Sunak’s Comments Are No Surprise After Years of Conservative Cuts

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Roar writer Elena Veris Reynolds on the government’s treatment of the arts sector over the past few years.

The past couple of weeks have been a heavy time for all those working in, or hoping to work in, the arts. Rishi Sunak’s comments on ITV News last week, where he seemed to suggest that those in the arts sector should retrain in order to “adapt and adjust to the new reality,” caused storms on social media, as outraged artists spoke in defence of their professions. Merely days later, the internet was yet again up in arms as a government ad surfaced with a picture of a ballerina and the message “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber, she just doesn’t know it yet.” The still-reeling arts community is once again up in arms, defending our jobs and livelihoods.

However, none of these comments, or these adverts, should come as a surprise to anyone who has been involved in the arts for the past few years. Conservative governments have been systematically cutting funding for arts education programmes and local arts services. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate by the coalition government, and the subsequent pressure on schools to adopt it as a qualification, has also led to an abandoning of creative subjects, as neither Music, Art, Drama or Dance are options than can be taken on the qualification. The amount of free music lessons being offered to children is decreasing year on year, and many from lower-income backgrounds are being completely priced out of arts education, as state schools cut art subjects due to lack of funding. Students of my generation will remember how the changes to GCSEs and A levels attempted to make arts subjects more “serious” by increasing the amount of written exams, as most arts subjects are much better suited to coursework.

While Sunak’s comments are damaging, they are just a symptom of the Conservatives’ constant war on the arts; the real damage is being done in the cutting of funding to arts education and organisations. These incidents are not isolated, they are part of prevalent attitudes towards the arts that ensure they remain accessible only to the wealthy and privileged. However, in arts industries that are still so elitist, it feels like some of those who reacted strongly forgot that the arts are not always viable for those without that privilege. Many of the memes that followed, saying that “Rishi’s next job could be in Wagamama,” for example, only reinforce the snobbery present in the Tories’ attitudes. It was frustrating to see certain artists get outraged on social media, when they never cared about the root causes of these problems before – they never seemed to care about job insecurity, workers rights, or the pressures of a capitalist system that cares only about production.

The truth is, many artists have to work and train in other jobs to stay afloat in a highly competitive industry that requires you to put in so much financial and emotional investment before you can even begin to earn a living.  Most of us have long been aware of the difficulty of earning a living in the arts industries, and this is why the Conservatives’ attitude towards the arts is so dangerous. Tory austerity and late-stage capitalism makes careers in the arts unavailable for many. How is anyone meant to create, express themselves and explore ideas when they are living paycheck to paycheck, or exhausted from working three jobs?

Lots of people have been rightly riled up by these recent events, so let’s mobilise that energy to fight for real change and real investment in the arts. Let’s fight together against conservative cuts to vital education services and community arts organisations. Let’s work to dismantle the many barriers that prevent arts from being a viable career option for so many. Let’s organise to create arts spaces that are truly for all, that are organic and restorative, that recognise how vital the arts are in everyone’s lives. Opinions like Sunak’s, and the dangerous policies that come out of them, will only continue to prevail as long as we let the arts remain the domain of the wealthy, white and privileged.

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