Like many of us living in the slowly boiling pot that is 2020, you are likely to have also despaired at the government’s most recent belittling of creativity, independent thinking, and the possibility of an existence beyond STEM spurned by this week’s much-memed, much-maligned adverts for professional retraining in the vague field of ‘cyber’.
Sparking ire online was a series of posters featuring action shots of various professionals at work (think retail staff, baristas, manufacturers) overlaid with the message that their subject’s ‘next job could be in cyber’, they ‘just [don’t] know it yet’. The adverts were originally from a 2019 marketing campaign pushing jobs in what appears to be digital security. The most rage-inducing of these was the now-infamous image of ‘Fatima’, a ballerina who, the advert suggests, has a career spent hunched over computers and navigating Zoom etiquette to look forward to now that her performances are cancelled indefinitely.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with reminding people of their career options. But there’s an unspeakable arrogance and ignorance in the assumption that individuals can simply ‘retrain’ and ‘reboot’ their professional lives in an entirely new direction on a whim. Surely the rising unemployment figures during this pandemic – not to mention the already inflated gig economy built on precarious zero hour contracts that disproportionately trap working-class, low-income, and early-career employees in roles they’re overqualified for – demonstrate the difficulty of finding any secure work at a time where lost revenues and funding are forcing companies across all sectors to downsize and freeze hiring.
Likewise, these images speak to a tacit disdain for jobs that don’t fit into the pseudo-aspirational model of Conservatism, in which everyone could fulfil their dream of white collar nine-to-fives in industries like ‘business’ and ‘finance’ if only they tried a little harder. It’s a bland and patronising vision. If life under lockdown has revealed anything, it’s the importance of all types of labour to the everyday functioning of our society, from supply chains to transport to entertainment. More so, it’s how these jobs that the government apparently regard as ‘filler’ form the foundations of our communities. You can’t put a financial value on local experts offering sales advice, creating local hubs, or making your coffee – nor how these encounters build a sense of home. God forbid someone in the twenty-first century wanted to work in a manual or service position out of a love for their product or their customers.
Ads like these make me think of the countless new graduates, especially those in creative fields, entering a wasteland of a job market that the government seems content to let burn; of my mother, a single parent working multiple jobs against cuts to her sector to secure housing and opportunities for her family. Bluntly put, adverts like these don’t inspire me to retrain into something ‘productive’, but remind me of the increasing hostility our government has towards British workers and the British arts industry – perhaps the final objects of whatever national pride remains in me after years of watching Westminster’s austerity, xenophobia, and isolationism.
It’s telling that specifically the poster featuring a dancer has been shared and lamented most widely from the campaign. Clearly much of the public, who depend on the arts if not for their livelihood then for their sanity, are weary of the dispensable way in which they’re treated and which her image symbolises so well. I for one could not have endured the isolation and boredom of months stuck at home this year without binge-watching Netflix, bulk-buying books, the distractions of digitised exhibitions and festivals, or slowly gearing up for another academic year with my own writing.
There’s the added blindness of a government that seeks above all else to reduce public expenditure without recognising the huge returns of arts investments, all the while bleeding taxpayer money through inadequate track and trace systems and nepotistic PPE contracts. Every pound of public funding going to the Arts Council’s national portfolio organisations pays back £5 in tax contributions from the sector as a whole, yet this knowledge is still insufficient to convince a powerful minority to support those hit hardest by COVID-19 restrictions. It is ironic that the production of this advert decrying the audacity of a dancer working in her own field would require the employment of countless photographers, costumers, set designers, copywriters, and other creative workers, who perhaps should have invested in more ‘secure’ industries, according to the government.
Rather than threatening artists we should be empowering them. This moment, more than any other in recent history, is one that must be recorded for posterity so that we might learn from our mistakes. When we look at the greatest art of the past century, how much was inspired by the seismic changes of war, protests, crisis? Even at the height of the Great Depression, the U.S. government paid unemployed Americans to contribute to public projects, including those in the arts. This work enabled the largest recording of memoirs by formerly enslaved African Americans, and the production of concerts and plays across the country, giving some of the most influential artists of the era – Orson Welles and Zora Neale Hurston among them – their big breaks. Not a bail out, then, but an investment in the future and our heritage explicitly through the arts.
After all, what is art for? It trains us in empathy and compassion – to see things differently from how they have always been, to imagine new ways of thinking, living, and communicating with others. A dancer like Fatima, whose feet might blister and muscles ache through the constant practice necessary to her craft, could teach the public far more about the values of hard work, passion, and determination than any member of the present Cabinet’s miscellany of career politicians and ex-bankers. Now more than ever we desperately need to interrupt a status quo that allows gross inequalities to persist politically and economically, and such action starts with dignifying labour in all its forms – the arts included.