An edited version of this post appeared on the Guardian Culture Blog on 16 February 2015.
An awful lot has been said about privilege in the arts and, like diversity, the concept of an elite class of privileged artists has become a time-honoured stick with which to beat the arts sector. Most recently Chris Bryant, Shadow Minister for the Arts, raised the preponderance of artists from wealthy backgrounds to beat off criticism following Labour’s casual twitter announcement that it would not repeal Tory funding cuts.
Bryant’s attack on a subsection of the arts community follows more than five years of government built on the principles of divide and rule. Our political elites have become adept at vilifying parts of our society as a tool to misdirect our attention away from their own failings. Now, we’re so busy hurling rocks at the ‘benefit scroungers’ that there is no critical mass of dissent to topple the under-regulated, tax-avoiding super rich in their glass skyscrapers.
And I guess it worked for Bryant too. All of sudden my social media feeds were full of voices attacking the privileged few for taking up valuable space in the arts ecology. There were a few quiet voices criticizing Bryant for taking such a cheap shot at James Blunt and Eddie Redmayne, but by and large, the voices all seemed to agree. To accept the blame. To say “Yes. We’ve screwed up.”
Well. Have we? I think I’d like to reject the premise of Bryant’s statement. I don’t believe that the lack of working class voices in our cultural landscape is primarily the fault of the artists and organisations working within it. Judi Dench, David Morrisey and Julie Walters have also lamented the lack of these voices, but interestingly, they each talk about the opportunities for working class kids that existed 20, 30, even 40 years ago when they were establishing their careers.
The things that have changed between then and now have nothing to do with the hardworking and largely socially and ethically conscious people that make up our arts sector. Today’s arts ecology sits at the eye of a perfect storm of failing social provision, substandard education systems and a heartless welfare state. In the last twenty years alone, the arts provision in the national curriculum has been decimated by unimaginative central government policy. The introduction of tuition fees mean higher education has come to represent a life sentence of debt, while swinging cuts to welfare provision have removed any viable safety net for those without family money to fall back on. Meanwhile the role of art and artists in our society is consistently undervalued by those in power. Last time I checked, it wasn’t the actors, designers and directors making those decisions in parliament.
The industry is competitive and because of the cultural devaluation of vocational training, for the vast majority of today’s kids wanting to work in theatre, the best way to build the skills and contacts you need is by training at a good drama school or working unpaid for people you can learn from. Now, seriously, who in their right mind would choose to take on thirty grand of debt just to work unpaid for ten years in a job that so few people respect and where they don’t even have the safety net of decent social welfare provision to fall back on in an emergency? What working class kid looking for a sustainable career path and the stability of basic financial security would choose this one?
For the ten years I’ve been part of it, the theatre community has been tying itself in knots about the levels of diversity, class and privilege in our ranks. We wrestle with reductive definitions that encourage us to think of people as categories rather than unique human beings and this simplistic categorisation encourages the veneer of facile solutions rather than a complex and genuine investment in resisting homogeneity. There’s a huge amount of time and thought and effort going in to fruitless attempts to solve these huge social problems from within the theatre and arts communities. And Chris Bryant’s divisive tactic of pitting us against each other misdirects our energies even further.
Cultural leaders of all social classes are made in primary school when they’re captivated for the first time by the wonder and power of the arts.
There is nothing we can do right now to reverse the damage for this generation of young adults. Is it time to admit it’s too late for them and start fighting for the arts of the future? Should we stop exhausting ourselves in the pursuit of hollow tick boxes and instead direct ourselves towards campaigning for the more meaningful social change that will nurture a healthy and diverse cultural landscape in the longterm?
There was a time when art and artists could bring down governments. Perhaps if we redirected our energies into vociferous artistic activism lobbying the government for genuinely equal social structures we’d see a more meaningful return on our efforts.
For a long time, I don’t think I’ve been angry enough, but Chris Bryant attacking my community for failing to fix the problems caused by the bad decision making of central government has tipped the balance. I think it’s time to come out fighting. So in that spirit, here are the changes I’ll be fighting for over the next five years;
Compulsory, practical arts education in schools. A national curriculum requirement that all children under 13 have at least 5 hours of practical contact time with a practicing artist per term, supported by a minimum one hour per week of practical performing arts education delivered by a specialist teacher. (Can compulsory arts provision in schools be partially provided by artists working with local NPOs or GfTA companies as part of each funding agreement?)
A universal safety net accessible to artists. A sustainable welfare system to provide people from all backgrounds with a version of the 'safety net’ that the more privileged enjoy.
Fair pay reflecting the true value of art in society. A requirement from Arts Council England for NPO organisations to demonstrate how they have contributed to a sustainable livelihood for the artists they work with and companies they book. (Thanks to the community of artists at Devoted and Disgruntled 10 for this idea).