Essential and creative work

Currently many places in Australia are in lockdown and rules about who can and can’t work face to face are in place. Those who are permitted to have been termed “essential workers” and work in a range of areas from food, to medicine, to hardware and even alcohol. I’m not bringing into question these rules, nor am I hung up on the term “essential workers.” What’s interesting is that the current state of affairs really makes us question our own and others’ professions, making us ponder the necessity and worth of what we do.

The essential worker rule helps us question what our wants and needs are. When we are forced to strip back our lives to the bare bones. We realise that there are many things we can live without. Look back at our ancestors – they lived without all the luxuries and conveniences of modern life – simple shelter, basic food, minimal possessions – yet they still had cultural practices that transcended their “basic needs” e.g. cave art, jewellery, ornate tools. As humans we don’t just care about function but also form. Just like Steve Jobs, we want our tools to look nice, and just as Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone…”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs really helps us to understand the situation better. Starting from our most basic needs to our highest, we have our physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem and lastly self-actualisation. In simple terms, we need to take care of our basic needs first before addressing our higher needs, although this is not always the case. This makes sense – it’s necessary to take care of our basic needs in order to stay alive and keep society functioning, hence the necessity for “essential worker” rules.

At the same time, almost any type of work can fulfill any one of those five main needs. It can provide us with money to buy food, pay for shelter, find a sense of belonging, give us a sense of accomplishment and may even allow us to actualise ourselves. And it's not just “creative” jobs that can do this. As Paul Johnson points out in Creators, any job can be creative: “A farmer is creative—none more so—and so is a shoemaker.”

But although all work is in some sense creative, the work that is most blatantly creative has always been a hard hussle, with many of history’s greatest writers, musicians and artists dying in poverty. Similarly, artists have suffered greatly during the Covid pandemic because their work like many others has been deemed “non-essential.” But does that mean that the Arts are a fickle waste of time? Clearly not. As mentioned, the Arts have been central to the human experience from its very beginnings.

Art has long been valued, which is why there have been patrons of the arts and royal artists. Today in some “welfare” states, art is also invested in, while in others less so. From one perspective, if art is not valued, then artists will struggle, especially as they may be forced to compromise artistic integrity with money. Conversely, others may suggest that it is by selling to the market that the artist is able to create something of relevance to the populace for the dollar deciphers their true taste.

To appreciate the value of creative pursuits, it’s worth pondering the future. If we are optimistic about the future of the world and believe in a world where everyone’s basic needs are provided for, what then would everyone’s life pursuit be? Some might say that pleasure and enjoyment would be their purpose, but many of the world’s philosophers and spiritual teachers have warned us that pleasure is quite a flimsy thing to pursue because it is so short lived and shallow. Even the father of hedonism, Epicurus, explained that true pleasure goes beyond our lower physical appetites and was more about being virtuous.

We might then predict that with more time on our hands, we would pursue other things of value, namely, Truth and Beauty. Scientists, philosophers and scholars of all sorts would spend their time engaged in understanding every aspect of life on earth and beyond. Artists, musicians, poets, dancers, the list goes on, would dedicate themselves to manifesting the essence of beauty in both physical and ephemeral form. This would be the pinnacle of human endeavour on a large scale.

This future perspective can help us recognise the value in creative pursuits at a time when many of these pursuits have to remain largely private. While we recognise the need for “essential workers”, we should never undervalue the “non-essential” workers. As we work through these hard times, we can look forward to the time when everyone will have the chance to pursue their calling.

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