‘Fear helps keep people in their place’: art, culture and class

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.

Time and Tom Wood

DZSkWp5WsAESiIn.jpg large

Text Kenn Taylor
Images Tom Wood

The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
12th January – 25th March 2018

“They were outside the groove of history and it was my job to get them in, all of them.”
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The thing that gets me most in Tom Wood’s series of images on and around the Mersey Ferries is the intensity of the eyes. Across years, generations, genders, locations, so many of his subjects in these photographs either look intently into the distance or, more strikingly, straight into the lens and into you. I’m drawn to an old video clip of former Open Eye Director Paul Mellor – an early champion of Wood’s work in the gallery he has returned to with this show: “I think he has a care and empathy for the subject matter and the people. I think he’s a humanitarian, if there is such a thing.”

Full disclosure, seeing Wood’s images years ago and how they captured places, people and an era so familiar to me in such a powerful way, was one of the things that drew me into visual arts. Merseyside, like many deprived areas, has had no shortage over the years of photographers keen to bob in and capture ‘poverty porn’. Which when you know a place well, its layers and complexity, can become deeply tiresome. Even if the photographer’s intentions are well meant, their ‘truth’ is usually two dimensional.

Wood is one of a few whose work stretches far beyond this, no doubt in part due to his deep familiarity with his subject, having photographed the area as a local resident over decades. In contrast to others, Wood captures his subjects not as types, but individuals as significant as in any high society or celebrity portrait. Sure, in some expressions or behaviour is humorous, but in others it is sad and still more it is powerfully dignified as he gets that shot of the confidence of youth, the resigned wisdom of old age, the cynicism of having been pushed to the fringe of society. And of course, the boredom of waiting.

Woodside-Ferry-Terminal-From-_The-Pier-Head_-Series-Tom-Wood-1979-Tom-Woodweb-res

Like his previous work that focused on bus travel, All Zones Off Peak, here Wood captures the commute and its varied humanity. His Pier Head images differ from All Zones though in that the ferries and their terminals were, much more than the busses, also a ‘sit off’. Somewhere for the young and old especially to hang around, mess about, chat, linger. He photographs friends, couples, individuals’ heading somewhere or just passing the time. Snapping different generations over several decades, Wood captures continuity and change. Faces seem ever familiar. In contrast, fashion and hair styles shift rapidly. It was a particular part of the poisonous stereotypes pushed to the area in the 1990s to attack Scousers for a fondness for sportswear. These images remind that was only part of the fashion story. Not to mention that the often unique ways clothes were worn in the area was done with an originality rarely matched when such looks were copied elsewhere. Again, the particular detail of fashion in cruder hands could become voyeurism, but not here. You look at his subjects and their styles, but they look back into you.

Above-Pier-Head-Terminal-From-_The-Pier-Head_-Series-Tom-Wood-1985-Tom-Woodweb-res

People are the heart of Wood’s images but the background detail is important as well, as much a part of their role now as social document as the fashions. While the images here span from the 70s to late 90s, the bulk are from mid 80s to mid 90s. This is a time in Merseyside history that artists, writers and academics rarely look too, preferring to tap into the swinging, for some, 1960s, the radical era of the late 70s and early 80s, or the more recent, if patchy, renaissance. Yet the period between the 80s and 90s that Wood captures so powerfully is important as well as it was perhaps Liverpool’s nadir. Coming as it did after the collapse of the brief Militant period when Merseyside was largely cut off and left to rot. Treated so often nationally with either contempt or indifference, negative stereotypes about the area came to the fore even in supposedly polite and liberal circles.

DXqy-pBWkAE67T7

This was the Merseyside I grew up in. Almost nothing new was built. Most of the theatres and gig venues closed. So much seemed of the past, decaying, like the ageing, smoky 1960s busses and ferries we waited for, while opportunity, change, a positive future, seemed distant, if not impossible. The local media became deeply nostalgic for ‘the better times’. What radicalism existed largely retreated to educated urban circles and had little impact on the city’s poor and unfashionable fringes.

Wood, intended or not, captures this atmosphere. Both the crumbling grandeur of the Victorian docks and jetties, rusting, grassed over, silent. But also the decay of 1960s optimism as exemplified by the rotting Modernism of the graffiti covered Pier Head terminal. Today its concrete and steel would be lauded by fans of once-again fashionable Brutalism, its Formica’d cafe turned into a themed eatery. Then, it was just a reminder of how everything had fallen apart. The Merseyside of today still remains highly deprived and faces numerous challenges, but it has come far from being so unrelentingly crushed in a way that people who came to know the area later on struggle to grasp.

1987-79-S16 001

What Wood also captures though is that, despite the national mistreatment, life in Liverpool did indeed go on. People survived and even occasionally thrived despite the shit they had been given. Not crude stereotypes or even that other media trope, ‘sympathetic victims of a cruel system’, but individual human beings with their own stories, part of a culture that carried on despite seemingly impossible odds.

The landscape of the river and those who travel across it, as they have done so since around the 12th century, has now changed from that photographed by Wood. Just as the young, moody people in sportswear in 1987 confused and in turn were confused by the older people sporting headscarves and flat caps, so young people today must look these images with a distance hard to bridge. The differences in fashion and scenery though are just the visual demonstration of the bigger gap. That of experience and understanding between generations in an ever faster rapidly changing word, each one with its new sets of opportunities, joys, problems and challenges. Wood captures his subjects with dignity, young and old, but the generational gap remains for them as it does for all of us. We look at them, they look at us, but never quite understand what the other has seen and felt, like looking across a river into the distance.

Pier-Head-Landing-Stage-From-_The-Pier-Head_-Series-Tom-Wood-1985-Tom-Woodweb-res

This piece was published by Corridor 8 in March 2018.