Ann Jaeger on artist autonomy
This essay was originally published on July 14, 2020 as part of Conversations on Art in a Pandemic on SLACK, as part of EC3's Peterborough Arts Alive series of COVID-19 response and recovery programs and services.
How can artists use the opportunity of COVID-19 closures to reclaim their autonomy and become agents of progressive change within their communities?
The arts have been one of the hardest hit economic sectors. We cannot gather to create or present our work, and many of us have lost our day jobs as well.
This historic time out exposes a system that poorly serves the arts.
Capitalism has exploited us by:
- encouraging artists to become commericalized as competitive artrepreneurs;
- using artists as tools of gentrification without compensation;
- forcing artists into unrealistic, debt-inducing higher education streams;
- subsidizing an arts grant system that is insufficient to live on, is an unreliable source of income, requires pre-definition of art projects, thereby stifling creativity, and often excludes non-conforming artists;
- destroying artistic communities, venues and workplaces through inflated real estate values;
- undermining independent artists and arts organizations by rewarding an art star system;
- compensating arts administrators more than the artists they present;
- creating a system of gatekeeping;
- and by profiting from association with artists' caché as changemakers.
Even before this truly unique period in history, artists have begun to rigorously question where the arts belong in contemporary society.
I dream of a world where:
- artists (and everyone else) have their basic needs met;
- artists are not slaves to grant writing and the humiliation of incessant fundraising;
- artists have the time to research and experiment and create work that has no commercial value;
- artists are not forced by necessity into commercializing and selling their work with online storefronts and time-consuming social media marketing unless they choose to do so;
- artists have control over their work and are not dependent on middlemen to present or sell their work;
- artists can be free of low paying second jobs to keep afloat and devote 100% of their time to their creative work;
- arts education is free and available for everyone;
- artists have control over their venues instead of working in unsafe conditions or being constantly at the mercy of exorbitant real estate and developers;
- artist lobbies carry the weight that corporate lobbies do;
- artists are consulted and valued for their ideas and become active authors of a better society.
CERB has been an incredible gift for most artists. Many have been able to recover from burnout, participate in mutual aid initiatives within the larger community and fully engage with their practice for an extended period of time.
There are many theories about how to transform our unjust economic system. Morphing CERB into basic income can be one achievable step towards artistic autonomy.
We can agree that without art there is no humanity, and we have more than adequate data that proves its multi-dimensional value. Why not reexamine where the arts fit into society and collectively ensure that artists have what they need to continue their work, both to fulfill their own potential and for the benefit of society?
Ann Jaeger is a writer and multidisciplinary artist. Since moving to the Peterborough area in 2001, she has written extensively about its cultural scene and has been a critic of regional gentrification. In addition to visual arts exhibitions at the Arts and Heritage Centre of Warkworth, Coeur Nouveau and Evans Contemporary, she has created sets for the Theatre on King and has developed her own independent performance projects through Public Energy’s Alternating Currents. Recently she worked with Anne White and members of Ring O' Rosie Collective to create Company Town, a multidisciplinary installation concurrently online and at Artspace.