Role of the dole: How benefits benefit artists

Without ‘the other arts council’, almost a quarter of artists would earn nothing while – and sometimes after – spending years…

Without 'the other arts council', almost a quarter of artists would earn nothing while – and sometimes after – spending years on a body of work. The artist is alive and well in the garret, writes PATRICK FREYNE

IT HAS LONG been seen as “the other arts council”. Generations of musicians, artists, film-makers, actors and writers – including this journalist, in a former life as a musician – have spent time working on their art unpaid and with the help of the Department of Social Protection. Those in the culture industries generally recognise this as a necessary fact of life. In order for Ireland to develop a clutch of James Joyces, Riverdances and U2s to cement its arts reputation internationally, thousands of committed artists must toil for little or no reward.

Before the welfare state, the options for artists were: have rich relatives, find a wealthy patron or starve in a garret. After the welfare state those who might never have had the option to create could do so while on the dole. There are high-profile examples. JK Rowling wrote the first instalment of the Harry Potter sequence while living on benefits. Many of the punk, post-punk and pop bands of the 1970s and 1980s were formed in the dole queue.

“Without the [dole] you wouldn’t have had The Specials. You wouldn’t have had UB40. You wouldn’t have had The Clash,” says Peter Murphy, the writer of acclaimed novel John the Revelator and, a long time ago, a musician on the dole. “Now, it’s worth arguing that these kinds of bands were so ambitious and resourceful they might have figured it out one way or another . . . But the reality is that if you dedicate your life to the arts you’re essentially taking a vow of, if not poverty, then extremely menial living.

“If you work for four years on a book and someone gives you 50 grand it sounds like a lot of money, but if you break that up over four years of writing, and four years of learning how to write in the first place, that’s a very menial wage. Some newspapers like to portray artists as hookah-smoking Oscar Wilde dandy types sitting by a turf fire, but the reality is, I’m afraid, far more North of England kitchen-sink drama.”

In The Living and Working Conditions of Artists, a report published by the Arts Council in 2010, 23 per cent of the artists surveyed had registered as unemployed in the previous year. In 2008, according to the report, artists earned less than €15,000 from their art. Noel Kelly, the director of Visual Artists Ireland, says 37.5 per cent of the visual artists it surveyed last year had received assistance during the past five years. “Most depend on other sources of income, on the income of spouses or on the dole.”

The current economic conditions mean artists are particularly dependent on that very meagre latter option. “We have graduates getting out of college now who would traditionally have subsidised an art career [with a job] in academia, but all those jobs have gone,” says Kelly. He stresses that these people work very hard and do not want to receive the dole. “Artists are constantly asked to do stuff for nothing. Some exhibitions are great and pay artists a small stipend, but there are many organisations that just don’t have any money and artists are so willing to show their work that they work for them anyway. Artists often work for two or three years on a body of work with no money until the end.”

Frank Buckley, the artist behind the Billion Euro House in Smithfield, in Dublin’s north city, a construction made of decommissioned bank notes, is on the dole. “Over the past eight months my work has been seen in 113 countries and featured in national newspapers all over the world. People just presume you’re making money when they see that. When you tell them about the reality, they say, ‘Ah sure, it’s only a matter of time . . . you’re famous.’ But I live on €188 a week. My mortgage is in arrears, and only for the guy giving me [an empty office building on Coke Lane] to use, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

This perception of success can lead to problems when artists turn up at the dole office, and Kelly says the way the system deals with artists is inconsistent. “Of those we surveyed who had sought social welfare, 23 per cent were told to apply for alternative jobs, 14 per cent were threatened with the removal of benefits and 27 per cent noted variations between social-welfare officers. A lot of them are encouraged to get out of the arts.”

This is a shame, because art needs time. Jinx Lennon, Dundalk’s fine political songwriter and punk poet, who is playing at the Liss Ard festival today, says his own artistic development benefited greatly from an involuntary spell of unemployment a decade ago. “At the moment I have a sort of a night job,” he says. “About 10 or 11 years ago I wasn’t working. I didn’t have much money but I found something that was worth a lot more – the ability to create. I was on the dole and I could have used that time vegetating or getting stoned or watching TV, but I decided I had a lot to write about and I needed to get it out. It was about finding my art, if you like. The anger or the energy I had from being on the dole: I found that if I could just get the thoughts down on paper that was really, really good. And now I’m really grateful for that time because I was able to start and give myself a kick.”

Julian Gough, a novelist, musician and playwright (see Culture Shock, below), who also left the dole queue a long time ago, agrees that when it comes to art, time is of the essence. “Samuel Beckett had a very modest private income, James Joyce had hand-outs from Sylvia Beach and my generation had the dole,” he says. “It’s how most artists I know bought the time to become good at what they do. Without it I don’t think we’d have had any of the great artists, stand-ups, writers or actors we’ve seen in recent decades . . . You have to immerse yourself completely in your art to become good at it and the dole is one of the only ways a lot of people can achieve that.”

Obviously, this subject raises questions about the role of welfare. Many feel that unless artists make their art work economically in the short term, they should change profession. However, most successful artists did not start their careers with economic success, or even solvency, and nobody wants art to be the province of the independently wealthy. “It would be really interesting if there was someone in every social-welfare office who was at least trained in or had some facility with the arts and could engage with artists coming in to claim the dole,” says Murphy. “It would be very forward thinking and progressive if artists could come in and sit down and honestly say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s my work and here’s what the Arts Council says. I’m not taking the mick.’”

Kelly has been trying to arrange a meeting between Visual Artists Ireland and the Minister for Social Protection to discuss the problems struggling artists have with the system. He is also advocating a version of the New Deal of the Mind that operates in the UK. The scheme references the original New Deal in the US in the 1930s, which included unprecedented levels of state funding to the arts during the Great Depression. “The New Deal of the Mind takes the deficit of staff in the culture sector and matches it with artists registered as unemployed and looking for additional employment,” says Kelly. “There are all these cultural institutions around the country that can’t deliver the programmes they have because they don’t have the staff. This could address that and give artists work.”

Gough thinks it’s important to make explicit something that’s usually just a whisper: that the actors, writers, artists and film-makers who enrich our culture often need to claim benefits. “The dole is incredibly significant for the arts in Ireland, and that’s not well acknowledged,” he says. “It’s not a luxurious life, by any means. It might be nice if artists could get a modest income to acknowledge that what they’re doing is culturally useful. It would have to be less than the dole, though, to stop people pretending to be artists to get it.” He laughs. “Maybe just a symbolic euro less.”