Art changes lives. Through film, painting, radio, animation, literature, and all the other things we see as culture; our pride in our heritage. However art’ needs to change itself. There is a gross inequality in the arts and it is damaging our future.
It’s easy to say, as a working-class artist, ‘art is being held captive by the rich’, but this isn’t quite the case. It’s perhaps more correct to say it is being governed by the middle classes, but again this wouldn’t quite cover it. It is a complex issue.
I’ll share my story a little here, I grew up in two worlds: one of financial poverty; one of cultural wealth. I grew up leading a double life because my circumstances, and those of many others I studied with, didn’t fit neatly into the boxes where we tend to place them; poverty in one, and wealth in the other, or class here, and culture there. I remember that in my late teens, food on the table was not always a certainty, and that invites to lavish book launches and celebrity filled arts events in my early twenties contrasted this inequality beyond words.
At the time, I never felt 'good enough' -I still don’t. This relatively modern term of ‘imposter syndrome’ is now applied by others to circumstances such as these, but this does not cover it. It is best summed up as seeing inequality clearly and being excluded, albeit unintentionally, from stepping over that threshold.
While, I was lucky enough to have government means-tested grants to determine “I was entitled” to a student loan, some small grants and a place on a higher education course, I worked three student jobs at once to keep going. I exploited every opportunity to bring those in similar circumstances to myself forward. I was becoming an entrepreneur of cultural wealth, not just acquiring this but being recognised as a cultural asset for my art, philosophy and activism. The money started to follow this, but still a factor in controlling opportunities. And always the repeated implied phrase… from people with financial power to those without: “There is no money in the arts”.
Now, 20 years later, those opportunities for young working-class people, in particular women, in poverty to advance through education and culture are vanishing. Again the warning bell phrase from the non-working classes of “There is no money in the arts” now serving as an unconscious bias of ‘hands off our culture’ to the working class young person, again I would suggest a disproportionate affect on women here.
There is truth to that phrase. However, this has two problems:
First, it ignores the non-material benefits the arts provide, which in turn can even foster economic outcomes.
Second, it perpetuates the notion that, unlike superstars, ordinary artists don’t deserve much, because what they do is “fluff” or “a luxury” or the highest insult of all.. a "hobby".
This second one is the stick that is used by the upper classes to beat the lower classes down. It perpetuates inequality, people are deemed to be ‘less important’ it applies not only to the arts but also to teaching, nursing, small holder farming, and many culture developing avenues of career and lives.
The full realisation of this hit me in 2012, I had a small exhibition of my painting work, my first after a period of homelessness and a long time friend and fellow artist wanted to send me a file at the private view via photo message. “I’m sorry I don’t have a smart-phone, I can only get texts” was my apologetic reply to her request.
“You can not be a serious artist, you don’t have a smartphone!” Was their stern reply and they have ever since never taken me seriously as an artist as ‘I don’t meet their personal standards for it’.
This interaction has always stayed with me, because it both hurt, but because it is a person who defines themselves as ‘working-class’ and rejects ‘middle-class-art-culture’ while revelling and living in it. I am not denying their struggles, but simply highlighting the inequality of their views. They are mis-representing the struggle of creating new culture, new art, out of the poverty of working-class backgrounds.
Recent Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey data, (Feb 2020) collected just before the pandemic, suggests an ongoing class crisis in the arts. A domination of the middle-classes in radio, film, and visual arts. This coupled with a false sense of privilege.
We know from the research by Office for National Statistics, that many middle-class people simply do not see themselves as privilege. This combined with the UK romanticised image of the working-class identities. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 47% of Britons in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify ‘working-class’. This research also suggests a quarter of people in such jobs who come from middle-class backgrounds – in the sense that their parents did professional work – also identify as working class.
I recently was in a job interview for an arts and culture organisation, and I asked the question: “What area of inequality concerns you the most?” Their response; “What keeps me awake at night is not including ‘lower socio-economic people’”… (I didn’t get the job, I was told I was the best candidate but too strategic!) The use of language, terminology and ‘middle-classist-biased’ within the interview process had already alerted me this was an urgent issue, I’ve seen it before, I don’t believe they will address it effectively by listening the right way to what needs to change.
This is getting to the truth of the issue though, we know that low pay and work insecurity, the costs of education and the importance of networks and nepotism all influence who makes it in Britain’s creative and cultural sector. Yet there are more subtle barriers stopping working-class success.
Access to culture, particularly for young people has been important in shaping whether a job in the creative sector would be plausible as a career. Unequal access to culture in childhood also had important implications later in life. Not having the “correct” cultural references shaped working-class employees’ sense of confidence in the workplace.
It was also part of the feeling that they were not at home in the middle-class environment of the art gallery, exhibition, film set, the TV studio or the offices where productions are commissioned.
We need to remember how people are intersectional. Someone’s characteristics alongside class and wealth background can aggravate the inequality felt by Women, Black People, Disabled People, LGBT+ Communities and Travellers, as they struggle to get in and get on in the industry. Even if the financial and social barriers to success were to be miraculously solved, these cultural barriers would still exist.
This is not to say that more senior people working in cultural jobs actively seek to reinforce these inequalities but what they say is often at odds with their practice.
When we consider the ‘accepted’ four factors for Socio-economic discrimination include: occupation, education, income, wealth and where someone lives. I would strongly argue we need to include culture.
We live in unequal societies but inequality is not inevitable. It is the product of government decisions, actions and omissions that ignore human rights laws and principles. Art can and will stop discrimination. Art can lift us up as a species. Art, in all its forms brings joy. It brings the cultural contexts for romance, for love, for peace. To do this art needs to apply this thinking to its own cultures and constructs. Art must change.
The ways in which we approach culture need to change on a very personal, individual and non-exploitative level. It's the same change we're seeing across the world for how people relate to one another and how we come to stop discrimination. It starts with you, and I, each of us stepping outside both our comfort zone but also the social circles in which we live.
Have a think about culture, how do you relate to it, what do you enjoy or feel inspired by. Now think longer, actively without ego, on this question:
'How can we share art with others?' and then make a genuine change to make it more inclusive?
I felt a TS Lowery painting would be a suitable addition to this brief article.