Features Published 12 October 2020

It’s time for artists to speak out against government gaslighting

As artists come under pressure not to bite the hand that feeds them, Angelo Irving argues that it’s time to see the government’s actions for what they really are.

Angelo Irving

Rishi Sunak during a recent appearance on ITV News

I’m old enough to remember March 2020, when the media were falling over themselves to proclaim the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak as “Dishy Rishi” and Prime Minister in waiting. The Job Retention Scheme was seen as almost unbelievable act of generosity and the British people were supposed to line up and tug their forelocks in appreciation. Yes, it was a golden time, unless you had been in a job for less than a year or worked in an industry that required large numbers of people to congregate in small spaces. Industries like the creative arts.

Sunak’s star has since dimmed somewhat, and he has had to weather criticism after an ITV News interview where, after being asked whether he was suggesting that people that work in arts and music to just go and get a new job in a different sector, responded “That’s exactly what we should be doing”.

This government has long tried to toe a line between being seen as culturally “hip” whilst maintaining and increasing the inequality gap. It is not a coincidence that on Wednesday, a viral tweet highlighted the contrasting headlines on the BBC News website.

I guess we are supposed to forgive this because Matt Hancock is a grime fan, as he proclaimed in a recently resurfaced article that he penned in The Times. Reading that article now, where he says he is a fan of Lady Leshurr and Skepta, this line stands out:

‘As a grime fan, I know the power of the UK’s urban music scene. I have the great honour of championing British music around the world.’

How fascinating that he recognises the value of Grime, a genre born out of the same parts of London where more than a quarter of black boys and men aged between 15-24 were stopped and searched during the lockdown, with more than 80% of those searches requiring no further action.  These are the same parts of London where lack of funding has closed down youth centres and libraries, two places that promote socialising and creativity. I wonder how he feels about Skepta’s grime contemporary, Stormzy, and his views on the government and Boris?

When Hancock thinks of Grime, I wonder if he considers the sound engineers, DJ’s, theatre and stadium workers and all the people associated with the industry? I wonder if he considers the smaller artists?

Grime artist Chiedu Oraka has over five million streams on Spotify, but he still finds that “live (music) is the main way how artists get money”. Hull, where Chiedu hails from, has lost iconic music venue Welly to the shutdown, whilst another popular music venue The Polar Bear was only saved from closure by a public campaign. Chiedu said that the uncertainty has affected his “relationships and mental health”. 

The government’s failure to support the arts is felt just as acutely in the theatre; many artists took to Twitter to highlight how the government’s career questionnaire had suggested that they retrain as boxers.

Still, there is an elephant in the room that Nastazja Somers, a theatre maker based in London identifies. Somers points out that you “cannot have a conversation about what has happened to the arts during the during this pandemic without talking about class, and that needs to be a nuanced conversation and I don’t think right now Britain is able to have that conversation on any level.” Too often, theatre in the UK is seen as a middle-class pursuit, and there can be a disconnect between its leaders and its lowest paid workers. There was much anger when Delfont Mackintosh Theatres cut jobs in August, resulting in more than 650 staff out of work, amidst claims that billionaire owner Cameron Mackintosh had shown an “unwillingness to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in full”. The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in theatre, beholden as it is to billionaire backers and government subsidies. It may be a middle-class pursuit, but, as with grime (which, it should be pointed out, is not subsidised by the government) when jobs are lost, it is the working class that suffer most.

Theatres are currently waiting for news on their eligibility for the government’s £1.5 billion pound Cultural Recovery Fund, but the truth is, as they are acutely aware of, is that that number is a drop in the ocean compared to the £111.7 billion that the industry is worth outside of the pandemic. Somers explains that funding for UK theatre is highly political; “In Germany…70% of the (theatre) budget is state subsidised…here 70% of theatre’s budget is ticket income.”

And here we see the bind that theatre leaders are in. A lot of the best art speaks truth to power but how possible is that when that power currently has the ability, through inaction, to allow art to die? Last Saturday, Outgoing Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz marched alongside theatre and art workers in protest at the lack of government support for the sector. Would she have felt able to do so if she were intending to stay in her position? Would the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse have wanted her to do so? The arts are in a double bind: they need government assistance to survive this crisis, which makes it potentially dangerous to create art that criticises the government’s handling of the crisis. 

The stakes are high; is it any surprise that it is online where you will see the most cutting critiques of the government? Whether it is my satirical character “Black Boris”, Josh Berry’s “Special Advisor” or Munya Chawawa’s many parodies, it is the artists putting out content for free that have been leading the way in holding the government to account, unburdened by the fear of losing funding. However, the harsh truth is that likes and retweets don’t pay the bills, and unless we are able to secure sponsorships or paid work from the content we produce, we will be forced out of the arts at a time when more people than ever are accessing the arts through Netflix, Amazon Prime TV and NTLive as well as TikTok, YouTube and many other sources. Without funding consumers suffer as well as artists.

What little criticism of the government there has been has been met with a fierce backlash from the press, with the Daily Mail describing artists that have spoken out as “luvvies” looking for “government handouts”. This loaded language has echoes of the critiques that have, over the last year, been levelled at doctors sounding the alarm at working conditions, teachers worried about the health implications of teaching in a pandemic and lawyers fighting for the government to follow the law (recently dismissed as “do-gooders” by Priti Patel). The press paints artists that highlight what is happening to them as simple villains. 

Yet one thing about this government is that, given enough time, they will make any group of people a villain. At any point that there is the potential for dissent, this government is ready with a scapegoat. In the same way the groups above were not in the wrong for demanding better from the government, neither are people in the arts that call on the government to do more. We need them to do more than talk about a love for the arts – in this time, actions speak louder than words.

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Angelo Irving

Angelo Irving is a writer and performer who created "Black Boris", a satirical take on the Prime Minister in popular online sketches, as a means of raising awareness of sociopolitical concerns. He is also a member of the "Black Guys in a Box" podcast. You can find his sketches on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok

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