Recently I was travelling with an economist, an artist and a doctor. I know that sounds like the set up for a joke, but it’s actually just the first sentence of a love letter. (Or possibly essay. Or a tweet in need of serious editing, I don’t know you, read it and let me know). One morning over breakfast in our temporary Lisbon apartment in the heart of the thriving night life district Bairro Alto, Gretchen (the economist) turned to me and said “I don’t get it. This country is in recession. But there’s art everywhere. There’s all these concerts and festivals. How can they afford to pay artists? Why are artists still working?”
I told her that artists are, in a sense, recession proof. But only in the sense that for most of us what we earn from our art in our best years is what many people in professional jobs would earn in a couple of weeks. Also no benefits. Or rehearsal time. Or sick pay. Or company car. (All this and people STILL want you to work for free all the time.) In the same way that once you’ve jumped in a pool, a little rain isn’t going to bother you, if you’re used to being poor, then (on the individual level) a recession is basically just maintaining the status quo.
Secondly, artists love what they do and will always find creative ways to make their projects happen with limited resources. I know plenty of doctors and lawyers and teachers and chefs who love their jobs too, but most artists have the added benefit of being able to do things on their own terms. I was reading an article recently that advocated the arts in education and one of the key points it made was that artists are resourceful and innovative. They are used to doing things on limited budgets. Sometimes when I work as a creative advisor for commercial companies I have to keep myself from laughing because it takes them twenty times the cost and a hundred times as much paperwork to achieve what I’ve seen friends do on a shoestring budget in their spare time.
Here in Lisbon, I’ve seen abandoned buildings (and there are a lot of them) turned into things of beauty. Three storey murals, prisons turned into art galleries, rubbish bins used as canvases, markets turned into concert venues and a bank turned into a design museum. This last one was my favourite, walking through a two foot thick steel vault door to be surrounded by thousands of tiny boxes that once held immeasurable wealth but now served as a backdrop for art and design felt like stepping inside of some kind of post-capitalist art utopia. Entry was free, by the way.
There are statues of poets all over the place, people shove tiny boats on top of light poles for no apparent reason and music fills the air (Lisbon has a distinct style of music called Fado which is recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity). But more than any of these logical, rational arguments, the real answer is that in times of crisis, people need hope, they need comfort, and they need escape. Art can give you all of this and more, sometimes all in one serve. We shouldn’t be asking ‘why are people still making art in a recession?’ we should be asking ‘why does it take a recession to make us realise the value of art?’