A picture speaks a thousand words!
Over the past few days the internet has been in a spin about the photo of the ballerina Fatima, sitting down, tying the ribbon of her ballet shoe. In some ways Krys Alex’s photo echoes Edgar Degas’s painting Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe 1885, capturing the dichotomy of the strength and grace of their subjects. Alex's photo first draws the eye to the suggestion of movement as Fatima’s hands are momentarily suspended just above her right ankle. We anticipate her to cross the laces at any moment and, if you’d hold your breath, you might be able to hear the soft whisper as her fingers caress the ribbon that she is about to kris-cross along her lower leg. Her other foot, bare and with the heel pulled up, accentuating the bulging calf muscle, suggests the athleticism, discipline and dedication at the core of her craft. Fatima's expression is a picture of stillness while giving an inkling as to the focus in this private moment of preparation just before she continues with her work at the barre.
"This has to be a joke? Right?"
But neither Alex’s skill to create poetry through her photography nor Fatima’s talent as a dancer was the focus for the debate that unleashed when that photo joined the torrential networks of social media a couple of days ago. Rather, it was the inscription “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet)” that caused the outrage. The picture is from a campaign by Cyber First, a partner of HM Government which “is a programme of opportunities to help young people aged 11-17 years explore their passion for tech by introducing them to the fast paced world of cyber security.” In response to the photo, choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne tweeted “This has to be a joke? Right?” Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden OBE soon tweeted that “This is not something from @DCMS & I agree it was crass”. But, it was out there and the photo went viral. It flabbergasted, saddened, even enraged many in the arts.
But, you may ask, how can it be so wrong to suggest that someone could have another career which they have not considered yet? Indeed, my podcast "What Would Mozart Do?" has been asking questions around this very subject weekly since June this year. My guests, of whom all are maintaining some balance between a career in the arts as well as outside of it, were enthusiastic to accept invitations to appear on the podcast. They wanted to speak about the transferable skills that the arts in its disciplines teach and how these are valuable in various other career paths. Some guests even frankly addressed the elephant in the room by highlighting the absence or threadbare existence of a structured business skills module with a view on the future in British creative industry specialist educational institutions. In response as the podcast's conversation continues with weekly episodes, I have received enthusiastic feedback and encouragement from various people within the arts industry. This podcast has been referred to as refreshing, inspiring, pertinent, and one reviewer even said it is “a fantastic podcast for anyone working in the music profession”. So what has changed? Why is it that the idea to think beyond one career is viewed as treachery or an insult? What is it that made me feel deflated, undervalued and stuck when I first saw that photo?
So what has changed?
I do not believe that artists do not want to have another career (many already maintain a multifaceted career structure with success). Instead I think it is the sense of contempt which surrounds the issue: the decades of dedication and training required for any career in the arts, many people have felt to be deemed unviable or invalid by the government. The outcry against that campaign is because of the ad’s ill-timed posting and as a result its insensitivity was the last straw. In context, this photo followed on from a difficult week where freelance musicians had to speak up for their survival while the government seemingly skimming around the issue. Millions of people in the creative industries are out of work and they have fallen through the cracks due to loopholes in the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). In response, hundreds of musicians protested on Parliament Square in London and outside Birmingham’s Symphony Hall last week. The Chancellor responded by speaking about the general need for people to retrain in other fields as a result of the pandemic. The launching of the National Retraining Scheme (NRS) was received with mixed reviews to say the least, causing phrases such as “better jobs” or “not viable jobs” to stick in the throats of many. The photo of Fatima, an ad recycled from a 2019 campaign, is timely yet insensitive. One problem is that some Tory politicians have suggested that those working in the arts should go do something "useful", suggesting that the arts are not worthwhile and by the same token neither valuable nor adding to the economy of the UK. Considering London’s West End alone disproves this notion of course. Of course! But unfortunately it also highlights the government's general underlying view of the arts: it's a luxury, a show piece, something to attend to or not at a whim, more so, that the creative industries would make do with what they have.
And, actually, the creative industries have responded with what they have at hand and the only means possible: the musicians protesting at Parliament and Birmingham Symphony Hall conveyed their message peacefully, creatively and with a suffocating pertinence. After playing only 20% of “Mars, Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (representing the proposed 20% cap on the taxable grant of the Chancellor’s SEISS) the musicians remained standing with their instruments poised. Through silence they made the impact of cut down performances more palpable. Various responses to the Government’s NRS as well as Fatima’s photo covered social media with screenshots of satirical rewrites of the NRS questionnaire’s results. Variations on Fatima’s photo had artists putting themselves in the frame, highlighting their own skills or more poignantly, the PM, himself in a tutu, yet to discover another career. But while satire, according to Philip Roth, is “a moral outrage transformed into comic art,” the deeper sentiments cannot be ignored nor its impact underestimated.
An earthquake exposes the strength and weaknesses of the foundations of a city. The pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses in our global society and how these filter through differently from one nation to another based on cultures, permeating all walks of life. That the creative industries have been shaken up in these last months, forcing all to reinvent the industry, is an acknowledged fact. It is therefore perhaps not the suggestion so much of artists needing to take on new challenges or having potentially various parallel careers that are so insulting at this point, but rather the institutional lack of understanding and support of those in the individuals in the creative industries.