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  • Writer's pictureJamie McCarthy

'Bullshit Work' in the Arts and Education Kills Creativity.

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

8th August 2015

The last two summers I’ve had to sign-on for job seeker’s allowance. It’s something I hadn’t had to do since the early nineties, but those composing projects that, as a freelancer, used to see me through the holidays from teaching just seemed to have dried up. Despite reminding myself that I’d paid into a system that would mean I could get support at times like this, I couldn’t help feeling disheartened: as I approached and passed the age of 50 it didn’t feel great that my life as a musician and teacher was such that I had to head back down the job centre. I reminded myself that there had been massive cuts to the arts and lots of people weren’t getting funding that used to, or if they were, were getting less. It was a struggle not to feel like I’d failed to make it all work – despite a strong awareness of the practical and psychological effects of austerity politics, there was a bit of me that colluded with the insecurity that I think many of us feel as artists (we’re not good enough - who the fuck do we think we are anyway? - I’m past my sell-by-date … blah, blah, blah) and led a part of me to internalize the fuck-ups of our current set-up and feel like a failure.

The brutality of the current set-up for signing-on was a shock to the system (I could go on at great length, but it’s not really the focus of this post): I saw an over-pressured signing assistant (or ‘work-coach’ as they’re now called) delete the claim of a young guy who was five minutes late – the fact that he’d been kept waiting downstairs for twenty five minutes and wasn’t let up for his appointment – well that was beside the point! I myself was eventually told that as I’d had to sign-on the summer before, this constituted a pattern of employment, so I should have predicted it and budgeted it accordingly: since over the last year I’d averaged more than £74 a week (!) as a freelancer I wouldn’t be entitled to JSA. (As I pointed out, one year out of all those since the early ‘90’s hardly suggested a pattern of employment, in fact rather the opposite).

On the other side of it, there is the ridiculous adoption of a kind of neo-liberal ‘coaching’ mentality. When you sign on, the ‘work coach’ (who admitted to me that she had had no extra training to merit this new title) gets you to go through lists such as ‘My best qualities as a person’, ‘My best qualities in relation to the kind of work I’m seeking’. All filed away and ignored once the time has been wasted filling it in, but you know, it’s like, the government is really helping people think in the right kind of positive ways so that they can make it look like the jobless numbers are going down … erm sorry, I mean, help the ‘jobseeker’ find work that suits them. When asked what my best qualities in relation to the work I was seeking were, I said: “I compose really nicely”… my work coach duly wrote this down without the slightest indication that she thought I might be having a laugh with her.

The real point of this post is a comparison between those last two summers and this one. Those two summers were filled with anxiety and pointless administrative tasks: the whole time-consuming process of signing-on and then meeting the ridiculous number of job applications that you have to do per week, despite the fact that for someone looking for the kind of work I did, the idea of making a job application is a nonsense. My life was taken up with meaningless activity and the anxiety that accompanied it, all of which contributed daily to that feeling that I was actually a bit of a failure. By contrast, this summer, where somehow I am just about managing to scrape by without applying for JSA whilst I think about a new field of work that I could get involved in, where I’m writing and reflecting, producing little bits of sounds that I’m sharing here on Facebook, having great conversations in person and online about stuff that really affects how I (and it seems clear from these conversations other people) actually live. It’s giving me space to question what’s happening in this country right now and imagine how it might be different. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the whole system of signing-on is in fact designed to prevent those sort of things from happening!

And it struck me … I’ve seen and experienced this in other places: in education and arts funding. Conspiracy theories about the system being designed to stop us thinking, dreaming and questioning aside (and I must confess, those theories seem more and more plausible to me the more I experience and reflect), in some ways it doesn’t really matter whether it’s designed to achieve that or it’s simply a pernicious by-product of a poisonous ideology: on the ground, that’s the effect it has.

In education I see again and again, immensely imaginative, generous people who I know are capable of revolutionary thought (and despite all the pressures, still valiantly manage to come up with it!) being exhausted and swamped by ‘frameworks of excellence’, assessment criteria, feedback on feedback on feedback (which may well, through a lack of time actually to deal with it, never get acted upon), re-submission of validation criteria, being seen to be operating in a way consistent with equal opportunities (ah! - if only the appearance of operating in accordance with equal opportunities policies actually made any difference to equality of opportunity) … blah, blah, blah (again) … All of which, like the meaningless and time-wasting job search requirements of the DWP, actually militate against those things being achieved, let alone questioned, dreamed about, re-invented! Legions of inventive, intelligent, creative, imaginative, generous human beings, who are supposedly employed because they possess these qualities, being placed within a system that day-by-day crushes those precious human essences out of them.

In arts funding it means artists spending their time and energy in developing and employing skills that will keep them busy, anxious and a spending high proportion of their time, actually away from practicing the thing they do well. They will be constructing business plans, career paths, marketing strategies, and more and more, as explicitly demanded by funders, feeding the monster of online and social media self-promotion (despite the fact that the funders won’t allow for the payment of this activity within projected budgets).

And the thing that worries me perhaps the most, is that forcing artists and educators to spend so much of their time meeting these demands, is that it’s not just a neutral waste of time (as if that could in fact be a neutral thing), but in forcing people to engage in these activities … these projections of certainty … these quantifying, qualifying, categorizing bullshit jobs (as David Graeber might describe them), the systems that enforce these activities are actually changing people from being what it IS essentially to be an artist or involved in education (either as a ‘teacher’ or a ‘student’). Art and education NEED doubt and uncertainty. They need NOT to be projected and predicted. Art and education die when this bullshit way of thinking is imposed on them. As the poet John Keats said:

‘ … it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason …’

It’s time for a rebellion of the uncertain, of the unpredictable, the non-quality-controlled, the uncategorisable, the unquantifiable!

I wrote a song about this a few years ago. The recording, as usual with my songs, is kind of rubbish, but I’ll sign off with that:

‘Oh, aching rows and columns of my spreadsheet

Oh, totals and sub-totals of the soul

Numerical perfection’s not possession

Quantifying, qualifying

Fuck them fuck them fuck them

Fuck them fuck them fuck them fuck them all’

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