Essential Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in too many changes to enumerate. Many of these changes are material or behavioural. But some are psychological. People’s attitudes have evidently altered with respect to more or less every facet of life, whether it’s the value of work, free time, travel, material consumption, or anything else. One change has been an increasing recognition of the value of ‘key workers’—those workers who are deemed essential even when a viral pandemic forces governments globally to institute unparalleled restrictions on various freedoms. These are the doctors, nurses, cleaners, supermarket staff, etc. that we have heard invoked so often during the height of the early pandemic. Life without these people would be unbearable and now we see just how (see, for instance, here, here, and here).

I welcome a reassessment of such workers’ value to society. Many of them are treated as fungible cogs in an often brutal economic system. The scale of the economic, political, and social inequalities from which such workers often suffer is well-understood and I won’t run through the figures here (I will simply refer readers to this excellent online infographic as a rhetorical shortcut).

That said, I want to register a qualification. I believe that in the rhetoric of re-evaluation, one group of key workers gets overlooked: creatives and artists. If anything has become apparent during the various ‘lockdowns’, it is that, for millions if not billions of people,  beauty and aesthetic and creative value more broadly have become a psychological bridge suspended over the yawning chasm of social isolation. There has been a renewed appreciation of nature, gardening, and DIY activities. But there has also been an increased appreciation of art and other forms of creative entertainment. Consider, for instance, how the recently launched Disney+ streaming service hit 50 million subscribers two years earlier than predicted as the pandemic hit its stride.

It’s a somewhat contingent feature of the creative economy that what is conceived and produced today will only receive wide release several months or years hence. This feature has created the false impression, I think, that artists are not essential or ‘key’ workers, since we have continued to enjoy beauty and entertainment despite their constrained activity. Many of us stuck indoors or away from loved ones can still drink from the swollen reservoir of art and entertainment siphoned through websites and streaming services (check out this insanely high resolution Rembrandt from the Rijksmuseum, for instance). But, were the current social arrangements to continue long enough, this source would run dry, at least for certain kinds of art. I venture that life would be so much worse for it. Unbearable even.

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