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The Tory ‘art panic’: Why the Conservatives have always hated creativity

From funding cuts to encouraging artists to retrain for jobs ‘in cyber’, the UK government have never respected the arts industry

It’s an understatement to say the arts industry has been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Art has taken a serious beating from cuts issued by the Conservative party: from slashes to funding for art teachers, to the Department for Education releasing a list of postgraduate training bursaries for 2021 which included no arts subjects at all

The government’s lack of appreciation for the arts has also negatively impacted wider creative scenes. Vice and Music Venue Trust last year reported that 390 music venues are currently at risk of closing due to a lack of government support during the pandemic, while Art Review revealed 25 per cent of art businesses were left not trading at all because of restrictions without support. The government has never been subtle about their disdain for artists, but things came to a head during the pandemic when 2019 adverts suggesting that artists retrain (in “cyber”) resurfaced online.

Furlough schemes and employment resources have been offered to the majority of workers in traditional industries, yet next to no support has been provided for artists. Most artists are also self-employed sole traders, who received little support during the pandemic and couldn’t access financial aid at all if they’d been working for less than three years. 

The cherry on a truly awful cake is that universities are now under pressure from the government to analyse their art courses to see whether they’re successful in getting students into jobs that help the environment or contribute to UK culture. Courses that are deemed “low-value” face being cut. An entire industry has been discarded by a government unable to recognise its worth – but why is that?

It seems that the Tories are in an ‘art panic’. They’ve made it clear that, when it comes to careers, they only conflate value with direct, high economical contributions. In layman’s terms, the government wants Brits to make shedloads of money, and prioritise stable, conventional jobs over ad-hoc, unreliable work – which art, admittedly, can be a lot of the time. Tories have long prioritised money over, well, everything, and there’s a long-held idea that artists can’t make money easily (we’ve all heard of the ‘struggling artist’ trope). When running a country whose economy is in free-fall, it’s understandable that they’d look for weak links and try to eliminate them. 

But this idea about art being an unemployable industry is a myth. Back in February 2020, before the shit hit the fan, the government revealed that the UK’s creative industries were growing more than five times faster than the national economy, contributing almost £13 million every hour. In reality, one third of creative arts graduates are working in arts, design and media professions – all areas directly related to their degree, according to a survey by Prospects Luminate. Overall, 50.2 per cent of respondents were in full-time employment, with an additional 20.6 per cent in part-time employment. 

The Conservatives not appreciating the importance of the arts is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Artists aren’t contributing as much to the economy because their platforms and resources have been taken away. The dent in the art world’s contributions – which only dropped from £10.8 billion to £8.5 billion by the way – was down to the cuts themselves. Their disregard of the arts’ importance also means that fewer well-paid traineeships, entry-level jobs and internships are on offer, and the ones that are available are more competitive than ever. This is deepening racial and economic disparities, as only middle to upper-class students can afford to take on these low-paid, entry-level jobs.

So if it’s not about economics – and we’re assuming the Tories did do the maths before whipping their scissors out and making cuts left, right and centre – their hatred of the arts could be down to something more sinister. Art does, after all, have a unique ability to give power to people from minority backgrounds: research has found that art is a powerful tool to promote equality, health, wellbeing and inspire cultural awareness, social connection and change. “[Art] can help people imagine what it’s like to be someone else, and understand the issues around gender inequality,” the report reads. Many artists have gained notoriety by challenging social norms and even calling out the government directly – we’ve seen this many times: from the anarchic punk rock scene in the 70s, to Act Up’s Aids awareness campaigns, to Emory Douglas’s work for the Black Panthers – and that’s not exactly in the government’s best interest.

Whether the attack on the arts is about money, power, or both, the government is not justified in their means. The financial case to save the arts is clearly there, but what about the emotional case? The cultural case? It would be laughable (if it wasn’t so sad) that the government is assessing art degrees for ‘cultural value’ when art defines culture. 

Art has a value that goes beyond the realms of capitalism – something right-wing politicians will likely always fail to understand. Not one of us could have survived without music, TV, films or art during the pandemic. Art is what keeps us sane, happy, and thriving. It inspires us to be more sensitive, provides escapism, and creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value – and this is a lesson the Tories will never learn.