If I was going to be a business entrepreneur I would set up an employment agency called Plan D. All of the workers would be artists, actors, writers, film makers etc, all doing humble work to fund Plan A – their chosen art form. Because if you care about plan A, (art, theatre, dance etc) you cannot engage safely with Plan B (drama teacher, arts administrator.) Plan B will suck all your energy away from Plan A. Skip it, and to be on the safe side, skip Plan C too. If you care about Plan A, go to Plan D (cleaner, driver, manual labour) for money, so that your head still has room for Plan A. It would be a practical system to support all the brilliant, creative people trying to pay the bills whilst juggling unpaid work and massive mental commitment that benefits the whole of society; a system unburdened by the various issues attached to arts council funding. Plus, all the people who hired gardeners and cleaners from Plan D would get a warm glow from direct, philanthropic support for artists.
A friend posted a reference to ‘The Cultural Elite’, making the point that almost all of the culturally active people he knew, be it film makers, writer, artists, were in such a precarious position that referring to them as an elite was ridiculous:
“they have no top level access to business or banks, they work hard and create work. They don’t live in a bubble, they live in cheap apartments, poor neighbourhoods and on people’s floors. Every time somebody says ‘cultural elite’ they are just admitting that they know nothing about creativity beyond the colour supplements and that year’s big show.”
Jack Sargeant, Author of Flesh and Excess
There is of course in any sphere of endeavour, an elite. They are by definition, more wealthy and in some ways more powerful. But in the arts, it is perhaps the sea of non-elites that make more of a contribution, certainly do more of the heavy lifting than the elite. And as Jack points out, most of them, like me, are chugging around doing several jobs, living pretty much hand to mouth simply in order to be able to make the work that on completion, society happily claims as culture.
I am not an entrepreneur. I’m an artist and writer. I have been a cleaner at several points in my life, for years here and there. It suits me to have work I don’t care about, is without the vexatious boredom of sitting still that office work would entail, and does not require me to be relentlessly pleasant to people who can be as rude as they like back. If I get a fantastic opportunity and don’t turn up, no one dies, a wealthier person than me just has dusty shelves for a little longer. It’s physical enough to be reasonably healthy and is also fairly well paid, as far as career-less work goes. It works pretty well, given the circumstances.
I haven’t always enjoyed, however, telling people that I am a cleaner. Sometimes I’ve mitigated the fact with a joke that is at least partially an observation – I consider myself a high achiever who hasn’t achieved anything. Sometimes I say “I’m a cleaner, but….” with a following rush of brightly spoken words listing all the unpaid, or poorly paid arts-related activity I am engaged with.
It became a much easier thing to say when a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time flipped a switch for me. She asked what I was doing, I said “writing, blah, but yeah, I’m a cleaner because it doesn’t get in the way.” She replied “Wow, cool, that’s so hard-core!” and suddenly I thought Yes! Damn right, it’s hard-core. I have chosen low status and low pay because I am hard-core enough to find other aspects of how I live and how I fill my time to be far more important than status and pay. It is after all, a triumph!
It became something I was able to pass on as encouragement to my daughter too, who is beginning her career as a dancer- choreographer. She is bold and uncompromising, a wonderful performer. She got a first in her degree and is making challenging work about blood and taboo and the beauty of being broken. I was glad to tell her that she shouldn’t fear being lost in a sea of brilliant recent graduates. Because over time, not all of them will be willing to go through what she will in order to have the career and the chances to dance that she is prepared to demand from her life. Not all of them will take the uncertainty, the rejection, the poverty, the sheer grind. But she will. She is hard-core – she’s a cleaner too. And I am grateful to her and to me and to all of the other people who make so much unrewarded and beloved work. Let’s hear it for the non-elites, let’s hear it for the hard-core.