Precarity and the Arts

Artist/therapist Brian Nichols wrote and made this presentation at the Work, Work, Work: Uncertainty and Precarity in Creative Labour panel on November 10, 2017 as part of the Precarious Festival of the Arts. The text is used here with his permission.

I suspect that what I have to say will be different from the other panelists, and perhaps to some of you, it may even seem that I’m off topic to the theme of precarity and the arts.  Listen to me, before you judge what I have to say.

Let me acknowledge some things about me that may be assumed or known by most people here – I am a middle class, middle aged, heterosexual, white male with perhaps more financial resources and security in my life and in my work than most people involved in the arts.  I also have a doctorate in applied psychology which gives me, at least, an illusion of being an expert in something.

At 50, I chose to leave a secure teaching position that I had held for 25 years.  At 65 I am still securely employed as a psychotherapist and an expressive arts therapist, with retirement an occasional thought, but not yet acted upon. I receive the Canada Pension and a college pension each month for doing nothing.

I make art, yet don’t have an emotional or financial need to sell it, and I only have a slight need to seek approval from others, regarding technique or content.  Being honest, it was difficult to have proposals to Art Space and to a Fogo Island residency rejected last year.  There have certainly been many other attempts to have my work acknowledged in the past but I have conveniently forgotten those rejections.  When work is accepted into a show, I minimize any sense that that is important to me.  I do know what Freud would say.

My recent exploration of the condition of the arts in Canada, makes me profoundly sad.  I am even more despairing because I realize first hand how impactful the arts can be for all of us but especially for groups that we have marginalized.  I could go even further and suggest  that opportunities through the arts to tell our stories, is essential to being human and to heal from trauma.

I’ve chosen to focus on the social and psychological, rather than the economic realities of art creation and on the mental health implications for a community that fails to support artists and more generally to support art making.

Art making is undervalued in our community; while at the same time the title of artist is protected and exclusively held by those who make a living, no matter how precarious, through their art making.  Contrast that with the island of Bali (Indonesia) where the word for person and artist is the same word, inferring that every person is also an artist.  I like that.

Paul Goodman, in his classic 1960s book called Growing up absurd says:

All men are creative but few are artists.  Art making requires a peculiar psychotic disposition.

He goes on to describe that disposition as reacting with one’s ideal to the flaw in oneself and in the world, and somehow making the reaction formation solid enough in the medium so that it indeed becomes an improved bit of real world for others.

And he ends the quote by suggesting:

This is an unusual combination of psychological machinery and talents, and those having it, who go on to appoint themselves to such a thankless vocation (the artist)  are rarer still.

57 years later, I wonder, do we believe that Goodman was right?  Do we still believe that all persons are creative?  Carl Jung emphatically states that this is the case.  Why do we have so few people calling themselves artists?  Even many committed art makers refuse to use the title.  Part of the answer is in the precarity of the profession but that is not the only reason.

I believe that we have allowed the academy with its BFAs, MFAs and now doctorates, to define who can call him or her self an artist and therefore who can make art!  I see this as extremely limiting and until we can admit that everyone is an artist and is in need of expressing the Self through his or her art making, we are in trouble.

John Berger says that “the arranging of artists in an order of merit seems to me to be an idle game. What matters are the needs that art answers.

I also believe that our universities, being founded in intellectual endeavours that give priority to the star researcher, actively exile any notion of generosity.  This is not the healthy environment where creativity will blossom.  When we fail to act towards others, from a position of being a generous host, giving or sharing what we have —rather than taking or claiming territory (whether that is intellectual, or creative) we diminish ourselves and the other.  As an artist, as a human being, I want to share my work and space with others, not compete for limited funding, gallery space or access to the media.

I want to be generous.  When we are not generous, our lives and the lives around us are precarious.

Bear with me as I shift.  If it seems to you that I digress it may be helpful to know that my initial training and work was as an early childhood educator …  graduating in 1974  …  even my doctoral research (completed in 1995)  was about children below the age of 6 and the significance of art making to their lives.

We have allowed Crayola with its ‘just add water colouring books’ and their pre-packaged craft projects to define what it means to make art.  In our primary schools, teachers with no authentic art interest or background are allowed to introduce our children to the art world … and then only very briefly on a Friday afternoon, perhaps, when the important curriculum has been covered.  Even at the secondary school level, careers in the arts are not taken seriously by most school guidance counselors, especially if the student is capable of high academic achievement. Why would anyone want to be an artist if they could succeed in law or business?

Contrast this with the Italian system, called Reggio Emilia. These schools were started by parents who were not pleased with the Montessori focus on math and science to the exclusion of the arts. Parents, in this system hire artists (along with the hiring of other teachers) to bring art making into the curriculum. Classrooms are designed to look like ateliers or artist studios. Time Magazine reported that the Reggio Emilia system is the ‘best in the world’ and we now have a number of these schools in Canada.

I would argue that the practice of art and the identity of the artist are both extremely limited in most of our schools.  I  am convinced that creativity is at least as important as literacy.

Who would design classrooms for 30 children without sinks for washing brushes and cleaning up, after work with clay?  Our classrooms and the desks in them are too small and the janitors are often in charge of what art materials are allowed to be used. The buildings and the adults in them are often unimaginative, and not supportive of creativity. We need messy artists to be a regular part of every child’s school experience and not simply for the occasional workshop or visit.

It is time to change the rhetoric of preparing children for their participation in an increasingly competitive global labour market and indeed to prepare them for life. A life that could be worth embracing.

Let me share some additional observations, that on the surface may seem trite but I believe contribute to the misunderstanding of art making and the importance of a personal art practice by every member, of every family.

I went to the big box ‘party store’ with my daughter and grandchildren prior to halloween to buy costumes.  All of the costumes were based on television and popular film, nothing was original or creative and nothing seemed to cost less than fifty dollars.

I’m in Montreal about the same time walking my grandson to daycare. All along the streets houses are decorated with cheap, plastic, China-made, Dollar Store, halloween ‘art’.  Consumer capitalism now shapes our lives, limiting what we accept as artistic and what we will hang in our windows or place on our lawns.  It also determines who we see as legitimate art makers. Few of us would be included in this elite group.

Halloween is not yet over and the stores are displaying factory made wrapping paper, decorations and cards for Christmas.  You can buy your fake tree, already with the perfect decoration hung on it.  We have been convinced that we are not intrinsically artistic and that others will create, what we must then buy.

Excuse me, but that is such consumer bullshit.

It is my experience that art practice in Canada is ageist and non-inclusive.  Research into the subjective experience of art-making for older people is limited and seldom focuses on non-professional artists.  Most of the limited funding is ear-marked for recent graduates of art schools.  I am not suggesting that people in my financial position should receive these grants but there are many older adults who need financial assistance to continue to make art and the grants should not determine who has access to our limited gallery space.

In my ideal world, older artists with financial means would acquire large studio spaces that they share with younger artists.  All could benefit from such an arrangement.

There are days when, at age 65, without an MFA, I feel like I should not be taking up space in the serious visual or performing arts community.  Nobody benefits from that kind of thinking.

Indeed, it actually hurts all of us.

My life-long commitment to a personal art practice does not seem relevant in the current arts community.  These divisions are arbitrary and hinder our expressions of universal humanness, and they create an us-and-them split that is both unnatural and harmful. I strongly believe that without some kind of personal art practice the individual, the family and our cultural identity are all seriously at risk.

This lack of opportunity for art making in our communities especially impacts groups which are already marginalized. Here I am referring to street involved people, those hospitalized with mental health challenges, people incarcerated, those housed in our long term care facilities and even children in our section classrooms.

I remember a number of years ago being challenged by a participant in a hospital art therapy group I was facilitating for people with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.  She said, “you’re one of us, aren’t you.”  It was a statement not a question.   And I answered honestly ‘Yes”. I may not carry the DSM label but I am a human being and belong to the category of ‘us’.  The number of ways that we put people into separate groups has harmed our ability to see art making as a universal endeavour and to see people as people first.

Part of the precariousness of the arts is that we have made it elitist, in an attempt to have its importance recognized so that those involved in its delivery can have less precarious lives.  We are failing.  Our intentions may be honourable but our approach is wrong.  If other professional groups left their respective fields in the same large numbers as artists do, there would be huge concern expressed.  Artists are struggling to survive and authentic art making has been effectively removed from our rituals, our celebrations and our lives. It must be returned. I would suggest that the precariousness is our society and the artist is simply the canary.

Creative expression can be an effective catalyst, inspiring de-stigmatization and creating inclusive and healthy communities.  We need more people calling themselves artist, and we need artists in leadership positions who put community art making spaces in as high a priority as hospitals, ice rinks and soccer fields.  Why doesn’t every school, along with its gymnasium, have a large designated art making space?  And those spaces must be open to all members of the community, not just students who attend the school.  In the next few years it is predicted that half of the churches in Peterborough will be closed.  Let’s convert at least one of them into affordable artist studios and community art making space.

Even our group homes, hospital psych wards, addiction treatment centres, prisons, and our palliative care units have ignored the powerful healing that the arts can have on people — people who are hurting.

Paulis Berensohn, an American dancer and then potter said,

Art is not a way of making a living.
It is a way of making your life.

I would like it to be both.

Canadian artist, Francoise Sullivan, at age 94, tells us that the arts are a ‘salvation tool’.

I refuse to believe that it is too late.

I believe that we can do better and that it would not take much imagination or effort.