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Welcome to the Jungle – Michael Steer

During a time when the arts face huge challenges, artist Michael Steer, whose exhibition I WAS HERE has been installed in our Panorama space this season, explores their importance.

Most animals survive pretty well without art. The average life form spends most of its waking hours preoccupied with the pursuit of food and shelter. The polar bear, for example, hunts seals to build a fat store for the winter and then, when the time comes, she digs a burrow into a snowdrift where she can deliver her young in relative safety and comfort. She does not scratch ‘live, laugh, love’ into the walls.

Most of the creatures that do flirt with aesthetics are usually doing just that, flirting with aesthetics. The Vogelkop bowerbird constructs an open plan bachelor pad from twigs before wooing his mate with a carefully curated selection of objects sorted by colour and size. The blue manakin bird has access to such an abundance of food that he can spend his time choreographing a three bird dance routine to impress his mate. His wingmen welcome the opportunity as practice for their own big day. In both cases, the objective is to display proficiency; the bowerbird demonstrates that he is a discerning scavenger, the manakin shows off his athletic prowess. Neither bird is attempting to capture the ennui of a long December night spent alone or the giddy rush of a stolen kiss. The basic prerequisites for staying alive are much more straightforward.

– A Vogelkop bowerbird preparing his nest. Credit: BBC

This is also true for humans. For the 600 million people living in poverty every day a sandwich is significantly more important than a visit to the MoMA. For those displaced by fire or flood, a bedroom is a far more welcome sight than the theatre. Strictly speaking, you don’t need art to survive either.

This probably sounds like a bleak position from which to mount a defence of the arts, but it’s the position we find ourselves in. During times of great calamity and widespread hardship we are forced to reassess our values, and difficult decisions have to be made when resources are scarce. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic is no exception. With lives and livelihoods on the line, the question of survival is brought to the fore and, not for the first time, the arts have to fight to justify their existence.

Given the financial nature of the challenges at hand, we should first look at the cold, hard, economic impact of the Creative Industries. After all, 1 in 8 businesses registered in the UK falls under this umbrella. Prior to the pandemic, these businesses contributed more value to the economy than the automotive, aerospace, oil and gas industries combined, and across the UK the Creative Industries were growing five times faster than the economy as a whole, creating jobs three times faster. The sector currently accounts for over 2,000,000 jobs and this was expected to hit 3,000,000 by 2030. 35% of those jobs are self-employed. In 2019, every £1 invested in the Creative Industries returned £5 in taxes. Every £1 generated by the creative industries generated a further £1.13 in the wider economy, in sectors such as hospitality, manufacturing and tourism. Last year the Creative Industries contributed almost £13,000,000 to the economy every single hour.

This deluge of facts is not hard to believe when you consider the scope of the Creative Industries. Every time you listen to the radio, watch the TV or pick up a magazine, you are engaging with a creative product. Clothing, furniture and buildings are designed by creatives. That boss you can’t get past in Dark Souls? The product of a sadistic artist. 

– Sorry. Credit: Bandai Namco

Every form of human entertainment is touched by the arts in ways that we sometimes don’t acknowledge. Take football for example: the invention of the game itself was a creative act; the stadiums, the kits, and even the ball itself were and are designed. When you watch Match of the Day you are seeing the product of hundreds of creatives at work: camera operators, editors, producers, musicians, lighting technicians and so on. In a world driven by digital interaction and social media, our appetite for content is voracious.

Our 21st-century lives would be unrecognisable without the Creative Industries. We express ourselves every day through our fashion choices, our wallpaper and our taste in music. We find kinship in shared passions and spirited debate in our differing tastes. Imagine the horror of water cooler conversations that are actually about work. Imagine lockdown without art.

– This room could definitely be worse. Credit: Hai Peng

It is dangerous to fall into the trap of looking at Creative Industries selectively, isolating the parts that resonate with us personally as more worthy of saving than the rest. In practice, culture is a complex ecosystem, a vast web of inspiration and ideas. The bands that fill stadiums started out in garages, ideas from the catwalks of Milan filter down to H&M, and the graceful movements of the Bolshoi Ballet inspire film stars to knock out teeth in the most stylish ways. The talent and ideas that fuel popular culture are often incubated on the fringes, in the smallest places, and they have to be nurtured.

Human beings do not need art to survive, they need art to thrive. It is a function of our emotional complexity and our boundless curiosity. When we are isolated it reminds us that we are not alone, when we are bored it makes us laugh, and when the world must be changed it gives power to our voices. Art is what we do beyond the concerns of survival, and as such, nothing defines us more clearly as a species. Food and shelter keep the animal alive, but art nourishes the psyche.



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