The Hermit had been coming up a lot recently. It seemed like a shared phenomenon: perhaps a meme, a convenient metaphor, or a genuine rippling of metaphysical energy – either way, I’d become increasingly aware of its recurrence in conversations on online tarot forums and discussions among friends. The card’s themes were obviously resonant with a new state of widespread isolation, and tarot readers wanted to discuss it – usually, alongside The Tower’s omen of paradigm-shifting catastrophe or the oft-misconstrued transformative symbolism of Death. In the little diary I keep to track my own amateur tarot practice (something I began to explore around the beginning of 2019 in an attempt to make sense from senselessness), I had noticed The Hermit lurking since late last year, appearing in more than half of my recorded spreads on career, creativity and opportunity. In hindsight, it could have been a somewhat on-the-nose warning to prepare myself for an imminent lockdown (and if I could have heeded that warning with any clarity, I might not be writing this while chasing up refunds for a week in Barcelona that would never come to pass), but in these readings, its message was to turn inwards, away from the noise and uncertainty of the day-to-day world and the struggle for external validation, to embark on a more introspective path to wisdom and fulfilment. A fitting message as I dealt with a loss of momentum after a year of apparent professional progress – not uninspiring, probably something I needed to hear for my health, but not entirely conducive to finding another job.
In November, after I’d completed a handful of jobs, projects and shows with nothing planned for the immediate future, I decided to allow myself the novelty of a Christmas break. I wanted to release myself from the expectation to be productive, to continually push myself on plans and ideas I didn’t believe would ever see the light of day, nor was I sure I really wanted them to, just for the sake of keeping up. Maybe come January, I thought, I’d start to miss things and be eager to jump into creating again. Alas, by the time this hiatus concluded, the pressure I’d tried to trick myself out of feeling remained, my inspiration unrenewed.
There was an ironic relief in the feeling of the world meeting me on my wavelength. Lockdown interrupted patterns of things that felt inevitable but unsustainable – work was furloughed, flights were grounded, and now, there were no openings, no festivals, no applications to panic about. Productivity felt like an impossibility, and for the first time in a while I could begin to disentangle it from my sense of self-worth. At the same time, it was becoming apparent how badly this would disrupt the lives of my friends and countless others in their situation as they prepared for their degree shows.
It felt like it couldn’t, and shouldn’t, happen – four years of undergrad are structured around the anticipation of this one final outcome, and any disruption of that timeline was hard to accept. When I was forced to take a year of absence in the middle of my degree, it felt like the end of the world – though of course it wasn’t, as I was able to resume the course in better health, better equipped to complete it. This reassurance couldn’t be given to the class of 2020. Following weeks of uncertainty, it eventually emerged that several art schools were moving toward virtual, online graduate showcases in lieu of physical degree shows, without the ability to promise an equivalent IRL exhibition down the line. Students were suddenly without studios or workshop access to finish their projects, without a clear understanding of how it would be shown and who would see it, yet with the same expectation to eagerly pour their blood, sweat and tears into what they were due to produce. Expectations from some within art schools even seemed to increase: in a now-redacted segment from AIGA’s article, “I’m a Design Student – What Happens Next?” (archived version available here), a Glasgow School of Art programme leader explained:
“[Students’] response to this situation will be part of their ‘portfolio’…be prepared for interviewers to ask ‘what did you do during the pandemic?’ If your answer is that you played on your Xbox, or even just that you learned to code, you’ll be viewed poorly. If you say you volunteered, or helped organize your community, or took part in a hackathon to develop solutions to non-clinical problems—that will help you stand out….Don’t just be ‘a designer’ but a strategist, a writer, an advisor.”
It’s easy to see why these words drew enough criticism to be removed, but they provide an illustration of the pressures graduates are under, beyond – ahem – just excelling academically and creatively. In the same quote, the GSA lecturer expressed his belief that the skills he teaches “will be needed more than ever,” though he admits that, “whether the economy will allow people to invest in them remains to be seen”. Graduating, staging a successful degree show and entering the creative industries right now with fewer and fewer opportunities to be had seems to be not only a question of how, but why.
One of the questions people seem keen to ask – or worried about having to answer – is, “why do we need art in a pandemic?”
As it’s become a buzzword, the definition of ‘essential’ has been stretched, often to mean something we want badly enough to be clever about how we get it. For businesses and industries that have managed to continue operating while social distancing and stay-at-home orders have been implemented, this definition has been motivated by profit – if you can get to work without igniting a PR disaster, your boss needs you. Businesses can frame this as a need on behalf of their customers – continued sales express continued demand, and for a business to survive it needs to meet this demand. Under this capitalist logic, artists thinking about the survival of their practice and, indeed, themselves, are left asking another question – “Why make art if nobody’s paying for it?”
It’s not a new conundrum, but then few of the most pressing problems of life in this pandemic are. COVID-19 has exposed structural inadequacies and inequalities that have always existed – the precarity that has suddenly threatened those in the middle classes has long been a reality for many in other parts of society. In the years since graduating, those I’d consider my peers – working-class young people – have struggled with what post-art-school life looks like for us, without safety nets or launch pads, faced with the responsibility of taking care of our families and ourselves (almost everyone I know has their own battle to fight with a severely underfunded mental healthcare system). These struggles require attention before we can even consider submitting ourselves to the trials of the creative industries – notoriously competitive, heavily reliant on unpaid labour, plagued by cuts and full of people already established or whose privilege gives them a headstart. Zombie movie analogies may be trite by now, but nothing truly conjures the image of a post-apocalyptic no-man’s-land like the current state of the Creative Scotland Opportunities page (though I haven’t determined if graduates are the ravenous hordes or the fresh meat).
These two questions play on a loop under a pro-austerity government, implied in them a third – “why do we need art at all?” Maybe this question feels too big or philosophical to answer in contrast with uncomfortable, straightforward conclusions about the class divide that threaten to discourage new artists from breaking into their field altogether – but perhaps it leaves room for some optimism. This could be an opportunity to examine things in their absence, to understand what it is we miss, and what we need to do to get it back.
Right now, I miss degree shows. My own might have left me with panic attacks, a crisis of self-esteem and a teary stress-comedown once it was all over, but I found myself lucky, proud and amazed to be part of it. Returning to degree shows as a graduate (while working with a-n to bring coverage of Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow’s shows online), I saw how degree shows energised entire cities, coinciding with events like Aberdeen’s Look Again festival and forming a jumping-off point for extracurricular activities, exhibitions and publications within local independent scenes. Visiting several shows back-to-back can be a surreal experience: getting lost in dizzyingly dense corridor mazes among hundreds of outsized expressions of creative ambition. How can this be translated to an online experience? I look forward to seeing how art schools attempt to tackle these internet showcases. I’m keen to use this time at home to dedicate to reading artist statements and catching ideas that could otherwise get lost in the shuffle among on-trend, instagrammable installations (not that I can deny taking some degree show mirror selfies of my own, before you bring me the receipts). I hope audiences are encouraged to take a fresh look at how these works are made and seen, and perhaps that this move could even make degree shows more accessible, removing the barriers of travel, opening hours and awkward or unsuitable buildings.
However, even though it makes me feel a hundred years old to say it, I’m sceptical that online showcases can ever really make up for what graduates will lose. Contemporary art, not least the depth and variety of creative practices I’ve witnessed at degree shows, is not only visual, but physical, spatial, tactile, interactive and experiential. Many creatives have found themselves at home on the internet, which certainly seems better suited than ever to sharing in all its forms, but I’m worried about seeing art dissolve into the bottomless feed of content and scrollable distractions. It means something for art to exist somewhere we can go – that real time and space we can visit is often vital to its power to take us somewhere else, which feels particularly necessary at this moment.
I don’t know what art schools and their students have in store. I truly hope that they can succeed together in these difficult circumstances, and that they might create something innovative and inspiring – but I’m wary of the pressure these expectations create. Right now, I want these artists to have the freedom to take the path of The Hermit: to be able to find their voice and figure out what’s best for them without bearing the burden of an art world and an economy in crisis. And I hope that established artists, curators, funders, organisers and institutions are just as invested in this moment, and not simply waiting for a return to the business-as-usual that didn’t work to begin with.