In the early days of New Labour, the Arts Council spent a lot of time and public money finding out why the arts weren’t accessible to, amongst others, the working classes. Andrew Lloyd Webber asked the same thing as did the Labour Party (again) last year. Almost 20 years on, nothing has changed and this week brings a report asking the same question. The answer is infuriatingly simple: for too long the arts have been colonised by the affluent and the smug liberal Left who prefer to tell people what to think rather than asking them.
There is a massive ideological rift, rooted in class, between the university-educated, middle-class arts world and the largely non-university-educated working classes, with the arts seeing working-class lives in purely Hobbesian terms – poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Take, for example Ken Loach, who is to the Left what Leni Riefenstahl was to the Right. In 2016 he gave us I, Daniel Blake, a film shot in metaphorical black and white which portrays the seemingly monastic Daniel as the hapless victim of evil government, benefit sanctions and uncaring civil servants. This latter-day Nazarene invites our sympathy because he is portrayed as above reproach, as saintly and pure as can be imagined. No working-class hero, but victim. And victims occupy a sanctified plinth in much of the middle-class Left. It allows them to keep the working classes at arm’s length while still pretending to care. Now, I think writers and directors ought to write what they damn well please about whatever sections of society they think they can best represent. But it is perfectly possible, if not desirable, to write characters who find themselves in reduced circumstances with some sense of personal agency and self-determination. It’s why one Billy Elliot is worth a hundred Daniel Blakes.
Theatre is no different. In the wake of the EU referendum, National Theatre director Rufus Norris travelled the country to take verbatim accounts of the reasons why ordinary people voted the way they did. The end result was My Country: A Work In Progress. A million miles from the Road to Wigan Pier, it took those accounts and dishonestly edited them together to make it look like all those Leave voters were permanently squabbling. Even when theatre is trying to be on the side of the working classes it can’t help but be condescending.
Why is this a perennial problem? How did the arts, which are meant to challenge preconceptions and shape and form how we look at ourselves, get so conformist? Norris was looking in the right direction but seeing the wrong thing.
Immediately before the EU referendum the Creative Industries Federation disclosed that 96 per cent of its members intended to vote Remain. That figure represents an astonishing lack of diversity of thought which speaks volumes about how insular and incestuous the arts are. When the result came in, it hit them like a hammer blow. It was their Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods. To many, it signalled the beginning of the end of their cultural dominance. When they woke up on the morning of 24 June 2016, the fat lady might not have sung, but she’d certainly started to clear her throat.
It could have been a time of reconciliation. A time for the arts to take stock and ask themselves how they had so misrepresented so many for so long. Instead, many of them showed themselves up as rather insidious and sneering.
The Guardian was quick to canvas the feelings of artists with an extraordinarily overinflated opinion of themselves. ‘It is the revenge of the Brownshirts, a dictatorship of the illiterate and the opportunistic. I’m appalled,’ wailed one author, inadvertently demonstrating his ignorance both of the Brownshirts and what constitutes a dictatorship. The CEO of the International Society for the Performing Arts was equally quick to pontificate: ‘To the 48 per cent of voters that chose to remain in the EU, know that there are countless people around the world that stand with you’, implicitly making it clear that the other 52 per cent could go to hell. Here we have an industry which by its own admission has a problem with race and class diversity calling people who simply disagree with it racist. There is truly something rotten in Denmark.
The arts benefit substantially from public funds in the form of Arts Council and National Lottery grants. It wouldn’t be so bad if wealthy theatres, massively subsidised, didn’t also routinely ask people to give up months of their time for nothing to appear in expensive productions which charge the public a small fortune in ticket prices. For an example see here. What kid in his or her right mind, thinking of embarking on a career in the arts, would even begin to countenance the normalisation of something-for-nothing?
Properly invested, Lottery money can work wonders. The Olympics is proof of that. The arts are a culture of dependency hugely reliant on handouts, yet it seems to produce little of any benefit to the rest of us. Olympians need to be nurtured and trained and encouraged for years. Successful Olympians have to be superior to all that go before them. To be successful in the arts you only have to act superior. The liberal arts, far from existing to challenge the elites, actually are the elites. They are not the many, they are the few.
People shouldn’t be going to the theatre or the cinema to be talked down to, they should be going to hear stories that make them think, argue, discuss and, dare I say it, celebrate. It should not be an echo chamber for the bien pensant liberal middle classes recycling the same old tropes. There may be plenty there to preach to the choir but there is little to feed the soul.
Like democracy, you cannot bring culture to the people unless you let the people be a part of it.