On the Arts and Margaret Atwood

What’s that you say? There aren’t any careers in the arts? It’s not a promising sector? There won’t be any significant growth in the number of arts-related jobs going forward?

Well, not according to the BC Labour Market Outlook to 2020, recently released by the BC Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation. The screenshot below tells the story…


Yes, that’s “Occupations in Art, Culture, Recreation and Sport” you see at the bottom of the page, forecasted to experience the same growth as “Natural and Applied Sciences and Related Occupations.”

Despite making up a smaller chunk of the job market, it’s encouraging to see a positive forecast for jobs in the arts. There is real debate going on across Canada at present about the value of the arts, and we may well see a decline in the quantity and quality of arts degrees offered if some parties have their say. I’m not writing today to wade into the debate, really, but I will say that if arts degrees as we know them became a thing of the past, I would be quite saddened. Unfortunately, there seems to be a societal urge to pit the arts and sciences against one another. Let’s just say that the champions of the natural and applied sciences are many, and they are well-armed.

If I had to pick one person as champion of the arts, I would choose Margaret Atwood. One look at her Twitter account will show you the kinds of issues she gets behind (libraries, most recently), but it’s her explicit and implied support for the arts in her many writings that really resonate with me.

Full disclosure: I’m a huge Atwood fan. She’s been described as an author that people either love or hate, with little middle ground, and I must admit to being a first-class passenger on the Atwood bandwagon. As it currently stands, I’ve vowed to read the entire fictional works of only two authors: Atwood and José Saramago. So, Margaret, I hope you keep pumping out those dystopian sci-fi novels, because there’s only so much back reading I can do.

There’s one book of Atwood’s in particular that I think does a great job of portraying what could become of the arts if we don’t collectively start to change our thinking about their value. That book is Oryx and Crake, a novel set in the not-so-distant future in a sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare world. Before the apocalyptic event takes place, the effects of a society wholly engrossed with science and technology are explored, and one of the book’s themes may be that this is the true nightmare (similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, another great Atwood read).

In the world of Oryx and Crake, people who can afford it live in giant protected domes owned and governed by mega-corporations. The middle and lower classes live in vast urban slums known as pleeblands. Some live nearly their entire lives in virtual realities. Animals are grown and harvested and new species are genetically engineered. But more to the point, the arts are shown to be a barren wasteland. Those without the brainpower to succeed in corporate science schools are relegated to the middle class arts institutions, which have resorted to slogans such as “our graduates have employable skills.”

I hope that Atwood isn’t as prophetic as she seems. As much as I enjoy her novels, they often leave me with a sense of foreboding and pessimism about the future of our species. But I suppose that’s exactly the point—when has something other than a work of art caused me an emotional reaction like that? It may be cliché to appeal to emotion as a defense of the arts, but: is life really complete if one can’t take in a work of human creativity that momentarily fills one’s entire being with profound and utter sadness?

That may be what we stand to lose.

For the time being, let’s be happy with the fact that the arts sector is alive and well—jobs do exist, and in BC at least, it looks like more are on the way

*Link to the full BC Labour Market Report (PDF): http://www.workbc.ca/docs/BCLMOutlook.pdf

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