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Why The World Needs Artists

For all the times you’ve been told being an artist isn’t a ‘proper job’.

Why am I doing what I am doing? Should I dedicate my life to something simply because I enjoy it?

I’m sat with my aunt over an awkward dinner, and, like many aunts do, she’s asking me about what I’m doing with my life. I explain that I am writing, doing some theatre work, and that I have some exciting creative projects coming up. And, as per, comes the response: ‘yes, but what do you actually want to do?’

It comes as a pinch. A jab in the side, a feeble little nip that, at first, you barely pay attention to –  but after years of prodding and rubbing makes your bones sore and your skin bruised. This idea that, somehow, being an artist isn’t a ‘proper job’. It crops up uninvited at family gatherings and awkwardly over drinks with friends, and although it’s often said in jest, I can’t help but ask myself: why am I doing what I am doing? Should I dedicate my life to something simply because I enjoy it? Would I be bringing more good into the world if I was a brain surgeon, or a firefighter?

At a young age, I knew I wanted to dedicate a large part of my life to the arts; I was drawn to creating, playing, and imagining. Currently I spend my weeks making articles and videos for Rife Magazine, and creating theatre at Bristol Old Vic as part of a residency scheme for young people. Outside of these I also love to write poetry and tell stories; there is little I find more rewarding than captivating an audience. I feel I have achieved a lot in my short time in this world so far, and I am proud of what I have created; but somehow my hard work feels undermined by this constant dismissal. This belief that I’m just getting paid to sort of mess around a bit. That it’s easy and unimportant and not worth arguing for.

I am surrounded by a world that has had every corner touched by the precious effects of art.

And yet, whilst I sit and speculate over if my work has any value, I am surrounded by a world that has had every corner touched by the precious effects of art: the music that was sung in the movement against apartheid, the paintings created by concentration camp prisoners in WWII, the theatre performed during the Elizabethan era. This art has expressed human spirit in its rawest form, filled with passion and pain and beauty, and has both captured the world at poignant moments and provoked real change in our society. It has held up a mirror to civilisation and allowed us to view our surroundings and our ourselves in a different way. And that is why art is so valuable for audiences: it provides reflection, and from that, we can grow. We can educate ourselves, we can see ourselves and others through art and understand that we are not alone. We can heal and find hope in the darkest of days.

For the artist, there is a similar story. A story of self-expression, but more importantly, a platform for them to express their voice. A space to search for truth, and present it loudly and clearly to structures of power. Look to Nina Simone, John Steinbeck, Bob Dylan: people who have taken their lives and the stories of those around them and made revolutionary work that will continue to speak for the masses for years to come. We have a duty as artists to represent people, to listen and observe. Being socially and politically conscious isn’t about making work that is inherently political, it’s about making work the world needs. And that in itself allows artists to be connected to their surroundings, and push society forward to a better place.

And that is why art is so valuable for audiences: it provides reflection, and from that, we can grow.

But it does not only hold intrinsic value. As well as cultural capital, art brings us economic capital, creating 29.5 million jobs worldwide. In terms of the UK, arts and culture businesses made a turnover of £12.4 billion in 2011, and almost half of all tourists’ visits to the country involved engagement with arts and culture. A study into the arts and culture industry’s contribution to jobs and growth in South Africa showed that the it had created between 162,809 and 192,410 jobs in 2014 – about 1.08% to 1.28% of employment in the country. Which means if you want to talk economic value – yes, it is a ‘proper job’.

So, despite doubts as to if my work is valuable to our world, I can say with confidence that as artists our role is key. And I love what I do. Through my writing, my theatre, my performances, I am able to connect with people on a very raw, human level. Creativity can often take you to a place of vulnerability, a place where you discover thought processes and versions of yourself that you didn’t know existed. Sharing that with audiences requires a lot of trust, and I find comfort in that. It is comforting to know I can open myself up, show my colours and be criticised and admired for it. I can do that. I can take all of these endlessly complicated thoughts and observations and untangle them through a poem, or an essay, or a play.

It’s about making work the world needs.

Let us not be uncertain of ourselves. Like firefighters, like brain surgeons, the world needs us – and we too can transform lives. My aunt’s dinner table continues to bear raised eyebrows and uncomfortable questions, although, for now, it seems a more understanding place. A place that thrives in the presence of art. In the words of Picasso, art washes the dust of daily life off our souls  – and there are few greater things than that.

Why do you think the world needs artists? Let us know @Rifemag

Want to get creative? Why not try some printmaking