In the UK, the arts are facing a dilemma. Visual arts, theatre, ballet, and a host of other art forms are often seen as the hobbies of the upper and middle class, with no relevance to most of society. On the other hand, very few working class people seem to be entering the industry with any success, thereby cementing the elitist reputation of the arts. There are practical reasons why engagement with the arts is so based in class – price of tickets, needing to be able to travel to or live in a big city, having time outside of work and childcare, etc. – but the problem is also entrenched in failures within the state education system. This ultimately disadvantages people who want to engage with and create art well into adulthood.
It’s no secret that the UK government has been sabotaging arts education through various means for a number of years now. Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010, English students have been pushed away from the creative arts towards more traditionally ‘valuable’ subjects. In Scotland, music education was recently eliminated in all Midlothian schools with the exception of pupils taking exams in the subject (which, paradoxically, would require prior education). Nationwide, subjects requiring expensive equipment, such as art, photography, and design and technology, are feeling the pressure from budget cuts, with many schools dropping these subjects altogether.
I describe this cut-throat approach to the creative arts as a ‘sabotage’ because the lack of decent creative education in schools feeds directly into the lack of working class individuals forging careers in these sectors. This in turn leads to the endless repetition of stale art produced by those from invariably privileged background. With no new experiences or perspectives, how can we expect art to speak to the real state of the world today, and therefore break the perception of the arts as an upper class pastime, rather than a vehicle for relevant, worthwhile discussions?
This is not just a problem of lack of education at a primary and secondary level either, but one of the sheer expense of training in the creative arts. Many drama schools and conservatoires ask for audition fees, and applying to multiple schools can mean bills add up to hundreds of pounds with no guarantee of entry. Art schools often ask for students to pay for materials out of pocket with few, if any, subsidy schemes. These additional costs can be a major barrier to entry if you are unable to ask for help from the pocket of mum and dad (unless, of course, you find a part time job and cut down the amount of time you are able to prepare portfolios and auditions, limiting your chances of success).
There are also the practical aspects of working in the industry to consider. The arts are famously unstable and overcrowded lines of work, and creators are often required to move to astronomically expensive industry hubs like London with no guarantee of a steady pay. Again, this is a less debilitating situation if you are being helped financially, or your family and friends have the networks in place to introduce you to those high up the chain, but for those starting without these legs up, the industry is a behemoth of privilege and nepotism.
Some advocates for arts education justify their points by claiming that an education in the arts makes people more employable due to their creativity and discipline. Whilst this may be true, it somewhat misses the point. Consuming and creating art makes life enjoyable, and provides modes of expression and lenses to understand our world, which in itself should be justification enough to fully fund arts education in state schools. Of course, this wouldn’t be the end of an uphill struggle to dismantle an elitist industry – there would still need to be a massive overhaul to ease the instability of living and working as an artist. However, by denying working class children access to arts education, the current government is creating a climate that needlessly shuts people out of these aspects of culture, regardless of how much they may enjoy or have untapped talents in these areas. Opening opportunities up to everybody is undoubtedly in the art world’s best interests.