By Kenn Taylor
Is wanting to be an artist of any kind, or otherwise work in the cultural sector, stupid? It’s often poorly paid, if at all, and achieving ‘success’ can be arbitrary, unfair. If you’re from a working-class background, it’s even harder. So why would you bother?
For me, art and culture are about ideas. If you control ideas, you control everything. If only a narrow stratum of society controls the ideas, only their views and experiences will be reflected in systems of communication and power. And a far worse society, especially for those with the least power, will result. Art is too important to be left to a privileged few. Yet year by year, it seems to get harder for people from working class backgrounds to find space in culture, media and the arts.
Working in the arts can be a risky option for anyone, but the risks are compounded for those without family money or connections to fall back on. For those who somehow must generate an income to support themselves and perhaps others. Those who’ve probably been told quite often in life not to dare to imagine other worlds they could enter because of the risks involved.
When architect of the NHS, Nye Bevan, wrote a book about the foundation of the welfare state he called it ‘In Place of Fear’. Over the last few decades, what has increased exponentially in this country is fear, and not accidentally. Fear helps keep people in their place and too overwhelmed and frightened to try and challenge the limited parameters forced upon them. Part of that, despite lip service to the contrary, is to return culture to a field dominated by a narrow circle.
It was difficult enough when I entered the cultural sector in the 2000s. The child of a railway fitter and a cleaner, I grew up on benefits when my dad got sick, in a deprived industrial town in Merseyside. I was the first in my family to go to university. In that era, I got help. I lived in one of the pilot areas for Education Maintenance Allowance. The Connexions service helped with university applications when I’d left education to work. There were waived university fees and top-up maintenance grants for those from poor backgrounds. After uni, paid entry-level arts jobs were available, like the one I got – albeit a low paid and zero hours one. Now, so much of that has gone, it’s unreal. I can’t imagine I’d have been able to get to where I am today without any of those opportunities – yet working class people in 2018 get none of this support.
The issues are not just economic. It’s important to talk about the invisible barriers that exist on entering the sector and remain even when you’re in. At its best, the cultural field can be a place that welcomes those from different backgrounds; creative, open-minded, full of ideas. However, sadly, at its worst it can be too convinced of its own radicalism that it can be blind to the prejudice and structural unfairness that exists within it. Despite some progress, too many cultural organisations suffer from the ‘groupthink’ that comes from being dominated by people with incredibly similar backgrounds and educations. It was recently revealed that the key art, music and drama schools in this country are more elitist in their student bodies than Oxford and Cambridge. This doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a damming indictment of inequalities in the sector.
Many people who have experienced an elite education from a young age are given constant reinforcements of their confidence, get taught how to network and how to ‘sell themselves’. Sadly, some of these things are more respected and important to success in parts of the cultural sector than talent and depth. I mentioned ‘imposter syndrome’ recently to a few people in the sector from a similar background. There was mutual acknowledgement of this and past experiences of being made to feel inadequate, talked over, or willfully ignored by those who think you can’t benefit them in their own ambitious trajectory in the arts.
This is, of course, not to privilege class over other forms of structural injustice within the arts. Intersectionality is vital when looking at diversity in the sector. However, class has been an area ignored for too long, especially as it cuts across other areas of inequality yet is not covered by the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, I don’t mean to privilege one class over the other. Working class cultures at their own worst can be oppressive, prejudiced, and suspicious of difference, but it’s clear that working class people are not well represented enough across the sector. In addition, while thankfully it’s a minority, the sector still has too many people from comfortable backgrounds ‘slumming it’. That is, adopting performative tropes of being working class in some strange grasp for authenticity, who then drown out the voices of people who have actually come from such backgrounds.
It’s important to note it’s not just big cultural institutions that have these issues. The artist-led grassroots sector is not immune. Often relying on tight, cliquey networks and people with huge amounts of free time, it can also be blind to its own unspoken exclusions and prejudices. The self-confidence of members from elite backgrounds often dominating groups despite their supposed ‘fluid’ or ‘no hierarchy’ structures.
Now I am the director of a small arts charity, part of the establishment, albeit at a low level. The air is even thinner in terms of those from working class backgrounds when it comes to leading organisations. Though as I’ve chosen to work regionally and in a socially-focused field, not as much as in some other areas of culture. I have achieved a modicum of ‘success’. What does sometimes keep me awake at night though, is, do I do enough to make a difference for others from disadvantaged backgrounds to be heard in the arts? Is it all just a waste of time when there are so many huge structural inequalities in society over and above that in the cultural sector? Especially now things are even harder than 15 years ago. This is perhaps again an anxiety that comes from being working class. You think that you can never do enough even as those leading some of the largest organisations pay lip service to diversity.
So, what can be done to make a difference? It’s not actually that complicated, but it would require change on a large scale beyond just the cultural sector itself. For example; free higher education at the point of access; arts schools reserving spaces for those from disadvantaged backgrounds; a stop to the stripping out of the arts from school curriculums; the Arts Council continuing to push organisations to diversify (while other areas of culture such journalism, film, publishing, games and heritage should do the same); ensuring volunteering is only supplementary support to paid jobs; serious government funding for multi-year creative apprenticeships and an end to the qualifications arms race in the sector – let’s have proper respect for on the ground experience and not raise the bar too high for entry level jobs.
Listen to people who are working class; employees, artists, fans, participants, visitors and especially those trying to enter the sector. What they have to say is crucial. It’s time to ensure people from all different backgrounds are given decent opportunities. It won’t just be better for individuals and society, it will be better for art.
These things might seem utopian now, but that’s how far we’ve fallen. I spoke to an older man once, who as a young working-class boy had applied to art school. He never heard back. So, he got a job, only getting into art after his retirement many years later, to his sadness. Only after his father had died did he find the letter of acceptance from the art school that his parents had hidden. Whose fault was this opportunity being denied him? His parents? Or this country, for creating the climate of fear that to work in the arts is to be destitute and especially dangerous if you’re working class? And here we are in those times again. Let’s start to say no more. Now.
This piece was published by The Double Negative as part of their #classisabigdeal series in October 2018.