Ireland just introduced a new dole, a social welfare for unemployed artists. It’s 200 euro a week, in your pocket, no questions asked. Soon as I heard this, my gut reaction was “can’t be, it’s too good to be true”. And that feeling has stuck with me, even as I read through the government statement, and read through the reasoning behind the decision – but, then a new feeling accompanied my doubt, a kind of murky damp rage. At first, I couldn’t really place where it came from. A committee was brought in to see, no doubt, “what in God’s name is making all our artists so unhappy”, and “why are they fleeing the cities”. Turns out artists in Ireland are living well below minimum wage, can’t afford rent, are suffering long periods of unemployment, and 75% need to supplement their income just to keep afloat. This, evidently, was shocking enough for a right-leaning government in Ireland to give a hand out to the artists – for a period of a year, until they get on their feet.
The rage, I think, came out of a sense of knowing. I know a lot of artists. Good ones. Not ones that do the odd bit of scribbling, or singing when they’re drunk, or got a fancy camera for Christmas one year so now they’re a photographer. An artist is someone who lives off their art. Simple as that. Often though, society champions the idea that to be an artist is to suffer for that art, too. We romanticise the idea of the starving poet, who can truly express all the beauty of ambivalent emotions – all the colour of a lived life, as they’ve lived life to excess, or somehow deeper than anyone else. And, so, only then can an artist work, in some sorry state of despair, to make something beautiful and resonant come about. That, for want of a better word, is absolute bollocks. Artists endure the exact trials and tribulations as any other. Everyone lives through hardship. It’s the ability to articulate feeling that someone handy with a pen, or a paintbrush dedicates themselves to, that sets them apart as an artist – that, and the will continue at the expense of all else. As a result, artists are stubborn, yes, but depressed? No more so than anyone else.
The sadness the government is addressing, in the artist community, is simply because of neglect.
We hold up our artists as the cornerstones of culture. Every nation does. Shakespeare is synonymous with literature in England. Goethe is the same for the Germans. Joyce is Ireland’s bard, and so on, so forth. Some rise so high, their county of origin gets lost in the collective cultural consciousness. How often do you think of Van Gogh as a guy from Holland? He’s of the world. Like Homer, he’s simply ours. (Both Simpson, and other guy I had in mind, now I think of it.) They’re of the world, one of us – they don’t belong to anywhere specific, their reach and impact too vast. We see them as expressions of world culture: Our Stories, Our Songs, Our Dances. And we need our collective culture, as otherwise what are we? Can we be defined by our industry? Cars are wonderful, but culture? I’m not so sure. Even the guitar is only a piece of wood ’till its played. The goal is expression. A car’s goal is transit, alone, until it’s not, until it’s a Deloreon going 88 mph down a road on a projected screen in a theater. Then it’s The Car from Back to the Future, forever part of culture. It is art that defines an object as something else, only then can it achieve cultural significance, and become part of us.
Yet, knowing this, we fob off our responsibilities to the artists. We say, or think at least, “if they’re good enough, the free market will take care of them”. We hold this opinion knowing that Van Gogh died in poverty, at his own hand, never knowing what’d become of his art. James Joyce wasn’t even allowed to be buried in Ireland, as one, his family couldn’t afford it, “his family had to borrow the price of his funeral – in a small grave which could accommodate only one coffin” and, two, the country thought he was a disgrace, dubbed the “creator of immoral books”. The same county, the same state, that plasters his image on every tourist board, and advert denoting “the island of saint and scholars”.
Every gig I play people come up to me and say some version of the following things. But, let’s take last night when I played at a place called “Bitter & Twisted” as an example.
- Can I buy you a drink?”,
- A Compliment (changing in intensity depending on intoxicant),
- “When’s the Album Coming Out?”, and, finally,
- “Keep going!”.
On behalf of all musicians, I think I should try and answer a few of these as best I can:
- No, we don’t want a drink. (usually they’re free)
- And we’re very happy you enjoyed it, but, truthfully, we have no idea what to say in response. So please don’t ply on in this direction too much we squirm up into a ball and die, if possible.
- Soon, hopefully.
- I’ll try, but, truthfully …
… I don’t know how. We live in a society that has equated commercialisation of music with success. The Beatles were pop, and rock, and blues, and avant-garde players pushing music to its limits, and selling millions of records while they did it. And they got away with it, because they were the Beatles! They practically invented pop music. They established the very idea of an album. They solidified the three verse/chorus/bridge style of playing into the norm. They could break all the rules, as they were essentially the ones making them. But, not all were so lucky. During the same decade, John Coltrane and Miles Davis were taking Jazz to the places few have understood and, arguably, none surpassed since. And they barely scrapped by. Davis was so unknown, two police men beat him up while taking a smoke break (at his own show), as they thought “some black man was trying to break in”. They lived hard, bleak lives – battling heroin addiction, being belittled as players of “nothing music” because they didn’t play from sheet music. Thankfully, Europe was more gracious and wise than home, and saw them for what they are, two of the greatest composers that ever lived, and paid a decent wage when they toured there. But, most never came close to financial success – though their influence is lorded up in music lecture halls throughout the globe, most struggle till the bitter end.
If you want to help an artist. Don’t buy them a drink. Don’t root them on along the commercial route. Don’t buy in to the notion that an artist must be selling to be successful. Rather, be their patron. Forget this flash in the pan, dead in the water comericialised approach defining “successful” music and art. Following the whims of the free market gets you Bieber, and puts hormones before harmonies. Do what humans have done since the beginning, support your artists. Buy their work, see their shows, and give them a token of support – be their patron.
James Joyce never lived off his art. Ulysses, The Portrait of the Artist, Dubliners – none of these works would exist today if it wasn’t for one single woman. Harriet Shaw Weaver. Never heard of her? Well, if it wasn’t for her you wouldn’t of heard of Joyce either. She paid him a living wage, and that was enough for him to focus solely on his work. No part time job that sapped his energy, no begging for scraps – she just paid it, quietly, because she believed in him. He wrote her letters of thank you, sent her manuscripts, and kept her up to date with what he did. If you know an artist and you believe in what they do, encourage them by offering a token. As little as a euro a month is enough. I have 10 or so patrons who give me a small sum per month, and honestly, sometimes this is the only way I could keep going, and pay rent in some bleak gigless months, or when a tour just breaks even, and especially while I’m putting every free penny towards this seemingly never ending album fund. I’m proud of the work I’ve made, and how far along my performance has come. I’d do it anyway. But, just because most artists would, doesn’t make art’s value any less.
- If you’d like to give a euro a month or more, go to kilkelly.net/support. Patrons get a free album when it’s ready, and have an ongoing behind the scenes sense of what I’m doing, and where we’re going. The service charges 1% of the donation per month, and I think that’s perfectly fair.