist position of the US under the Trump administration, and the uncertainty over China’s undoubtedly much greater role in the world economy, all echo the shifts and uncertainties of the post-WWII landscape, albeit with different players. Add to this the enormous economic burden the state is about to shoulder in the aftermath of our extended socio-economic lockdown and we begin to see a similar picture emerge to that in the post-war era: one in which artists and creatives will be reframing their practice and leading the way to a brighter future.
The economic rhetoric ‘post’ Covid has been almost entirely doom and gloom, with talk of the economic toll and of a new ‘lost generation’ of students seeking work. But even though post-war Britain faced similar challenges with its decimated economy, design and manufacturing restrictions, and rationing, there was persistent talk of ‘a better life’. A strong current of hope and optimism shone through: the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the V&A in 1946 flew the economic flag for the arts, followed by The Festival of Britain in 1951, established Britain as a beacon of change and helped her forge her image as a world leader in the post-war years. Since then art has been at the forefront of positive change in this country. This more positive outlook is echoed in current talk of transitioning to greener lifestyles and a greener economy as we head out of crisis conditions. The hope is that some of the good practices, which have sprung from the need to socially distance and stay safe, will remain in place and be built upon as we ease out of lockdown.
Despite the disproportionately adverse effect that lockdown has had on the arts sector (partly because of social distancing restrictions and partly because people often stop spending on the arts first), the post war ‘can do’ spirit is carried on in the UK’s arts community today. Artists have continued to make and show work, self promote on social media, build websites, apply creative thinking to solving engagement problems, and set up alternative tuition and sales streams throughout lockdown. We are all having to explore new ways of showing and selling our work, of communicating with students (a close friend has been engaged in Zoom singing lessons throughout lockdown), of putting on performances and most crucially, of networking. Projects, performances and exhibitions spring from the cross pollination of ideas and opportunities. Artists are working hard to keep the imaginative spark and conversation alight in these dark times.
I have heard more positive talk and seen more positive action coming from the arts sector than from any other. Not only have large funding bodies such as Arts Council England done their best to support individual artist and NGO arts organisations over the last few months, they have also promoted the arts during the crisis by bringing performances to the public – most often free of charge – and providing news and guidance to the arts community. Alongside this, independent initiatives such as the Artist Support Pledge, (started by Matthew Burrows to help artists support each other and drive sales),have helped keep the art economy ticking over during lockdown. There has also been a tumult of artistic performances and exhibition ‘freebies,’ offered up from large and small arts organisations across the country to ease the tensions of lockdown for wider society, and to retain engagement and help buoy up the public spirit. And now galleries and theatres are some of the first public spaces re-opening where we can gather in ‘socially distanced’ environments to relax and feed our souls.
Naum Gabo said that ‘human culture is not just a construction of leisure and pleasure’ but that it is like a ‘gigantic spring which must be wound up’. Michael Bird goes on to say that the ‘artist’s job is to service that mechanism, to be the engineer responsible for the maintenance of society’s soul.’ Artists are stepping up to the plate, bringing their £10.8 billion per year industry in to play to help lead this country out of darkness.
The arts sector is a shining light in the dark space that Covid 19 has forged. People are looking to that light now – as artists we have quite a job to do!
Victoria Burton-Davey is a professional artist and art educator working in Cornwall, UK.
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