Abstract: The creative and cultural sectors in the United Kingdom largely exclude the working classes. Even the small number of working-class people who do ‘make it’ into these sectors often find themselves and their work badly treated by those who hold the real power. This article explores some of the experiences of working-class artists navigating the cultural sector and how exclusion, prejudice and precarity impacted and continue to impact them. It takes as its focus the filmmaker Alan Clarke and the playwright Andrea Dunbar, who were at the height of their success in the 1980s. It also considers the writers Darren McGarvey and Nathalie Olah, whose work has achieved prominence in recent years. It is through this focus I hope to demonstrate the long continuum of challenges for working-class creatives. This article also considers how, on the occasions when they are allowed the space they deserve, working-class artists have created powerful shifts in cultural production. Finally, it details some of the changes needed for working-class people to be able to take their rightful place in contributing to cultural life and the societal risks involved if they are denied that place.
My involvement in social practice stems directly from my own experience. I grew up largely on benefits in a working class, Catholic community in Merseyside and was the first in my family to go to university. When I started working in the cultural sector, I soon realised that there was a huge gulf between the sector and the background I came from, and this drew me to community practices.
Initially I was mostly engaged in projects in working-class areas of Liverpool and shared much of the same history and ‘cultural memory’ with the people I was working with. This often made building connections easier, but I was also acutely aware of how differences—even minor ones—for example, between districts, generations, religions etc, could mean very different views of even shared experiences. I quickly learned that you had to stand back from your own positionality as much when working within your ‘own’ culture as you did when working with communities of different backgrounds or experiences.
The idea of ‘community’ is something often viewed by bourgeoise cultural institutions and practitioners as inherently positive, particularly as some experiences and understandings of ‘community’ have shifted and changed. This can lead to a romanticised, if not patronising, view of some communities; one that can result in ‘othering’ even if unintentionally. Being from the background I was, it seemed obvious to me that while being part of a particular community can be supportive, powerful and culturally rich, it can also be oppressive, exclusionary and constrictive—sometimes simultaneously. Communities sometimes define themselves in opposition to others and the suppression of difference and conformity that community membership may require can be difficult for many. This can be the same for the communities that people become part of later in life, as well as the ones they are born into. As some concept of community is often at the heart of social practice, these complexities need to be opened out and considered at funding, policy and practice levels, not glossed over or ignored.
Later when I left Merseyside and worked with many more different communities, I came to understand further what an ‘outsider perspective’ could also bring to social practice. However, I still found that sharing some experience of being from a community traditionally excluded from cultural institutions, helps in learning how to navigate the intricacies that such work involves. It is vital that organisations develop this knowledge and experience at a management level as well as in delivery, so that it permeates throughout their systems and interactions with different communities. Employing people with lived experience is, of course, not a panacea for good practice, but it can make it easier to create spaces where the knowledge and experience of an organisation as well as the community they’re working with can both be acknowledged and considered in a way that can challenge entrenchment by either side. Cultural organisations that are still very dominated by the sector’s ‘somatic norm’[i] of white, middle-class workers may find this much harder.
In spite of its complexities, working at the intersection of cultural organisations and wider communities has often been very rewarding and taught me much more than working in a purely institutional context ever could. By recruiting people with shared experience of who they’re collaborating with and by seriously engaging with these issues in social practice, we might find we achieve more powerful outcomes. This piece was commissioned and published by the Social Art Library in September 2021.
[i] O. Brook, D. O’Brien & M. Taylor, Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), p.191-200.