Fatima, Cyber, and the Graphic Designer: Loving Useless Art
(Credit: Krys Alex/Cyber First/UK Government)
Tired of your hum-drum existence as a ballet dancer? Wanting to take on a challenging, skilled job in “cyber”? Well, with one hop, skip, and a sauté and you could be in your next job, according to HM Government. Last week a horribly misguided advertising campaign went viral for its suggestion that ballet, and by extension the arts, was the kind of work one found oneself stuck in and was far less desirable than, say, a job in cyber. It was quickly taken down, but not in time to stop it becoming a symbol of the government’s consistent undervaluing and underfunding of the arts. The flurry of responses, including from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, condemned the ad for its harmful implications. Among them was a revival of a trend that returns every time government spending on the arts is under threat. The posts called for people to reflect on how art is a constant presence in our everyday lives, even within the advert itself; typographers, fashion designers, and graphic designers.
(Credit: Guy Cookson)
On one hand, it’s refreshing to see underappreciated, practical art forms getting some attention (I’m sure the typographer was overjoyed), but I think these well-meaning posts are missing the point. By highlighting those art forms which serve a societal function so directly, they inadvertently divide the arts into useful arts, and others. Arts which serve a function, versus those that exist just for the sake of it. It’s a divide that was evident, even when viewed from the other side by highlighting popular entertainment. Towards the end of lockdown, there were posts challenging people who didn’t value the arts to go through quarantine without movies, music, novels, etc. They might have reminded us that our favourite art forms are valuable, but they didn’t make the connection that others are as well. You may not personally enjoy ballet, but it’s not a stretch to say it should still exist. We need to value arts that do not directly benefit us individually.
The posts picking apart the cyber ad tap into a part of that; graphic designers aren’t forged in a void and plonked in front of a computer to produce patronising government retraining campaigns. They come from a visual art background, which needs to be nurtured to keep producing graphic designers for years to come. But did our fictional Fatima’s passion for ballet contribute to that? No. Even if it did, that isn’t enough for sceptics to admit that performing arts are worth government grants and financial aid, or that we shouldn’t all change our careers to something more “necessary”. All art forms are an ecosystem; growing, intertwining, renewing parts of themselves even as other parts are dying. To thrive, all of it needs to be valued and supported, not just the parts that are convenient or most widely consumed. Emphasising how “useful” the arts and the people who support them are is dangerous however you try to spin it. The cyber advert and the posts picking it apart are both sides of the same coin.
One could argue that by highlighting the ways in which art can serve a greater societal purpose, sceptics can see the value in supporting arts as a whole. I am not so optimistic. Even if they suddenly see the rich overlapping ecosystem, it will not extend so far as to say that ballet is just as valuable as cyber and engineering. What is more likely to happen is that the posts will be seen by artists, and the message will be internalised. The need to appease some kind of consumerist god trickles down and smothers creative inspiration before it has the time to bloom. It tells successful artists and performers that they’re less valuable. It convinces children in secondary school to do, for example, graphic design even if they prefer art.
It’s the same clichéd struggle that has been experienced by anyone whose parents wanted them to go into law but chose to pursue dancing instead. The only difference is that we’ve turned those expectations in on ourselves. We’re pointing out the graphic designer instead of the ballet dancer because we are trying to appeal to capitalist concerns instead of defending art’s inherent value. As a critic, I might be called a hypocrite, since I hold performers and creatives to particular standards. I give a numerical value to something that cannot honestly be characterised so crudely. Even so, I’d sooner watch the shows I have reviewed most negatively ten times over if it meant they could continue in their work, as useless and disposable as some may see it.
When we in the arts are told “what you do isn’t useful”, we need to change our answer from “yes it is! Look!” to “so what?”. Maybe with a “fuck you” thrown in for flavour. As soon as we start to engage in a conversation about how useful and productive we are, we are put in a position to constantly justify our existence. We will be forever trying to prove that the work we produce and support benefits our sceptics, jumping through hoops to meet expectations. When defending the arts, we should embrace all of it. Work that lives in the memory for years, and work that is quickly forgotten. Work that is loved by everyone, and work that is slated in the papers. Work that changes the world, and work that's only impact is to wear out a pair of pointe shoes.