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Rishi Sunak is wrong: the arts are essential

Written by Rhianne Ward

Artwork by Hasadri Freeman (@freesadj)

If you have been on social media or watched the news in the last couple of weeks, it will likely not have escaped your notice that the chancellor of the exchequer has been under fire for comments he made regarding the arts sector. Rishi Sunak, in an interview with ITV on Tuesday 6 October, suggested that creative people may have to retrain amid the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. Although it appears in hindsight that ITV News’ Twitter account somewhat exaggerated his claims for the benefit of a killer headline - one that the politician himself refuted shortly afterwards by claiming he was simply suggesting that there are more opportunities elsewhere - the message remains the same. The government does not respect, and will not further support, our creative industries.

The sad fact is that without opportunities within the arts, people who are not independently wealthy will simply not be able to train and work in that sector, denying our culture not only of so much vibrancy, but also it’s vital diversity. I could speak to you about the many ways that this sector contributes to our economy and our culture. I could speak to you about how crucial art is to many people’s livelihoods, education, and mental health. I could speak to you about how, as someone training and hoping to one day work in the creative industries, I am personally outraged and shocked by this statement, no less the fact that it was made by a senior member of my own government. In short: we are angry. Instead, I would like to give you just a couple of examples of creative people without whom our lives would be infinitely more dull.

‘Lee’ Alexander Mcqueen (1969-2010) has often been heralded as one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century. Coming from a working-class, London background, Mcqueen broke fashion’s every convention with an eccentric, charismatic persona. He was still on benefits whilst designing his first collections, using found and cheap household items like clingfilm to make his clothes. The thing that made his work so powerful was Mcqueen’s ability to be incredibly provocative. He made clothes that transcended fashion into art and sculpture, asking questions about sexual violence, sexuality, disability, the macabre. By pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the catwalk, featuring the aggression and chaos of his own life in every single one of his shows, Mcqueen confronted designers with a single challenge: use your imagination.

Stormzy is an immensely successful grime artist and a huge advocate for black rights and empowerment in the UK. Like Mcqueen, he rose to stardom from modest beginnings: born in Croydon, London to a Ghanaian single mother, he grew up around gang violence and political unrest. Gang Signs & Prayer was the first grime album to top the UK Albums Chart. This is hugely influential if we consider how, as a genre, grime is generally dominated by young people from poorer areas of London and speaks to youth about issues surrounding gang culture and knife crime. The effect that this exposure has on lifting people out of this environment and normalizing different cultures cannot be overstated. Politically, Stormzy is well known for using his substantial influence to endorse the Labour Party and openly criticize right-wing ideology and policies. Along with donating a lot of money to charities promoting racial equality and starting his own scholarship fund for black teens, the grime rapper has used his performances as a platform to make strong political statements on more than one occasion, notably when he wore a union jack decorated stab vest in reference to London’s knife crime problem. In his own words: ‘Black people have been playing on an uneven field for far too.’

The huge contribution made by these, and many other, working class artists to British culture is clear. We should not, and cannot, defund the arts sector. Providing equal opportunities in this time of crisis to people from all backgrounds is crucial.

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