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Coronavirus ‘worse than war’ for the arts: Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood

Stanley Donwood slammed the lack of government support for artists and the UK’s demonisation of the poor

Whether or not you recognise the name Stanley Donwood, you will know the images he created. 

As the man behind all of Radiohead’s art and promotional material since the mid-90s, his imagery is in millions of homes. The iconic covers of OK Computer, Kid A, Hail to the Thief and The Bends are intrinsic to how we understand the angst and anger in the music. 

Angst and anger was certainly the mood when The Big Issue’s Laura Kelly caught up with Donwood just ahead of England’s second lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“A global pandemic of a highly infectious form of viral pneumonia is about the worst thing that could have happened to the arts; even war is less of a pain in the arse, you know?” he said. “In a war you can still go to gigs and clubs and theatres and all that unless the fighting gets really bad. But this? This is fucking terrible.”

The ban on in-person gatherings and live events has been disastrous for artists in the UK, cutting off many people’s main source of income. In the latest round of the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund grants, more than £76 million was awarded to 588 cultural organisations across England to help them survive the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Yet job losses keep stacking up. The Southbank Centre is being forced to lose up to a third of its staff. National Museums Liverpool has announced plans to cut approximately 100 jobs. The National Trust is to cut 1,200 jobs and The Royal Academy of Arts is in discussions to lose a further 150 jobs. The picture is repeated at scores of smaller galleries and venues across the country. It remains unclear when the sector will be able to return to anything approaching normal.

Donwood, whose real name is Dan Rickwood, said that his fellow artists are by their very nature used to working out ingenious solutions to problems. But he admitted he was troubled that they have been stumped by the Covid-19 restrictions.

“People in the arts are very creative, that goes almost without saying, and if there was a way to make the show go on then someone would have figured it out. They haven’t, which is profoundly concerning,” he added.

And Donwood was severe in his assessment of official support for artists. His message for those who are struggling was to expect nothing from the UK government.

“Don’t expect these fucking bastards in government to bail you out because they won’t,” he said. “I think that things will slowly and unsteadily get better, but essentially I don’t have a lot of hope of any kind of return to how things were before the pandemic. I mean, I’m trying to be honest here. Almost all of my work is bound up with the idea of a lot of people getting together, in close proximity, in crowded situations. I don’t know what to do.”

Stanley Donwood (left) and Thom Yorke give out copies of promotional newspaper The Universal Sigh, ahead of the release of Radiohead album The King of Limbs in London in March 2011. Photo: martin_vmorris

Donwood met Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke when they were both art students at the University of Exeter, where the pair bonded as the only two painting students to use the nascent graphics capabilities of Apple Macs. Donwood would later become a leading figure in the early days of digital fine art with the cover of Radiohead’s OK Computer. He looks back on his university days as a better time for the country.

“I was very lucky; I got to go to college before you had to pay for it,” he said. “I got a grant, enough money to live on, just about, and there were no fees for the courses or any of that bollocks. 

“So I got my rent paid, my college fees paid, and a bunch of money to live on. This wasn’t a loan: it was a grant, money that I was not required to repay. It wasn’t a hugely generous amount but in retrospect it was a fucking miracle.”

In the days after graduating, Donwood ended up going through the “unofficial revolving door from college to the dole office”. 

“I got Housing Benefit to pay the rent and I had Income Support to live on; about £70 a fortnight, which was also kind of okay if you were careful,” he recalled. “Although I must say the ends of those fortnights were pretty dreadful. But overall the welfare state did what it was supposed to.”

This is far from the case now, he added. “What has been done to the welfare state by successive governments of all stripes is a fucking disgrace. The rich are now revoltingly wealthy, and the poor are demonised. It utterly disgusts me.”

Despite the support that was available back when he started his career, Donwood experienced a period of homelessness in which he was sofa-surfing, he said, relying on friends to offer him a place to stay. He is matter of fact about the experience.

“My only moment of homelessness was because of a terrible landlord and anyway it was okay because I had lots of understanding friends, and they had sofas. It wasn’t a long time and it wasn’t traumatic,” he said.

“None of us are very far away from destitution and I have a feeling that our society would be a kinder one if that fact was more widely appreciated.”

Driven by his experience and his belief that “the cracks are widening” in our society, Donwood has donated several of his artworks to The Big Art Auction, a fundraising event that will raise money to help The Big Issue get through a challenging winter, during which many vendors will be unable to sell the magazine due to various lockdown measures in the UK.

“[I have donated to The Big Issue] because I’m lucky enough to be able to,” he said. “Because I know that the cracks are widening. And that no-one is safe, and everybody needs as much help as we, as a society, can give.”

Find out more about The Big Art Auction here.

Main photo by: Johannes Timmerman