Working Tax Credits and Art

In 2007 I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Access to HE Art & Design course at City College Norwich. I’m not joking when I say I had to hold back the tears when the course leader, Brenda Unwin mentioned the delicate lines in some drawings in my sketchbook. The Access course was affordable and also paved the way for me to go to university; the first in my family to do so.

Two years later, and having sold two artworks – one purchased by the then Principal Dick Palmer – at the end of year show, I could only look forward and deliberately stub my toe to see if it was a reality that I had been accepted onto the Fine Art BA Hons course at Norwich University of the Arts.

Prior to these events a career of fruitless telesales jobs, and excruciatingly soulless door-to-door sales jobs, provided me with enough money to forget five days of seven week in, week out. Alongside those jobs I was fortunate enough to work as a stagehand for Theatre Royal, Norwich, and get odd jobs as a local crew guy helping shift band equipment for AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Pantera et al at Transam Trucking. None of these jobs were regular, but paid well.

Now, in 2015, I find myself working very hard creating art, maintaining my website, responding to and sending emails, checking for opportunities, failing at all the above, but nevertheless continuing. As well as this I – until a few weeks ago – worked as a cleaner wherever and whenever I could in order to cobble together enough funds to pay the rent and bills and purchase materials necessary to create art. Considering I have a degree (a 2:1) it is only fitting I do so, and respectful to my hardworking lecturers who helped pave my way.

I was thrilled to receive £30 per week Working Tax Credits (it seems the ‘working’ bit has been ignored in recent political debate) and this helped ease the burden of my wife being the main provider. My wife has worked very hard to gain a sniff of an opportunity which has resulted in her employment for three years in the museum sector of East Anglia. Prior to this her employment was as a waitress/bar tender. Unless the opportunity arose, this would have been our future for the foreseeable time.

We met at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) and, as many graduates do, looked forward to our new lives as artists or working as creative-minded people. When I graduated, I could not believe I received an award for my work; one was bought by Sir John Hurt, and another was bought by NUA for its permanent collection. I could hardly believe it when the Principal, John Last, mentioned my name amongst students who had excelled. My dad and his mum were in attendance, and coupled with meeting the late artist Roger Ackling and his wife Sylvia who gave me the award mentioned earlier, I could not believe the dream had exceeded itself and reality. For the first time in my life I was proud of myself. I was also selected for the Recent Graduates Exhibition at the Affordable Art Fair. Since then, of course, opportunities are slim and paid opportunities are even slimmer.

Many would argue, in some sense justifiably, that we chose to get in our metaphoric bed. We did, that is true. But we also have worked very hard to get we are today; which isn’t rolling around in money, owning our own home, being able to get on with work without any stress niggling away at our brains, but simply to do what we are capable of, and – this will sound egotistical – providing something for the enjoyment of others.

The Tax Credits of £30 per week made a huge difference. It meant I could buy art materials without having to budget so drastically. It meant we could, if we chose, order a takeaway. It meant we could pay the often forgotten water bill. We had some money that allowed us to pursue what, in my case, I’d spent 5 years studying for.

I’m not lazy. I work. I work really hard which often encompasses a huge mental battle of whether my work is any good, should be exhibited, or even bought. When I do sell an artwork, it is Christmas Day. I can’t expect anyone outside of creative work to fully understand just how difficult it is producing something; I’ve the benefit of being able to talk to two very well-known authors and they have sympathy for what I do because they know just how ridiculous a pursuit art is.

If the government goes ahead with its proposal to cut Tax Credits, this will be a blow to my creative practice. It will make my work harder and not for the reasons it is supposed to be. Creative work does not spring out of a hat willy-nilly. It is not easy (I used to think it was), and it takes an incredibly blinkered view to carry out.

If I was an artist with work in Tate, or top-end galleries in London, New York, or Paris, some members of the government may even own a piece of my work. They may think that my success was down to sheer hard work. No success is down to that. Luck is a huge factor. The people you know MAY be able to open doors, but artists should not have to factor luck or wealthy friends into their equation. They should be able to get on with their work.

Of course some members of parliament think I’m being an entrepreneur because I’m registered as being self-employed. I’m only self-employed because I could get £30 a week to help with my art. My earnings are less than funny.

If George Osborne really wants to help me in my hard work, he could always pay above the going rate for one of my paintings.

Expected Year of Mortality

Expected Year of Mortality

Uncategorised Problem

09:04

Come on, sit down, you’re late. Right, this morning we’re…….

09:06

“Hello. May I speak to Mr. Deckard?”

“Mr. Deckard died three years ago. Why do you keep phoning?”

“I’m ever so sorry. We have an automatic dialler and occasionally the details are incorrect.”

“Well it’s about bloody time you got the right details!”

09:07

“Hello. May I speak to Ms. Thomson?”

“Mrs. Thomson.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. May I please speak to…”

“Yes this is me. What do you want?”

“I’d like to ask if you’ve heard of Age Help. It’s a national…”

“I know who they are, I give to them all the time. What do you want?”

“Oh, I see. Well…that’s good…it’s great you’re helping them…”

“I suppose you want some money?”

“Erm, yes, but we have a lottery….”

“I don’t believe in gambling. Sorry. Goodbye.”

09:08

“Hello, may I please…”

“Fuck off.”

09:08

“Good morning can I speak to Mr. Wilson?”

“I’m Mr. Wilson. How may I help you?”

“My name is Andy and I’m calling on behalf of Age Help. We’re a national charity trying to reduce the hardship experienced by many elderly people across the country. Were you aware that eleven thousand elderly people died last winter because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes?”

“Yes, it’s bloody awful.”

“Yes it is….I’m glad you agree……Well, what we’re trying to do is raise funds for the charity through a lottery.”

“I’m not giving my bank details over the phone.”

“I see…erm…many elderly people don’t have any companionship and Age Help provide people to make home visits. They can help with shopping, household chores, that sort of thing.”

“Well, yes, I understand you do very valuable work.”

“Well, I don’t personally work for the charity, but I am employed on their behalf to raise funds.”

“I understand it’s necessary, but as I said before I don’t play lotteries.”

“Oh, I thought it was just the bank details that put you off.”

“It doesn’t matter which it is. I’m not doing it.”

“It is safe and secure, sir.”

“That may well be, but the answer is still no. Good-day.”

“Thank you.”

And so on until 11:00. Break. Recommence at 11:15. Continue until 13:00. Break. Recommence at 14:00. Continue until 16:00. Break. Recommence at 16:15. Continue until 18:00. End.

Repeat the above an additional 4 times = 1 week.

Repeat the above 47 weeks.

“Andrew can I see you in my office please?…”Hi Andy, how’s it going?”

“Erm, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I can do this anymore. I keep trying to make a sale and I just can’t. I can’t ask people for the money. I know it’s for a good cause, but I simply cannot do it.”

“Okay. We did notice and that’s alright. But you do know we can’t continue to employ you because if you’re not hitting your targets, then we’re paying for you to be here.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You’re at college now, doing art aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“How’s that going?”

“Really good actually. It’s difficult at times, but really enjoyable. I like finding things out. The theory can be challenging…especially on a Monday morning…but you know it’s fun.”

“Well that’s good. What are your plans?”

“Well, I’m doing it to get into art school. That’s the immediate plan, but outside of that, I’m not sure.”

“Oh okay. I used to do art, paint and things, but I’m really crap at it.”

“I dunno. I certainly couldn’t say without seeing anything.”

“No, trust me. My portraits are worse than stick-figures.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Well, Andrew, I’m sorry to say that we do have to let you go. I hope you understand.”

“Yes, no that’s fine. Whilst I’m here I’m wasting your time and my own I suppose.”

“Well good luck for the future and one day we’ll come and see you when you’re a famous artist.”

“Oh god, I don’t know about that.”

Anyone with an inquisitive mind may find themselves in a situation that can best be described as dehumanizing. Repetitive tasks in return for financial reward are quite often advertised by employers as ‘creative’, ‘dynamic’, ‘energetic’, etc. This, for anyone familiar with the problem of using the word is, appears quite the opposite in reality. In order for the employee to reach the target set by their employers – as is often the case in sales jobs – they must overcome reasons for not doing so by the person to whom they are speaking whether it be face to face or via telephone. Many companies employ a set of “proven” tactics, which are nothing more than ways to instil a sense of guilt in the mind of the prospective customer. There are a number of responses one may be required to use and each may come with increasingly disturbing facts that the salesperson may use to wear down the customer. If it is not enough that ten thousand people are either alive or dying it must be reinforced that failure to support whatever it is that a company demands will result in either you’re failure or many more people being affected by whatever it happens to be the company is selling.

The problem for companies that use these tactics is their staff are viewed as no more than numbers and without the capability to examine the tactics used. As a member of staff you adhere to their view that a person can be broken down through the repetition of facts. Identified only by a badge and, possibly, an employee number, you are nothing more. The company will continue regardless of you being there.

“As long as you adhere to the script, you’ll be fine. The sales will follow.”

This, to my mind, is deeply disturbing as it suggests that the majority of human beings will respond favourably to what has been said without consideration of why it has been said. I will assume that many people in sales will mockingly describe my thoughts as paranoia. On the contrary it is paranoia which leads one to believe in what someone else demands one says because one is too afraid to think otherwise.

During one interview a manager reminded a group of us of the importance in listening and following what he said as he had a proven track record. That may be true but proving his record was altogether quite alarming. By doing more press-ups than a young man this, somehow, proved his position. Not only was this embarrassing, but for each additional “fact” certain body language was used to reinforce it; slowly bringing his hands together similar to how, say, a priest might, and smiling the most insincere smile I’ve ever seen as soon as he finished a sentence.

Rather than encourage my reasons for needing this job, I felt I was joining a cult. This was exasperated by the mention of a breakfast club, where one could go two to three hours before paid employment commenced and “hang out”. Why on earth anyone would want to do this is beyond me unless one happened to be working on location or doing something one thoroughly enjoyed. Being in a cult is not enjoyable unless you wholeheartedly cannot think for yourself. If you do you are no longer human, but merely a conduit for someone else to accumulate wealth by reducing you to a simple organism who then in turn reduces other people to a simple organism through the repetition of dehumanizing facts.

When one chooses to engage their own thoughts and pursue a course allowing freedom of expression it may be even more alarming to discover similar methods are used to encourage blind faith in being successful. There are, sadly, many people who proclaim that if one follows their “proven experience” then one may no longer be destitute, but financially rewarded or, worse, famous. What is even worse than this is the idea that one pays for such an empty promise.