Give me a crash course in: social welfare for artists

Most artists subsist on extremely low incomes, usually dependent on several sources

What happened this week?

Last Monday Leo Varadkar and Heather Humphries launched an initiative to make it easier for artists and writers to access social welfare supports.

Aren’t artists and writers usually on social welfare unless they are lucky enough to strike it rich?

No. The rule thus far is that they are immediately shunted into other areas of potential employment if they seek support. Despite Ireland’s illustrious artistic reputation, artistic pursuits have not been officially recognised as a legitimate focus for their energies. And their chances of striking it rich are vanishingly small, rather below that of winning the lottery. The majority of artists subsist on extremely low incomes, usually dependent on a patchwork of sources, and often consigned to a shadowy, semi-official existence.

But do artists actually work? Don’t they just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike?

They certainly hope for inspiration and are occasionally lucky enough to be possessed by it. Unfortunately for them, though, the 99 per cent perspiration, 1 per cent inspiration rule seems to apply even to the creatively gifted. Once, on a morning stroll, George Bernard Shaw encountered a neighbour who greeted him: "Ah, Mr Shaw, you are so lucky to be an artist." Yes, he replied, "I had a great stroke of luck this morning. I finished writing a play."

So, they are not just work-shy?

Generally they work very hard, motivated not by financial return but by a desire, blending into a compulsion, to create. That could be good or bad, but it is usually genuine.


Why don’t they get regular jobs to support their vocational pursuits?

That’s exactly what most of them do. For visual artists, for example, one stand-by has traditionally been teaching, whether part-time or full-time, except that the latter tends to mean what it says. And you may have noticed that as an occupation teaching has itself been under pressure in the recent past. By and large, visual artists and writers engage in a huge number of occupations to make a living, all the while subsidising their artistic endeavours.

Who decides if you are an artist?

You do, is the easy answer. In fact, most wouldn't opt for it by choice. Beyond that it is a thorny issue. When the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was hauled before the courts in the days of the USSR and asked what he did, he replied he was a poet. "Who gave you permission to be a poet?" the judge asked him. "Who gave me permission to be a human being?" he replied.

Very Woody Allen. Would that work in 21st-century Ireland?

Apparently not. At some point along the line politics is inescapably allied to bureaucracy. (It didn’t work for Brodsky either. He was exiled, an experience that produced some great poetry at considerable personal cost).

So who makes the call?

Two organisations have been mentioned, the Irish Writers Centre and Visual Artists Ireland.

A job well done then?

Ministers Varadkar and Humphries are to be congratulated for taking on an issue most politicians have preferred to ignore. It is a pilot initiative, though, and will be reviewed after one year. In the departmental press release there is also a suggestion that the classification “self-employed professional artist” might have a one-year span in terms of accessing the support of the Department of Social Protection. Then there is the question of how the Irish Writers Centre and Visual Artists Ireland fulfil their role.

What about composers, musicians, actors, dancers and other creatives?

They remain, for the moment, outside the net. However Humphries says that, having monitored this pilot scheme, they will consider the possibility of extending it to other artistic disciplines.

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times