"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Here’s what our education secretary said recently at a conference to promote science and technology learning. Here’s my reply.
I left school in 1986. I did two humanities degrees. Jobs, as you may recall, were not thick on the ground. I did a business course first, not because I wanted to but because, oddly enough, I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it would give me a solid, useful career in which I could contribute to the national economy and make my father happy.
Then I came to my senses. I ran away from the business course, which made me want to kill myself and a number of other people, and did two humanities degrees. I spent eighteen happy, poorly-paid years in archaeology. My specialist field was – as it happens – the archaeology of industry, and particularly of mining, which was so vital a part of my own Northern landscape and culture. I come from Sheffield. I need no lesson from a Tory Minister to tell me how important manufacturing, industry and technology are, nor what happened to ours in the Thatcher years.
After that, I went into poetry and arts administration, running National Poetry Day and building projects both large and small across the UK. I’ve been pretty successful, as it goes, in the terms by which you might define success. My father, as it turned out, wanted me to be happy more than he wanted me to be rich.
My career was ‘limited to the arts’ as a science graduate might have found her career choices ‘limited to science’. That, I expect, is why we each chose to train in the field we wanted to work in. You say dismissively that “if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose.” My experience is otherwise. I chose the appropriate qualification for my chosen career, as I’m sure did James Dyson. The fact that there is more money in vacuum cleaner design than poetry is not his fault.
Creative work is not, as you seem to think, a kind of work which can be done by anyone with rice paper and blunt scissors, and for which a science degree might be equally useful. My choice did not ‘hold me back for life’. It made my life possible, meaningful, and one in which I could offer service to other people. Admittedly, my work does not generate for the UK the same kind of revenue that my stepfather brings in by inventing and building machinery for export. I employ no-one; my contributions to the national economy have been small. My contributions to the national debt, likewise.
I don’t pretend, of course, that an economy can be built on ballet and radio drama. But do not pretend, Ms Morgan, that a nation, a culture, a whole and healthy Britain can be built on scientific instruments and coding.
What kind of government values only material wealth? The kind of government, it seems, that appoints as Minister of Education a woman who curries favour with an audience of scientists at the expense of other sectors. It was a horrific glimpse of the lip-service paid to creativity, and the glistening robot underneath.
Art, you imply, requires no specific training. Poetry, painting, music – these are the things that we do in our spare time. They aren’t a proper career, and they don’t fulfil our civic obligation to make money. Money, after all, is what you want us to make. We are not to ask who you want us to make it for. Those in the creative sector have heard this all our lives. We refute it.
It’s true that creative types don’t make money, as a rule. I have never in my life made more than £24k and that was an exceptionally good year. I don’t decry this as unfair, because I chose it. Nor do I offer you statistics on the size of the creative industries, the amount of money they bring to the economy, etc etc. That would be to accept your premise on its own terms – that value must be measured in revenue, and if it can’t be measured it isn’t valuable. That we work to make money, and for nothing else. I do not accept that. We need to make a living, but beyond that we need to live.
Manufacturing and industry are vital to the wealth of the nation but not, of course, to all the nation equally. They are of most value to the demographic at the very top. Find me the richest man [sic] in the world, and tell me how he made his money. I am quite sure he made it through mineral extraction, through export, through technological innovation and well-designed goods. I begrudge him not a jot of that, if that’s the choice he made.
Now take away from his life music, reading, comedy, film. How rich is he now?
My working life has been creative, revelatory, communal; it has daily taught me new things about human nature. It has allowed me to be sincerely happy in my work. I am very fortunate. Many technologists and manufacturers would say the same, and good luck to them. Their work too can be uplifting, visionary, expanding our imaginations as well as our physical capabilities. What they create benefits the nation, creates jobs and security for many.
Art, on the other hand, is a universal wealth which no-one can take from us. A lot of people carry a poem with them, on paper or in their heads. No-one carries a circuit board*.
Ms Morgan, when your scientists come home from another day at the coalface (as it were) of machinery or medicine, what do they do? What do you do? You turn on the television. That is art. You turn on the radio. That is art. You go to a gallery, a concert, you listen to music – that is art. You read the latest Booker winner. That is art. The iPod was built by science and technology – so that we can consume music, writing, art.
Science and art are not mutually exclusive. Both are vital to a safe, fulfilled and interesting life. Science and technology are what we live by, on the whole. But what we live for? That’s art.
[*Thank you to the many literal minded folk who have pointed out, as if it negated my point, that a mobile phone has a circuit board in it. I think it’s clear from the context that I mean ‘for emotional value’.]