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And Yet...

Deeming Art "Unessential", But Still Relying on It

A 1000-person survey published in Singapore in June 2020 shocked and angered the Internet when it declared artists as the most unessential job by a staggering 71% of respondents (Da Silva, 2020).

And yet, as Jeremy Nguyen (2020) pointed out in a (now deleted) tweet, the survey contained graphics and illustrations that an artist had to make (Da Silva, 2020).

And yet, the survey was published in a newspaper, written, edited, and designed by artists.

And yet, I guarantee that the survey was advertised to respondents by artists.

Just like so many others who saw it, we artists were angered, yes, but shocked? No. By now, we're used to being relied on for work and then treated like we're not needed.

Artists are so often expected to work for free. Or, as the “industry” likes to call it, for “exposure”, when really, there is nothing we're being exposed to—unpaid work typically leads directly to nothing because these job offers come from people who don't work in art and don't have enough knowledge of it to promise that it will lead to future sales or fame (Art School Blog, 2020; Young-Powell, 2018).

And this happens only to artists. Who would ask a surgeon to work for free? A lawyer? A CEO? I tried to Google statistics for “working for exposure” for an array of jobs and came up with nothing—compared to the endless blogs, websites, articles, and stats for artists and freelancers. Employers recruiting artists tend to think that art is “easy” to make for the artist and thus doesn’t warrant pay (Art School Blog, 2020).

Can you imagine if we applied that logic to every job, that if it’s considered “easy” by people who have never worked a day in the industry then we don’t have to pay the worker? What a world we’d live in!

But art isn’t easy. Art can stem from pain and personal trauma, and artists have to dig deep into those feelings and relive that trauma, for hours on end, everyday, to perfect their craft (just to then have someone call it “unessential”). School, classes, degrees, and certificates in art, just like in everything else, cost money. Supplies and spaces to create cost money. Art takes years of practice. When you pay (or don’t pay) an artist, you are paying (or not paying) them not just for that one product, but for going through whatever inspired their work, for their education, for their experience, for their supplies, and for the years’ worth of their time that got them to where they are.

Creative freelancers lose £5394 per year because of accepting “work for exposure” (The Freelancer Club, 2016; Young-Powell, 2018)—that could have paid one year of my undergrad tuition, with over $1000 CAD left over. And beyond just hurting ourselves, our accepting free work sets the standard in the industry that other artists will accept other free work in the future (Art School Blog, 2020). Typically students and young artists are the ones who (are generally forced to) accept free work, which further injures the creative industry by limiting diversity and driving only young talent (Young-Powell, 2018).

The reason so many Singaporeans designated artists as “unessential” was because the survey defined “essential” as required for human/societal function (Da Silva, 2020). And yet, beginning one year ago when the pandemic hit internationally, when everyone was locked in their homes away from their families and friends, when society underwent a practically overnight rewrite, when countless jobs and places of work closed down, and when stress, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of declining mental health increased (Panchal et al., 2021), what was the one thing we turned to in order to function as if our world wasn’t falling apart? Art.

A survey of 748 Canadians from early April, 2020 found that the majority of people were reading more. Respondents directly attributed that rise to the pandemic, namely to the increase in their free time due to the pandemic’s removal of commuting to work, social obligations, and other commitments (Boucher et al., 2020; Hirchberg, 2020). A U.S. survey in March, 2020 found that 1/3 of the U.S. was reading more as well (Watson, 2020). The genres and specific books being read also indicate that people are reading to come to terms with their new circumstances and for comfort; according to an 860-person survey in the U.S. people were reaching towards books about literal or metaphorical isolation, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (I highly recommend it, by the way) near the beginning of pandemic, followed by a shift toward books that they found comfortable, such as genres that are more formulaic and predictable or books they have already read to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of suspense (Boucher et al., 2020).

Music reception also increased, despite the decrease in the amount of live music events and albums being made. The streaming and buying of albums rose by 8.2% and of songs by 22%, and even the sales of vinyl records and cassettes increased (Savage, 2021).

Netflix especially saw a massive jump in viewership. Netflix streaming broke AT&T records on March 20th and 21st, 2020, the first two days after the first Stay-at-Home Order was announced in the U.S.A (AJMC Staff, 2021), while the Netflix stock rose over 20% that week (Chandler, 2020). The first three months of 2020 saw twice as many new subscribers and profits as the same period in the previous year (Netflix gets 16 million, 2020).

Artists are so unessential, and yet, art went on when all else failed.

I think people also forget the sheer amount of art that exists in our lives. We tend to think of musicians whose CDs we listen to and visual artists whose decor we hang on our walls and writers whose books we read before other artists, but practically everything is touched by an artist at some point. The clothes you are wearing were designed by one artist and made by other artists. Your house and everything in it—your carpets, fridge, cutlery, curtains—were designed by artists. The makeup you wear, the floral arrangement you gave your grandmother for her birthday, the Valentine’s cards your kids give out at school, the posters hanging in your classrooms, and the car you drive were all designed by an artist. There is a team of hundreds if not thousands of artists making one movie: a team for designing characters, outfits, and sets, and a different team to build them or animate them or act as them. Even the products from those very first artists we think of, the CDs and visual art and books, are made by a team of artists beyond just the creator—a team of editors editing the books and of designers designing their covers; a team of sound mixers and musicians putting together one CD and a photographer to shoot and edit the cover.

And then the instruments and recording rooms and cameras—the tools artists use to create art—were designed by an artist.

And then the advertisements that sold those CDs and decor and clothes and houses and makeup and flowers and Valentines and cars and movies to you were designed and created by an artist, or a team of them. The advertisements that promote your business and increase your revenue, or the one that you answered to land the job you have now, were designed and made by artists, which means you likely have artists to thank for your job.

And then the methods for transmitting valuable information about the pandemic, including where it had spread, new laws, statistics, outbreaks, side effects, symptoms, and vaccine rollouts were television, social media, and newspaper articles: art, art, and more art.

So how are we unessential to individuals and society if we contribute directly to the functioning of individuals and society?

Why do artists exist in the first place if we’re unessential? Come to think of it, how is any job considered unessential...and yet still expected to be done? The need has to have come from somewhere.

Employers, stop asking us to help you in everything you need to run your business...and then expect us to work for free. Art recipients, stop turning to us when you need us to function...and then call us unessential. Because you can’t imagine life without art. Imagine life without all those wonderful things I already named and can’t possibly name or we’d be here forever. Go ahead, just try it.

Empty, isn’t it?


AJMC Staff. (2021, January 1). A Timeline of COVID-19 Developments in 2020. AJMC.

Art School Blog. (2020, August 3). Payment in Exposure. What Art School Didn’t Teach You.

Boucher, A., Harrison, C., & Giovanelli, M. (2020, October 5). How reading habits have changed during the COVID-19 lockdown. The Conversation.

Chandler, S. (2020, March 24). Netflix Traffic Hits All-Time Highs Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Says AT&T. Forbes.

Hirchberg, S. (2020, April 15). The impact of COVID-19 on reading. Booknet Canada.

Netflix gets 16 million new sign-ups thanks to lockdown. (2020, April 22). BBC News.

Nguyen, J. [jeremywins]. (2020, June 15). they had to commission an artist to make this. [deleted Tweet].

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C., & Garfield, R. (2021, February 10). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).,June%202019%20(Figure%201)

Savage, M. (2021, January 4). Music listening soared during lockdown. BBC News.

The Freelancer Club (2016, October 23). No Free Work Survey Results. The Freelancer Club.

Watson, A. (2020, June 18). Coronavirus and reading habits in the U.S. 2020, by generation. Statista.

Young-Powell, A. (2018, July 9). Creative careers: is it ever worth working for ‘exposire’? The Guardian.

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