Food to the table, quality of life, and a sense of meaning

Johanna Juhola

During the coronavirus pandemic it has become clearer than ever to artists that we live in a time of economic productivity. A time where art and culture are considered an extracurricular pastime. In political decision-making, in contrast to politicians’ grand speeches and gestures, cultural events are classified as non-essential activities.

The cultural sector itself is fighting for its justification and existence by adapting political language, in other words by presenting number-based data about culture’s significance to the economy. There is also information available on culture’s general wellbeing effects, or its secondary effects on the vitality of other industry sectors, but this kind of data already seems all too difficult to comprehend. When necessity is measured by money alone, understanding the fundamental meaning of the arts is ignored entirely: Artists, like everyone else, need food to eat, but at the same time art has an intrinsic value and permeates all areas of our lives.

For myself and many of my colleagues, finding employment in the arts represents a natural continuum from a beloved hobby begun when were just children. Gradually the hobby turned into a job, which never ceases to feel like a joyful calling. For someone looking from the outside, this kind of “for the love of the game” attitude can be perceived as self-serving, but it is not an artist’s job to think about how to make art profitable or able to contribute to mental wellbeing. Nevertheless, the odds are that both of these outcomes are achieved. If even the creating artists themselves diminish the value of art by describing it in an outcome-orientated manner, the danger is that art will keep repeating and recreating tried and tested models, instead of producing creative solutions and managing to create anything new. Paradoxically, this may lead to a result where the multiplicative effects of art are less positive than where art is allowed to blossom according to its intrinsic value.

For me personally, the intrinsic value of art is self-evident. Art manages to reach those parts in me which do not speak the language of reason. Music and dance, in particular, provide a direct route into my feelings. A shared art experience, whether through creating or receiving, increases the feeling of togetherness and empathy, regardless of the participants’ different backgrounds. One of the most significant art experiences for me is being able to capture a glimpse of the deepest essence of humanity and kinship, and some inexplicable way of rising above our mundane everyday details. No other activity gives me such a strong experience as this.

During my career as a musician and composer, I regularly question the significance of my work, when the industry’s chronically scarce resources send their own message that quitting might be a viable option. However, my own strong cultural withdrawal symptoms, brought on by various coronavirus restrictions and getting worse by the month, have only reinforced the appreciation I have for my own and my colleagues’ work. Being aware of the significance of the arts for my own quality of life, and my own sense of meaning, makes me want to remain attached to the arts scene even more than before, wishing to do my own small part.

In the future, I hope for a more fearless and open-minded distribution of resources for the arts and culture, without justifying it with the immediate financial measures.

The writer is an accordion artist and composer, who dared to ignore the rules in May and attended an illegal performance with more than ten people in the audience.