Class. Britain is obsessed with it. That divisive taboo, the weird networks of have-mores and have-lesses. Art in Britain often explores this obsession, frequently focussing on the plight of the working-class family, or the perils of class mobility. Author Javaad Alipoor summarises this attitude as the arts world seeing working-class people as a problem to be solved.
When creators have a more diverse and engaging background, they’ll have a more diverse and engaged audience
Alipoor’s nails an issue here. The arts world ‘sees’ working-class people. If artists and the working-class are two distinct groups, then one will always ‘see’ the other; more of a lecture than a conversation. This rift can lead to stereotyping and condescension rather than expression and reflection.
But should we be panicking about inequality in the arts? Well according to a recent study called ‘Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency’, yes we should. According to ‘Panic!’, the cultural and creative sector is marked by significant exclusion of those from working class social origins. By these terms, ‘class exclusion in creative industries’ means ‘richer, better connected people dominating the art world.The people producing this country’s culture, be it films or music or paintings, don’t represent the people in the country. In fact, ‘Panic!’ states that ‘the prevailing belief in meritocracy is not matched by the reality of the sector.’ Of course, success in the arts is as much about who you know as it is about what you can do.
the arts world seeing working-class people as a problem to be solved
Grayson Perry is at once the best and worst walking examples of involvement of class in the production of art. In some respects he’s the worst because working-class stereotypes in his art have won him prestige in the fine art world. He even won The Turner Prize, the Olympic gold of British art.
Perry’s work finds a focus in the vibrancy of tastes and social classes, particularly his series of tapestries from 2013, The Vanity of Small Differences. The threads form a tale of a man’s journey through British social classes, starting with working-class tableaux. The first in the series, The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, is a scene from a council house. Centre-ground, two cage fighters tattoo each other with what Perry calls ‘present icons of tribal identity: a football shirt and a miner’s lamp’. Garishly dressed women prepped for the ‘pre-lash’ adorn the tapestry, along with the worrying lament ‘I could have gone to university’. Perry reduces the hopes, dreams and livelihoods of the working-class to a clutter of embroidered bric-a-brac. There’s something toe-curlingly awful about a bunch of posing art snobs snickering at working-class desperation, camped-up on a 50ft tapestry in a London gallery.
the cultural and creative sector is marked by significant exclusion of those from working class social origins
However, Perry is also the best on this topic, because he himself has made the journey between the classes. Coming from a working-class background and gracing the upper echelons of the art world, Perry’s references are from a place of knowledge and reflection. He started his career as a potter, a craft which Panic! suggests is the most representative of class in the creative industries. He lived in a squat, learning his craft through evening classes. Anthony Horowitz writes that ‘there was a time when you could buy his pots or a weeks dole- now they’ll set you back around £50,000.’
And while punching down to the working-classes is cynical, Perry’s work also satirises the middle-class and upper-class lifestyles. The middle-class tapestry is laden with ciabatta and The Guardian, overseen by the holy ‘God of social mobility’ Jamie Oliver. The tapestries satirise all classes, and the individualistic materialism that come with the territory.
The people producing this country’s culture…don’t represent the people in the country
It’s an insightful series, in which people from every class can see themselves. A rare moment of universal authenticity, art at its most accessible. As Perry says, ‘taste is that which does not offend our peers’. Good taste depends on who’s judging. When creators have a more diverse and engaging background, they’ll have a more diverse and engaged audience.