June 17

The Localist: You Are Essential If You Make Yourself Essential

A few days ago, a meme was being passed around showing a picture of a survey indicating that artists were deemed the “least essential” job, eking out the title by a slim margin over Telemarketers. (71% to 69%). The survey was not done in the United States – it was a survey of 1000 citizens of Singapore – but the message was offensive to enough artists in both Singapore and the United States to cause some indignant grumbling in the arts communities of both countries. But are artists essential?

Of course, whether the public thinks a job is essential has little to do with whether the job is actually essential. If you were worried about the poll because you were suddenly worried that your job is not essential, you should know that a poll of randomly chosen citizens is not a very good way to determine if the job of artist is essential or not.

Say the issue is that you are disappointed with the public, because artists *are* essential, and you are angry because the public is wrong about the job of artist. That makes a little more sense. But what does it mean to say that artists are essential? If you were to ask people if “the arts are essential to a fulfilling life” I imagine that a much higher percentage of people would agree. Of course, that’s already a different posture than the one taken in the Straits Times article, which focused on whether essential workers (read: essential in light of COVID-19) should be paid more for their work. So maybe people think that the arts are generally essential to a fulfilling life, but they just don’t think artists should be paid more, or are among the more essential of jobs during COVID times. In context, that makes more sense.

Maybe you’re still unhappy with the conclusions of the poll. Maybe you believe that even in the context of COVID times, not only are the arts broadly essential to a fulfilling life, but *artists* are essential as well! (And similarly artists should be paid more, just like doctors and hawkers! ) But is that right? I mean, when we talk about how the arts are broadly essential, we don’t mean that *all artists* are essential. You could believe that the arts broadly speaking are essential, and consistently believe that *some artists* are essential.

Consider that in order to become a doctor, you need to go through rigorous training and schooling in order to become a doctor. In fact, it’s the doctor’s possession of these skills that makes them essential to the people around them. George needs a heart transplant in order to survive. A cardiologist is essential to George, because cardiologists are defined as people who can, among other things, perform heart transplants, which is an essential need that George has. Expanding beyond George, there are certain needs that society has too – health needs and the need for cures, for instance – that make doctors essential to society at large.

Contrast this with the way in which we tend to define the job of artist – there are no real standards that are required to become an artist. You don’t need to sight read, or go through formal schooling, or be able to read, or draw a recognizable still-life, or make money. You don’t even need to do art about anything in particular in order to be an artist. Literally anyone can be an artist. Perhaps this is part of the every-man charm that the job of artist has for some. Or maybe its the freedom associated with being an artist that people find attractive. But there’s a twist. Being an artist doesn’t even require that you satisfy the essential needs of society – or even of any individual in that society. In fact, you can be an artist and not even satisfy essential needs that you have for yourself. The concepts of “being an artist” and “being essential” do not line up in any neat or necessary way.

Back to that idea that *some artists* are essential. As long as you accept the above enlightened concept of what it means to be an artist, you may be able to claim that “the arts” are generally essential to a well functioning society. You may be able to claim that some artists are essential to society, and that some artists are essential to some people in society. But you won’t be able to claim that all artists are essential to society, or that all artists are essential to some people in society, or even that all artists are essential to at least one person in society. That’s part of what it is to be an artist, that you’re not bound by what is or could be essential to anyone, even yourself.

On a related note, you can’t ignore what is essential to society or to individuals in society and demand that, simply by being an artist, you are thereby essential to society or to anyone in it. And how you respond to the needs of society, or the individuals in it, as an artist, plays a role in the degree to which you, as an artist, are essential.

If your output is driven by social metrics and the fear that irrelevance is a form of death, then chances are your output will not be responding to the essential needs of society or the individuals in it. That doesn’t prevent you from being an artist. But it does mean that there are important sources of value that other artists satisfy and which you do not, which affect your value as an artist, comparatively speaking. Maybe that sounds tough to hear, but that’s how we talk about artists. David Bowie, for instance, is considered one of the greatest artists of his time, and he is lionized because of the way in which his music responds to the essential needs of society and many individuals in it. Smash Mouth, though also very famous, is less celebrated.

This is all to say that artist have freedom, and this is why there is nothing per se about being an artist that makes you essential. Being essential is a choice you have as an artist. You can choose to respond to essential needs in society or of the individuals in it, or you can choose not to. Choosing not doesn’t make you not an artist. But choosing not gives you a much less colorable claim on being essential. Then again, choosing to respond to essential needs also doesn’t guarantee that you will be essential either. Because you can choose to try to be essential and still fail. (Oof.) But what happens if you choose to respond to essential needs and succeed? Then you will, as an artist, be essential. That is to say, as an artist, you are essential if you make yourself essential.