Who will we be without our great concert halls, theatres, galleries and museums? Without gathering together to enjoy theatre, music, art, and culture, what kind of creatures will we become?
Some might argue that such pleasures are the pastimes of privilege and thus unnecessary, but that’s not the case. All over the world and through the centuries, rich and poor people have gathered and performed in theatres, sung and played musical instruments, admired paintings and sculpture, and witnessed the work of their ancestors. These activities have been essential for our development, individually and culturally.
It’s not just about enjoyment. The arts are often challenging, provocative, even disturbing, and they help us to see ourselves, our lives, and our world, in new ways. Some years ago, celebrated Canadian author Sheila Watson spoke “about how people are driven, how if they have no art, how if they have no tradition, how if they have no ritual, they are driven in one of two ways, either towards violence or insensibility.”
In a recent article, American theater director, author, playwright and educator Carey Perloff writes about the importance of those working in the arts as providing essential services. She proposes that the arts have always been essential not merely to provide comfort and entertainment but to shake up traditional thinking in ways that “wakes up our minds and empathy to alternative ways of seeing.”
Has there ever been a time when we were in greater need of alternative ways of seeing?
Perloff is speaking specifically about the need to support theater artists whenever or wherever they return to work, but this article (https://www.clydefitchreport.com/2020/06/artists-theater-acting-company/) is well worth reading with regard to our current attitudes towards the arts and the gig economy more broadly.
Persuasive arguments are often made about the economic importance of festivals such as Stratford, Shaw and Bard on the Beach for their ability to attract thousands of tourists who spend their money to stay and eat and shop in the places they visit to attend theatre festivals. That’s one good reason to support the arts organizations — but the role of the artists who work in those industries are often forgotten!
Just as academics ARE the academy, artists ARE the organizations in which they perform. These are the essential workers.
Some people seem to think that artists are “a dime a dozen,” and certainly there’s no shortage of talented young people who want to work in theatre. But how much better might they be if they were encouraged, supported and valued, and perhaps given a degree of job security?
I’ve heard people dismiss such questions with the rationale that “they love their work.” But, really, I’ve known doctors and dentists who appear to love their work while still enjoying hefty salaries! You can enjoy your work and still get paid for it.
As Perloff suggests, now is an opportune time for us to think about what it is we value and what we consider to be essential. At this time of profound change, the arts may turn out to be much more essential than many of the other things we have considered necessary.