NOTE: I’m delighted to be once again cohosting a “virtual residency” with my friend and colleague Francois Matarasso on my blog and his. (You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT—that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. Here’s the link to register.
Download our full dialogue formatted for the UK or for the US (if the links aren’t working, try a different browser or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the PDF you want via email). Or if you prefer, you can read an excerpt each day at our blogs.
Here’s the eighth installment.
Part 8. Where to Now?
François: Let’s talk about now and what any of this means for the world that we now live in.
Arlene: Well, there’s more interest in these ideas. A group here called Imagining America, a consortium of universities with art, design, and humanities programs working in partnership with community organizations, gave me this award, but they couldn’t have the conference this year because of the pandemic so they’re doing a virtual thing. I offered them a few ideas for my presentation and they chose the new WPA idea. This will be in October, and the election will be a few weeks later. If Biden wins, that’s our potential opportunity to have some kind of public service employment program. There are a few big questions about the feasibility of that. There’s almost like a cellular memory of those arguments about wasting public money because it’s doing frivolous things or it’s supporting leftists. There’s worship of the marketplace and how it can cure everything and government shouldn’t be doing stuff like employing people to do things that aren’t as essential public roles as killing and imprisoning, so there’s that. I may well be wrong about this but my feeling is that the fact that the arts people are thinking of it as a special arts program may scuttle it. I don’t know how much policy folks are considering it as a general workforce remedy for unprecedented level of unemployment. I’ve seen articles saying we need a new WPA, but I haven’t seen something concrete. It may be being discussed in backrooms.
But it’s worrying that I haven’t seen many general proposals that we need a new public service employment that arts work could be a part of. In the United States, we have a very small unionized workforce. It’s like 11% now and I think 9% of it is public employees. The big unions—the Communication Workers, United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, are still there, but it hasn’t been a conducive environment for unionization since Reagan. The unions have reasons to not want to have something like public service employment because they’re not union jobs. If the government is going to support job creation, they want them to support the creation of union jobs and in the nature of public service, salary, benefits and duration will always be lower than private sector employment. But I’m not sure exactly what general conversations are going on because I’m not part of it. That connects to the obstacle that you and I have talked about so much: a universal program versus a special one for artists.
François: There are some places where the special interest approach can work. One is the French system where if you have irregular work as a stage manager or a technician or an actor, so long as you can show that you have had work for 13 weeks in the previous 12 months, then you’re entitled to a different regime of unemployment support for the periods when you’re not working. That’s a marginal thing in terms of what we’re talking about, but it essentially says, yes, this work is precarious and we don’t want to put you through the same process as somebody who’s lost a job and is just looking for another job, because you just have a kind of casual work.
The other thing I think might be the way to make this work is to make this a scheme for the under-30s. It’s that generation who are hardest-hit by this pandemic and its economic consequences. Young people who are not going to be able to get their first jobs. And that I think government understands that if people don’t get into the workforce young, then there’s evidence that has long-term consequences. So it might be wise to say that we want an employment scheme for the young because even for the people who are against it, it’s much harder to say, “No, we don’t want to do this for the young.” Then artists can be part of that. And that’s when it’s a good time to be a community artist—before you’ve got dependents. You can live in a much more freewheeling way when you’re in your early 20s, you’ve got the energy to do that. So that could be viable.
Arlene: Americans for The Arts, the US arts advocacy group, is putting forward proposals and younger people are a big piece. There’s a thing here called AmeriCorps. It started as a teacher corps, but it has other aspects to it too. Most people sign up right after they graduate from college. There are different forms of compensation, pretty low salaries or a scholarship to go to graduate school. There was legislation passed before Trump was elected that said that there could be an artist corps as part of this. But the funding was never allocated for it. So that’s probably the piece that’s most likely of being approved.
I’m ambivalent about it. It would mostly be for people who went to college and just came out, though they also had some retirees, but that was the target demographic. I guess it makes the most sense in a time like this because it could conceivably give people paying work for a year or two. Theoretically, the economy could start to rebuild in some way and there’d be more of a chance of finding jobs. What I didn’t like about it before the pandemic was that was in our real situation here, there’s just tons of experienced people doing community-based work that are older —30s, 40s, 50s, and on up—and there’s nothing for them because pre-pandemic, practically everything that was put out in terms of fellowships and stipends by mostly private sector entities like foundations, the key word was “emerging.” I cannot tell you how many times I was asked to write letters of recommendation for people that I knew and worked with who were like 30 years old, to be in a program that people who I thought were way more needy and deserving of support for the work they were doing couldn’t get because they weren’t emerging. But I see how it fits the moment and I defer to that.
François: There’s a political argument to make that could have some traction. Already the UK government has announced what looks like a pretty mean scheme to take on people for 25 hours a week, but they have to be young people. And some people are saying that we could use that in the arts. One of the moral hazards, as economists call them, is that you will have some organizations who’ve laid off staff using schemes like this, to take on kids on minimum wage or less, to do things that they’re actually not qualified to do. But I do think that there is political traction with doing something around young people and I also feel very strongly that it is really right. Those 18 to 25-year-olds, unless they get a break now they’re really going to be struggling. So I would argue for an employment scheme for that age group as the lowest-hanging fruit.
Arlene: Are there political obstacles to that? Earlier, I named these ideological obstacles to public service employment over here, even if the need is great. I’m just wondering if that’s true there too.
François: We have the same obstacles in Europe to different degrees, and they’re couched in different ways. In France there are already initiatives for the young unemployed. It’s a lot harder to imagine job creation schemes for across the whole workforce. But it’s not impossible. I still think there is hope for the universal basic income. And I’m not saying it’s a short-term thing. But to me that that will be the most effective way of supporting people who want to be artists, to give them a basic minimum income. And then after that, let them get on with it and see what they can do.
Arlene: I agree.
François: My biggest hesitation about all the schemes for artists is that—this may be the biggest difference between European experience and the North American experience—is that essentially we’ve had a cultural policy which has put most of its attention to the supply side of the cultural economy. So, in the last 70 years, it’s built theatres, it’s built libraries, it’s built cinemas. And it has then employed people to operate them and created grants programs for freelance artists. So it has created a powerful and often high-quality cultural offer. But it has struggled to get people to want the offer the art world has created. And that’s the difficulty. It’s why I used the phrase in one of my blog posts about ‘peak culture’ – have we just expanded to the highest point, and perhaps to a point beyond what is sustainable, and we don’t need as many artists being paid and living from their work as we have maybe had in the past? That’s a difficult thing to say. And how you get from there is not obvious or easy. I’m less convinced that more programs that put money directly into artists and only into artists is the right approach, not least because you then have to decide who’s an artist.
Arlene: I understand the peak culture thing. That was used by Livingston Biddle who was NEA Chair during Reagan. He was saying, oh, we’re oversupplied. This is 40-50 years ago. The reason I don’t buy it is because only a small fraction of the people who want to be artists are employed or subsidized in any way and the rest are hustling along with their waitress jobs or whatever. And they still want to do it. And I know that was true for me. There were times I had jobs that were related to being an artist, but there were times that I had jobs that supported me that had nothing to do with being an artist. That’s huge, lots of people. So there’s already a culling mechanism and it’s based on the existing criteria of whatever are deemed appropriate qualifications or credentials. If a decision were made that we’re over-supplied, then they just amp up the criteria of the culling mechanism.
Over here, it’s really different because the funding is so little, it’s a few cents from the federal government to each person. The real value of the NEA budget is less than half today what it was in 1980. They would just use the new culling system to further privileged institutions over people who are working in more informal situations. I have to step back and look at the whole pie and say there are people doing so many kinds of work that are not needed by the society. Look at the prison-industrial complex and what our government is pouring into the world’s largest prison population. How much of our commonwealth is going to that? I’m more coming from shifting that and not so much in the peak culture thing.
So, we both think that a possibility that some employment initiatives of some kind will happen, whether they’re universal or targeted for artists. What happens is subject to political opinion and the evolution of the economy post-pandemic, whenever that comes, and we just don’t know.
François: And that’s where the situation of young people is important. Because I think it’s how you can mobilize political support among the wider community for what you can do for young people.
The A Levels exam scandal has become a politically resonant moment in the UK during this pandemic. It touches millions of people. There is this sense that we are at risk of failing a generation if we don’t help an entire generation get into the world, both through the exams and then getting them into work. That is a platform on which you can genuinely build a coalition of people who would care about that and say, we need a young people’s employment initiative and you can tie it to environmental work, artwork, a whole set of stuff that is worth doing. And there are real jobs like that. Give young people a chance to do some good in the community.
Arlene: A good part of our conversation would be to brainstorm the different grounds for buy-in. So the young people would be one. In the States right now everybody has money to give away, saying we’re prioritizing people of color. That’s our story because of what’s happening here, the full emergence of the scale of structural racism and state violence. So that’s another premise, based on the actual movement of money.
There’s a larger more philosophical question too. What is work? The very definition of work needs to evolve as we’ve seen it evolve in the past. A hundred years ago, what work was is not what work is now for many, many people. Here in the States, if we focus on clean energy, dial back on prisons and wars post-Trump, then there’d be the potential to say, what are the kinds of work that our communities need to rebuild, to restore, to revive, to heal? And most of that isn’t being provided by the private sector. The private sector isn’t going to come into Kenosha, Wisconsin now and go, let’s give all these kids who were in the street arts jobs or jobs working on infrastructure.
François: That brings us back to the point that you brought up at the beginning of all of this, the question of social goods. Work has to produce value for society. That value can be cutting hair, plumbing people’s houses, but it can also be doing a dance class with elderly people. We just need to understand that these things have value and that value should be the test. Selling derivatives doesn’t produce much value.
Arlene: That’s a good way to put that argument: it could support the creation of social good that that can’t be sustained by the private sector.
François: It goes back to two ideas about how work confers dignity on people because their effort produces something that other people recognize as having value. The knowledge, the mastery of being able to do something or having a trade, conferred dignity. I’m probably old-fashioned, but I think there are ideas about dignity and work that are to do with knowing things, being able to do things, and that was as much true of what has been women’s work, where skill and craft and even beauty brought respect. It is a really important part of our sense of self-worth as people and members of communities.
Arlene: I think you’re right, but that is a partial truth. When you’re asking what kind of dignity comes from selling stuff, your critique is of capitalism, because capitalism needs an endless number of salespeople. If you look around in any city on the planet, sales people selling you something—even just your coffee—are the biggest category and there’s not much mastery in it. Although the baristas do have those contests for making their foamy designs. But even when many people were in trades—my father was a house painter, my stepfather was a plumber, and they definitely did have knowledge and pride in skill. But there’s an awful lot of guys digging ditches at the same time. Women washing someone else’s floors and laundry.
François: Yeah, you’re right.
Arlene: So I don’t think we can say work exactly. We feel the same about having work that incorporates skill, mastery and respect, that confers dignity. I agree with that proposition. It’s just a lot of people don’t fall under it.
François: It reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between labor, work, and action – and I’ve always seen community art as falling within her concept of action.
Arlene: Right, acting in the world somehow.