How Class Privilege is Ruining the Arts in the U.K.

How Class Privilege is Ruining the Arts in the U.K.

Walking through London today is like walking through a future world that you have not been invited to. Or at least that’s how I feel. There are billboards with optimistic buzzwords and ‘New Luxury Apartments’ blazoned upon them, there are huge glass monstrosities being erected (pun intended) at an alarming rate, and yet there are no signs that this will stop anytime soon. Other cities are seeing mini versions of this calculated exuberance, but London is still at the forefront of ultra-capitalist creations that are voids for money to live in. This flurry of lavish living spaces for start-ups and oligarchs is pushing people out of the city. The cost of living in the capital is virtually impossible for anyone not living on a decent wage, and this means artists are leaving in their droves. When I think of London, I like to think of The Clash and Bowie, of Keats and Blake, of Chaplin and Hitchcock, and a whole host of others. But today, these creative people would not be able to afford the rent anywhere near London. Recently, we have seen a cavalcade of articles on the fears that London is leaking cultural vitality. I would say that this is symptomatic of a wider problem that affects the U.K. – the exclusion of the working class from the arts.

As a white male, I am checking my privilege on a quite consistent basis and I realise I am endowed with often unseen advantages. I have become aware of these advantages through all types of media but the privilege that seems to go unchecked in our cultural conversation is the privilege of class. It is almost a part of our culture – to suppress any talk of class is as British as standing in a well-ordered queue or cringing at outward displays of emotion. Through the circumstance of one’s birth, a British working class child will be less likely to have access to the world of the arts, whether that child is black or white, male or female. By sheer chance, they are far more likely to be serving the next Adele in a chain coffee store on a temporary contract. If only they had the nerve to come out of a posher vagina. Isn’t this all just objectively unfair? Or is it the politics of envy? Is my jealousy contorting my worldview to hide the fact that working class folk are just genetically inferior and that is why they do not indulge in creative projects? This last scandalous remark is where the ‘politics of envy’ argument necessarily leads. Why on earth we, as a society, want to perpetuate injustices of circumstance rather than reduce them is unfathomable to me.

There is a minority of privileged people who are calling out this problem. James McAvoy was the latest actor to bemoan the lack of working class actors in film, and then there is Noel Gallagher complaining about the same problem in rock music. Why is this happening? There are, of course, many reasons, but a lot of it can be explained by taking a trip to the 1980s.

The eighties were a time of much hardship for working class communities, as the deindustrialisation of many cities left scores of unemployed and disenfranchised people. But they did have the dole, and this, as the anthropologist David Graeber pointed out, provided a hotbed of creative people who had time to work on their craft and do things like create indie music in the form we know today as well as make stand-up comedy a platform for progressive ideas. The Smiths and Stewart Lee alike would not have been able to develop their respective acts without the generous welfare state. Imagine if Morrissey and Marr had to stack shelves in Poundland, instead of spending hours in their homes to work out a collaboration of rockabilly guitar lines and Oscar Wilde-styled lyrics. Perhaps in austere Britain, The Clash would be working in the supermarket, and the Sex Pistols would be staring out the office window, dreaming of holidays in the sun.

Another factor is the cuts in arts education in state schools. When education budgets are cut, the first to go are always the ‘artsy’ subjects, as they are conceived to be useless to the economy. Rich private schools like Eton and Harrow are flooded with money and thus can afford to care about the arts and can afford to offer their students the chance to express themselves creatively. Have a look at the recent alumni of the richest private schools in the country, and it will read like a line-up for some random BBC cultural awards.

This is what happens when you leave mainstream culture to the well-to-do: you get endless warbling from Adele, excruciating faux folk from Mumford and Sons, feudal apologist drama from ‘Downton Abbey’,and a parade of softly touchy British feel-good biopics in the cinemas. Now, of course, I am not saying that rich people cannot create meaningful art – that would be absurd. What I am saying is that the absence of working class voices from the cultural mainstream leaves Britain a far duller place than if they were present. Recently, Ken Loach won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival for a film about the struggle of benefit claimants. The project used working class actors, who would be excluded from most other film projects. Films like Loach’s are, sadly, the exception. And even Loach struggles to finance his films despite being a celebrated figure in the industry.

So what is to be done? The answer is not clear. An easy solution does not seem to be sticking its head above the parapet. It may be because the class problem is interconnected with so many other problems in our society today: the local government cuts, the media portrayal of class, the concentration of wealth, the revolving door from the City to the Parliament. All lead into one another and blend together to create a melting pot of corruption and social decay. This is why it disheartens me when I see the noble causes of feminism and anti-racism being co-opted by corporations to such a degree that the message is degraded to ‘more women in the boardroom, more minorities on the CEO rich list’; the problem of class underscores all the ‘isms you can think of.

Perhaps a basic income, in which each citizen is given enough money to exist on account of their rights to shelter and food as a human being, is the answer to our problems. Regardless, I do believe that there is a dormant creativity in our country that could be unleashed if given the chance, a mass sleeping giant of an invention which could cause a new Renaissance and enrich all of our lives. Imagine the art, music and film that could be realised if people were relieved of the stress of slaving away at jobs which they despise, so that they could experiment and indulge in play. This may sound like a pipe dream or (gasp) Utopia, but the world is staring so many depressing future scenarios in the face that I think a bit of crazy Utopian thinking might not be a bad thing. I’m with Oscar:

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Does anyone have a boat?


Written by Stephen Durkan,


Artwork by Grayson Perry, Maria Qamar, A Magazine Curated By and Tracey Emin

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