Arts are a luxury. They’re a luxury like beauty. Or democracy. Or justice. Like laughter. Or empathy. Or peace. We don’t need writing, or painting, or acting. And we don’t need composers, comedians, cartoonists, conductors, choreographers or clowns.
And you don’t need to be any of those things. After all, there are plenty of other careers. Sensible, practical, profitable careers. But I suspect, like me, you have a yearning. A yearning to do something different, that feels natural, that you love. Something, in all likelihood, that will inform, inspire or entertain other people too.
I studied English at university because I wanted to write. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I was the kid who made his cousins act out stories on the stairs. The boy who refused to write postcards, and sent people poems instead. At Bristol I discovered other people who saw the world in the same way. We liked the people who made pipelines, but we loved the people who made plays. We shared skills. We shared resources. We shared biscuits. We were interested in more things than we had time for. And some of us, secretly, cried at the news.
Did this mean we didn’t make things happen? Did it mean we couldn’t face “the real world”? No. Because this is the lie we have to fight here, the lie we’re always being told: that arts and humanities people need to grow up, get real, do something practical. That being entrepreneurial means being boring too.
Because we do need to be entrepreneurial. That’s just reality. Funding is tight. Degrees are expensive. But there’s no recession in painting, no deficit of jokes. So I won’t be told to “get real” by a world several trillion in debt. And hard times mean hungry audiences. Last year, despite the recession, film ticket sales went up, not down. It was the most successful year ever for London theatres. And more people visited museums, galleries and archives than they ever have before.
So how can we seize this opportunity? We don’t have to be business to learn from business. We need to be fast and focused and alert to opportunities. We need to know our audiences better, and make them a clear promise of what we’re here to do. We need timelines and deadlines and efficient ways of working, not to limit creativity, but to make the most of what we have.
The real value of an arts degree is not the nine thousand pounds a year. It’s the nine thousand hours a year. That’s the reality: you will be paying one pound for every hour of each university year. So make the most of them. Social media makes it easier than ever to find your kindred spirits. Recession has, ironically, created new spaces for new work. Use every one of those hours to connect with new people, to challenge old ideas and to create a bedrock of work that will kick-start your career.
Arts and humanities graduates do live in the real world. We see its beauty and its strangeness, its cruelty and pain. We see its injustice, its indecency, its incandescence. And we have always found a way to show this, however hard the times. We are starters and doers and makers and activists: people who make something new every day. What we do is a luxury that makes every life worth living. And nothing’s more worth fighting for than that.
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Jonathan Wakeham is a writer. He’s a co-founder of LoCo, the London Comedy Film Festival and a trustee of The Arts Emergency Service. And he’s on Twitter @jonathanwakeham. Follow Arts Emergency Service on Twitter @artsemergency.