A few days ago I read a story on the BBC news website about protests at France’s Avignon Theatre Festival. These were by actors, musicians, technicians and others employed in the French arts world and were in response to threats to the subsidy system that funds them when they aren’t in employment. The system is known as the ‘intermittent’ one and it finances people working in areas like film and theatre. You become eligible for pay-outs if you can prove you’ve worked formally in your profession – your creative profession – for a little more than 500 hours every ten months.
Needless to say, the system is not universally popular. It’s loathed by those of a right-wing persuasion who believe that the arts world, and those working within it, should sink or swim according to how much profit is made, like everything else. Also, I’m sure lots of unemployed or under-employed French people in other vocations aren’t happy to see their artistic fellow-citizens get such preferential treatment. Incidentally, the intermittent system is said to account for a third of the deficit in France’s whole unemployment budget.
However, before we start sneering about pampered French artistes getting their pocket money from a mollycoddling establishment, there is one good point made in the article by a musician called Nathaniel Briegel. He reminds us that the 500 hours of official working time on a stage or film-set – when, say, an actor performs before an audience or the cameras – is often just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the amount of unofficial, unpaid-for preparation and rehearsal time that has to go into an artistic production.
Still, even as someone with creative inclinations myself – I try my hand at writing a bit of fiction now and then – it’s hard to feel much sympathy for these subsidised French creative folk. At least, it’s hard to feel sympathy when you look at their situation from a British viewpoint, where it’s long been accepted that if you want to do something creative, you needn’t expect anyone else to fund you while you find your feet. You’ll very likely be spending years, if not a lifetime, washing dishes in noisy, steam-filled hotel kitchens, shovelling excrement out of dog kennels and stacking shelves in the local Sainsbury. And yes, I’ve done all three.
That’s unless, of course, you have the right parents, went to the right private school and have the right names in your address book. But I’ll talk more about that in a minute.
I don’t doubt that some hardship and drudgery, born out of financial necessity, is good for the soul. It’s certainly good for the creative soul since it quickly acquaints you with life as many people, the majority of people, have to live it. And it’s probably no coincidence that the writers I’ve admired most are often ones who had to go out and get their hands dirty doing a variety of weird, though not necessarily wonderful, jobs: Jack London, George Orwell, Herman Melville, etc. Even the more well-heeled ones I like, such as Graham Greene and Malcolm Lowry, needed to get out of their comfort zones and learn at the University of Life in some pretty-desperate surroundings before they found their muse.
That said, some of the arguments made in the BBC article against the French intermittent system are laughable — no more so than when its critics point to the ‘thriving’ arts scene in David Cameron’s Britain, where the ruling class regards such subsidies as anathema. Yes, Britain’s art scene is thriving if you consider art to be all about glossy no-brain West End musicals like Mamma Mia the Musical or We Will Rock You pulling in Chinese tourists by the busloads. And unless you regard as art the latest cinematic awfulness by Richard Curtis, offering audiences a twee, romanticised vision of Britain that really exists only on the lids of chocolate-boxes, the British film industry is hardly something to celebrate, either. Yes, the industry may still be blessed by the presence of a few old-timers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but why is it that any promising home-grown talent that appears, like the young director Gareth Edwards, is almost immediately lured off to Hollywood? (Let’s hope someone nails Ben Wheatley’s feet to the British ground after he finishes making his movie adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.)
I suppose anyone wandering around the centre of London might get a mistakenly positive impression of the health and vibrancy of Britain’s arts-and-culture scene. But that’s in London. As was pointed out in a House of Commons debate four weeks ago, 81 per cent of lottery and private funding for the arts now goes to the capital; whereas in other parts of the country, like the North-East of England, the arts are seriously strapped.
I know about the fragility of such things outside the London bubble from experiences in my own little town, Peebles in the Scottish Borders. There, the town’s Eastgate Theatre seems to have skated on thin financial ice for years. If the theatre closed, it wouldn’t necessarily kill the local arts scene stone dead; but closure would certainly leave a nuclear-sized hole in it.
What depresses me most about the artistic industries in Britain, though, isn’t the imbalance of funding that exists between London and the rest of the country (though that is depressing). No, it’s the gene pool of talent working in them, which seems to get ever smaller as the arts increasingly become accessible only to the wealthy – and as jobs in the arts increasingly become accessible only to the offspring of the wealthy. Having a bulging contacts book, something I alluded to earlier, gives privileged youngsters a huge advantage over their working-class peers. Also, thanks to the curse of the modern-day internship system, often the only way to get vital experience in a creative profession early on is to work in it for nothing. Again, this state of affairs favours the offspring of the well-off – who can work for nothing, and keep on working for nothing, without having to worry about starving to death.
(A while back, in a pub, I got chatting to an old schoolmate I hadn’t seen for 25 years. He’d spent most of that time working as a stagehand and technician in London and he was mightily proud of the productions he’d been involved in. But now he’d become disillusioned with the theatre industry, particularly with its growing reliance on unpaid interns. Not only was it shrinking the talent-pool, but it was putting older, experienced technicians out of work and the profession was losing their knowledge. A lose-lose situation all around – except, of course, for the money men.)
(c) The Guardian
I don’t normally agree with the columnist Julie Burchill. In fact, most of the time, I think she talks a load of cobblers. However, apart from some customary whining about political correctness, she’s pretty much spot-on with this article that she penned recently for the Spectator about how working-class kids in Britain are increasingly shut out of work that’s artistic, creative, in any way interesting. Of the modern British music world, for instance, she notes: “While fewer than one in ten British children attends a fee-paying school, a whopping 60 per cent of rock music chart acts are now ex-public school, compared with one percent 20 years ago.”
It’s just ironic that Burchill wrote this for the Spectator – a magazine whose writers consist largely of the young, and generally ghastly, offspring of Britain’s upper classes.