The cost of Failure: Creativity, the Precariat and Universal Basic Income
failure: lack of success, non-success, non-fulfilment, defeat, frustration, collapse, foundering, misfiring, coming to nothing, falling through fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, disaster, blunder, vain attempt, defeat, flop, botch, let-down, dead loss, dead duck, lead balloon, lemon, loser, born loser, incompetent, non-achiever, underachiever, ne’er-do-well, disappointment, write-off; no one, nobody.
creativity: inventiveness, imagination, imaginativeness, innovation, innovativeness, originality, individuality, artistry, expressiveness, inspiration, vision, creative power, creative talent, creative gift, creative skill, resourcefulness, ingenuity, enterprise.
universal: general, ubiquitous, comprehensive, common, omnipresent, all-embracing, all-inclusive, all-round, across the board, global, worldwide, international, widespread, blanket, sweeping, rampant, catholic, inescapable, pervading, pervasive, permeating.
Failure is intrinsic in arts production, an essential component of the creative process. It’s often called creative play; something of itself, an activity without an exact ambition of form or outcome. Whether it is play or failure, as a process it is inherent in creativity; to fail is to reach the piece of work on the other side of a first idea. Experimentation and innovation are the beneficiaries of failure. To have an ambition to only make successful work and thus circumnavigate failure is to make work which never really reaches its true potential. Failure is good, interesting, positive, meandering, unexpected, enjoyable; and sits outside the norm of many other professional expectations.
“To strive to fail is to go against the socially normalised drive towards ever increasing success. In Samuel Beckett’s words: To be an artist is to fail as no other dare to fail.”(1)
If failure in creative process is a desirable positive state, how does failure sit with the economics of running a creative practice? Perhaps less well. Taking risks with practice and failing, Beckett would have us consider:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”(2)
But to fail at the economics of being a practitioner? It is a privilege which only a few can afford. For if we fail too often at the practice of being an artist (putting the artwork to one side) the impact on individual artists can be huge. The outdated nostalgic image of the struggling artist working in a dank garret, or the idea that great art comes from suffering are unhelpful at best and damaging to practitioners at worst. To continually take risks with failure in practice is perhaps to place the business of being an artist in a perilous position. Success must come at some point, or preferably at a series of regular points, to ensure the rent is paid, food is put on the table and utilities kept up to date. Beckett himself was in receipt of an allowance following the death of his father (3) which gave him licence and freedom to fail and fail frequently if desired.
Many artists work on a project to project basis, and in this respect are part of the gig economy, working in structures akin to zero hours contracts and shifting work patterns and pay. The recent UK Government report Experiences of Individuals in the Gig Economy uses the following definition:
“The gig economy involves the exchange of labour for money between individuals or companies via digital platforms that actively facilitate matching between providers and customers, on a short-term and payment-by-task basis”.(4)
We made not be trading labour for income on digital platforms (we may do in part) but many artists are working on a task basis: we call it project working which is effectively a number of tasks held under one project description or contract. The government report emphasises the benefits of the gig economy, but recognises that when this method of working is a primary (not supplementary) source of income the vulnerabilities in terms of working times and pay levels mean individuals can “suffer from a degree of precariousness in terms of a lack of employment rights”.(5)
High on the current arts sector agenda is the issue of diversity in the workforce, which includes explorations of class, and particularly working class, access to the arts through leadership, employment, funding, opportunity and aspiration. Recent reports such as Panic – Its an Arts Emergency, and the work of Rhiannon White’s Class: Elephant in the Room are much needed explorations which increase the levels of the debate around the place class has in the arts.
If failure if a privilege, who is the artist that can hold together creative exploration / failure and business success (or even business subsistence) in the long term? Is it those with economic cushions in the form of working spouses or family backing, private income and savings? If these are the only artists practising, art becomes homogenised and narrow due to the experience base which informed its creation.
In Guy Standing’s book The Precariat he talks of a new dangerous class lacking in both stability and predictability (6) which characterises what many artists face in their working lives. In order to create our best work there needs to be room for autonomy, to make the mistakes, to take risks, to fail; but even that endeavour can come tied to more difficult feelings. Standing looks at the relationship between freedom and anxiety:
“The precariat wants freedom and basic security…..anxiety is part of freedom….Unless anxiety is moderated, anchored in security, stability and control, it risks veering into irrational fears and incapacity to function rationally or to develop a coherent narrative for living and working”. (7)
A desire for a balance between freedom and stability could be met with the Universal Basic Income (UBI); a universal unconditional payment made by the state to each citizen replacing a complex and conditional benefits system. It has been widely debated over the last few years, with a trial in Finland which looked promising, but was recently withdrawn with the reasons for doing so being unclear. Scotland is looking to roll out 4 trials but again details on progress are difficult to track. Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) meanwhile offers a variation on the UBI theme:
“The central proposition is the creation of a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund (UBOF): an effort to reimagine how society supports people to live meaningful, contributory lives. Its premise is simple: fund every citizen under the age of 55 with a £5,000 opportunity dividend for up to two years, taken at a time of their choosing over the course of a decade”. (8)
The RSA proposal offers a middle ground to full UBI, and has the potential to benefit not only artists and creatives but society as a whole; allowing people with caring responsibilities and those wanting to volunteer or study to take that opportunity. The future of UBI or UBOF is uncertain: economic and ideological considerations are still being explored and debated. Perceptions that support of this kind will benefit the work shy prevail, but it is one way to support artists so that they have a baseline income free from conditions, offering both stability and predicability.
“Anyone who ever invented or created anything did so with a modicum of financial security behind them. That’s why so many of our statues are to upper-class white men; that’s why Virginia Woolf needed “a room of her own and £500 a year”. For centuries we have tapped the potential of only a small proportion of the British people; the rest have been powerless to initiate or discover where their true talents lay”.(9)
Of course much like Beckett, Woolf benefitted from a financial legacy allowing her to pay for a room of her own. UBI and UBOF could be ways of encouraging a more diverse range of people to think about the potential of developing a career in the arts, supporting them to ‘have a room of their own’ in which to take risks with failure, secure in the knowledge that at least in part their economic stability is predictable.
Lisa Le Feuvre (Ed) Failure – Documents of Contemporary Art Whitechapel Gallery, London Pg. 12
Chris Power Samuel Beckett, the maestro of failure 7.7.2016 https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/07/samuel-beckett-the-maestro-of-failure Accessed June 2018
HM Government, The Experiences of individuals in the gig economy, Feb 2018 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/679987/171107_The_experiences_of_those_in_the_gig_economy.pdf pg.8 Accessed June 2018
ibid pg. 99
Guy Standing The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London, Bloomsbury, 2011, p22
The RSA Pathways to Universal Basic Income: The case for a Universal Basic Opportunity fund. 16 Feb 2018 https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/pathways-to-universal-basic-income-the-case-for-a-universal-basic-opportunity-fund Accessed May 2018
Guy Standing Basic Income and How we can make it happen Pelican Introductions, 2017, ebook unnumbered page: chapter 8 sub section Creative and Reproductive Labour
Image: Screen grab: The Great British class calculator: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973