Let’s scrap the class divide in the arts
IT was my great fortune to have a mother who took an interest in the arts and was damned sure I would have an interest too. At the earliest opportunity I was taken to see Scottish Ballet and sent off to ballet lessons.
Coming from a working class family, it’s a puzzle as to how my mum developed such predilections. But she did, taking herself off to the opera as a student, and to the theatre.
I was hyper aware at primary school that these were not mainstream interests and tried to keep them secret.
I was unfortunately foxed by a teacher who thought it might be educational for me to dance for my classmates. They were trooped through to an empty classroom and plopped in rows on the floor to watch the bizarre spectacle of me in a white leotard, seamed ballet tights and white tutu perform a short, soundless ballet. I’m not sure any of us ever recovered.
Was anyone surprised by the findings of the new National Cultural Strategy, that culture in Scotland is dominated by the middle classes? Anyone who has been to the ballet or the opera or a classical concert will have noticed, even subconsciously, that the audiences are overwhelmingly middle class, as are the performers.
A survey carried out by Goldsmiths University and arts organisation Create, in 2015, found more than three-quarters of industry respondents came from a middle class background.
Some 90 per cent had been required to work for free during their career and more than a quarter of those who were paid earned less than £5000 a year.
To get ahead in the arts you have to have outside support – not something freely available to those from
Culture doesn’t have to be ‘highbrow’. Strictly Come Dancing can be culture. So can Celtic: The Musical
But it’s no longer the case that school children aren’t exposed to culture. Scottish Ballet does endless outreach work in schools and is poised to tour Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling to tiny venues around Scotland. Scottish Opera similarly takes itself off to smaller venues in “unlikely” locations, tours schools and has its Bambino programme for babies. Truly access all arias.
The RSNO similarly runs umpteen projects for nursery, primary and secondary aged children.
Arts organisations compete for public funding and so have to show they’ve earned it, not to mention the fact that changing the status quo matters as much for the institution as it does for the people. To survive, culture needs paying audiences.
Wider exposure is being tackled but is perception? We take a somewhat narrow definition of culture and work on the assumption that the likes of opera and classical music are inherently beneficial to all.
I can’t abide opera. And that’s OK. I like other things. I like Beyonce.
Her oeuvre does more for my wellbeing than Giuseppe Verdi. Culture doesn’t have to be the narrow space we refer to as “highbrow”. Strictly Come Dancing can be culture. So can Celtic: The Musical.
I wonder, as an aside, if there is slight presenteeism from the middle classes, in enjoying classical music and the like. It’s slightly surreal, the notion that one might enjoy Madame Butterfly if both of one’s parents have a university education but prefer
Miss Saigon if one is from a council estate.
Part of the issue is ensuring young people, who bear responsibility for ensuring the future of our cultural capital, know every art form available and there are no barriers to access it. Another is scrapping this notion of “middle class” and “working class” cultural pursuits.
Ultimately, culture is a nation’s conversation with itself. We can talk in many different languages. What’s vital is working out how we make the discussion open to all.