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Creating Great Arts in Hard Economic Times

Is Poverty An Artistic Stimulus? - Steve Evans
Tough periods for the arts and practitioners can be inspirational, producing original and challenging work; but is it necessary to suffer for the arts?

As recession haunts the early 21st Century, and budgets are cut to tackle government debt and borrowing, people ask: What is the role of the arts in hard times? How do they help people deal with both social problems/crises and their own private fears?

Writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, 23 October, 2010, Mark Hudson wondered: ‘Is austerity the mother of creativity?’ As a writer himself, he described the difficulty of earning a living writing, particularly in the UK, but said that financial pressure can act as creative spur when people are forced to be inventive to survive.

The same may be true of arts organisations, theatres, dance studios, writers’ centres and groups, evening classes, galleries and museums. In past financial crises/cutbacks in public spending, few such places actually closed permanently.

The Starving Artist in His Garrett

There are examples from literature, film, music, paintings and photography of exciting work created under suffering. Many Impressionist painters died in poverty, their legacies paintings that sell for millions. Artists Vermeer (11 children, lived in poverty and debt) and Vincent van Gogh unable to support himself financially in life; jazz musician Charlie Parker’s drug habit kept him poor; composer Franz Schubert died in poverty at 31; and William Wordsworth and his sister were poor at first, often begging friends for cast-off clothes.

William Blake (1757-1827), poet, artist, engraver and visionary, experienced abject poverty and died in relative obscurity, generally regarded as eccentric if not totally mad. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) influenced English, French and American political philosophy but died in poverty. Prolific US writer William Sydney Porter (pen name, O Henry) (1862-1910), business failure, spendthrift and alcoholic, died broke.

Charles Dickens’ 1854 novel Hard Times was mostly written for monetary reasons. Sparknote described the context: ‘Workers, referred to as “Hands”, were forced to work long hours for low pay in cramped, sooty, loud, and dangerous factories. Because they lacked education and job skills, they had few options for improving their terrible living and working conditions. With the empathy he gained through his own experience of poverty, Dickens became involved with organizations that worked to alleviate the horrible living conditions of the London poor’.

According to Finnish authors Petri Liukkonen and Ari Pesonen (2008), George Orwell (1903-1950) who’s real name was Eric Blair ‘lived as tramp and beggar, working low paid jobs in England and France (1928-29). He picked hops in Kent as a migratory laborer and once tried to get himself arrested as a drunk to have knowledge about life in prison. Orwell’s experiences in poverty gave material for Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), however he was never a full-time vagrant, but stayed every now and then with his older sister or parents, and plunged to the lower depths of society like an explorer’. Orwell wrote: ‘The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people … Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work.”

British pop group UB40, named after the 1980s’ unemployment benefit claim form, became a high-selling band around the world, with reggae-based music. The impression/rumour, if not total reality, was that all the band were unemployed, driven to seek music business fame and fortune with unique musical styles because of it.

English painter LS Lowry (1877-1976) was famous for his industrial scenes from the 1920s northern England in his unique style (urban landscapes peopled by matchstick men) portraying the reality of working class grafting, Although his mother died in debt, he neither lived nor died poor.

Commentator Donald Pittenger writing at 2Blowhards suggested Industrial Design flourished during the depressed 30s. He recognised the 30s/40s as a ‘golden age’ for the Hollywood movie (42nd Street, King Kong, Mutiny on the Bounty, Modern Times, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca, to take a few).

He identified German arts creativity during the 1919-1933 Weimar Republic; French arts thrived ‘1868-1878 as the country stumbled through the final years of the Second Empire, defeat by the Prussians in 1870, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the burden of reparations to the German Empire in the years following the war’.

He argued post-war Italy experienced tough times, yet produced quality films and designed outstanding cars and fashion. ‘Clearly, bad times do not necessarily mean bad times for the arts’. He also asserted that better economic times neither are bad for arts.

Songs from Slavery and Suffering

Without denying the hardship, unfairness and brutality of war, slavery and torture, the fact is that such things have enriched creative arts (songs, drama like Pinter’s One For the Road, novels, poetry, cinema). Slave songs from the USA, for example, became part of the mainstream catalogue of today’s global cultural/musical fabric.

America’s public media enterprise PBS said, in describing the soundscape of slavery: ‘Today, slave music is usually grouped in three major categories: Religious, Work, and Recreational songs. Each type adapted elements of African and European musical traditions and shaped the development of a wide range of music, including gospel, jazz, and blues’.

In The Soul Review, John Ponomarenko said: ‘The fact that contemporary soul descended from an amalgam of Gospel music and R&B is beyond question, but if we trace its roots back still further we come to the point from which all Afro-American music evolved, slave songs. Before the Civil War, the crime of helping slaves to escape was punishable by death. For this reason slaves started to put coded messages into their songs, so they could communicate in ways that the ‘massa’s’ could not understand’. Trouble, strife, fear and hardship: the essence of music, poetry and literature.

Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, was accused of creating songs to commit suicide by as a master of misery. Lowry and van Gogh both unintentionally inspired songs (Pictures of Matchstick Men by Status Quo, 1968 and Vincent by Don McLean, 1971), in just one example of how the arts feed off each other. How arts are created through misery is still a matter of debate, while remembering that genius and madness can be close relatives too..

First published on Suite 101, 30 October 2010.

Photo: Is Poverty An Artistic Stimulus? – Steve Evans

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