The Art World and the Problem with Working Class People
When Tony Blair left Number 10 Downing Street, he left a strong legacy in the art world. His tenure has often been referred to as the “Golden Age” of British Art, as he left behind a heaving cultural landscape where playwrights, designers, artists and composers were able to shine a mirror on society.
This was encouraged within the first Blair administration, who encouraged artists to think about the “social outcomes of their work.” Whilst the focus on this “Golden Age” has been advantageous for the British cultural scene, it has also caused a narrowing of the debate around class within the arts.
The focus of artistic endeavours in this country has been that the debate around class in the arts still draws on middle-and-upper class stereotypes of working-class life. Working class people are more often than not talked about rather than talked too. The majority of artistic directors, producers and chief executives in British theatre are still white, privately educated men and mostly the directors and actors come from privileged backgrounds.
These were the people who were complicit in the soft privatisation of education, health and community resources. Where social services had once existed as part of a minimum social welfare contract, youth services, along with social services and mental-health charities began to compete for funding on grounds of delivering to agendas in areas such as citizenship, community cohesion and crime prevention. Theatre organisations were part of this shift. Arts funding might finance a drama about the psychological impact of austerity on working-class people – just as brutal cuts were being made to mental health services and the NHS.
The result was that the art world turned the working-class people into a problem to be solved rather than potential audience members, or artists to be trained and developed.
Now it would be wrong to say that no productions have engaged the working classes. Kate Wasserberg’s recent production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too attracted working-class audiences all over the UK that wouldn’t usually engage with theatre. And it’s not coincidental that a play by Andrea Dunbar, an iconically working-class writer, achieved this. But there is still a way to go, we need to make sure that there are ways into the sector for more working-class artists. We need people from those backgrounds in positions of leadership – not only as artistic directors, producers and CEOs but as board members. Boards of school governors and mosque committees are more representative of working-class communities than are theatre boards.
Working-class people aren’t some tiny minority of our society to be managed and transformed; they are most of this country. When we make democratic and representative theatre that reflects this reality, in front of audiences that do so, too, we will be future-proofing our communities.
The UK is still in a “golden era” of artistic development, but we must make sure we do not exclude an essential element of society from this integral landscape.