Earlier this month the government announced plans for a 50% cut to arts subjects at universities, arguing that taxpayers’ money should instead be put towards “subjects which support the skills this country needs to build back better”. Attacks on the arts are nothing new, of course: more than £860m has been stripped out of annual council spending on arts and culture over the last decade, while the Tories have also waged direct assaults on public-facing institutions such as galleries, museums and theatres. By turning their fire towards the institutions that nurture the creative talent of the future, however, the Tories could be about to immiserate Britain’s arts and culture industry for a generation.
There are a number of things driving the Tories’ attacks on the arts. First is the belief that – bar some exceptions for ‘high culture’ – the arts aren’t valuable because they don’t contribute to the economy (as illustrated by a now infamous government ad from last year which encouraged people working in the arts to reskill). Second is the fact that the sector is associated with liberal intellectuals and creatives who have long been critical of the Tories, and thus attacks on the arts are an ideologically-driven attempt to marginalise and undermine this threat to their power.
Together, these beliefs and associations feed into another commonly held stereotype about artists that the Tories are now using to their advantage: that they’re middle-class layabouts who don’t contribute anything useful to society. This is a stereotype that, if we’re honest, resonates with a great many people irrespective of their class or politics. Hit songs, comedy sketches and more have been made about the hipster from a wealthy background, slumming it whilst at art school. Whereas these figures are predominantly depicted by left-leaning creatives, frustrated at the exclusivity and snobbishness of the arts, the Tories have taken this script, flipped it, and are now calling those same creatives the ‘metropolitan elite’.
In short, attacks on the arts are now part of the Tories’ culture war. One the one side, we have ‘real’ working-class people: salt-of-the-earth folk with ‘proper’ jobs that contribute to the economy. On the other we have middle-class artists and the world of the ‘woke’: over-educated intellectuals who waste taxpayers’ money and curtail the freedom of speech of ‘normal’ people. By exploiting Britain’s obsession with class and its cultural signifiers, the Tories are transforming their reputation from defenders of capitalist interests to Robin Hood figures, robbing the privileges of metropolitan elites (alongside immigrants, benefit claimants, and other constituents of the ‘undeserving poor’), and redistributing them to the ‘common man’.
These narratives are so ingrained within society that they can be easy to succumb to. But the left needs to be wary of falling into the ‘culture war’ trap the government has created – and is becoming extremely sophisticated at deploying.
For all their other benefits, we first need to refute the idea that the arts don’t contribute to the economy. Take Hull, one of the most deprived local authorities in the country, which became the UK City of Culture in 2017. Over the course of that year, 800 jobs were created, local businesses experienced higher turnover, and an estimated £11-17m was added to the local economy. The long-term legacy of the project saw a hopeful future for Hull, with better funded arts institutions drawing in more visitors and creating a sense of pride amongst city residents. Investment in the arts has created similar legacies in other deprived areas of the country, such as Margate, Folkestone and Stoke-on-Trent. What’s more, a report from the Arts Council in 2019 showed that productivity in the sector between 2009 and 2016 was greater than that of the economy as a whole, with the industry contributing £10.8bn a year to the economy by the end of this period and 363,700 jobs. The fact is that in their proposed cuts to arts education, the Tories are yet again choosing to prioritise waging their culture war over creating jobs in a successful sector.
Second, we need to tackle the Tories’ culture war head on, and refute the idea that the arts aren’t the realm of the working class. In doing so, we first need to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of buying into stereotypes about ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ forms of art. Yes, it’s significant that the Tories are exempting courses that train classical musicians from their proposed funding cuts: classical music is an area that is still, despite the efforts of many, the preserve of the wealthy in that requires investment and training from a young age. But if the left buys into this logic, it can quite easily be spun into accusations of “woke” lefties stereotyping working class children by saying they don’t like or want to perform classical music. It also undermines those whose life’s work has been to bring under-represented groups into the classical world and push back against these stereotypes. We therefore need to reject these terms of their debate, and challenge the idea that some art forms are more valuable than others. At the same time, we need to do this in a way that isn’t patronising or presumptuous about working class tastes and interests.
Rather than getting caught up in the language of ‘privilege’, which often ends up dividing the working class, the left should focus on championing all forms of arts education – regardless of whether someone wants to be a classical pianist, a painter, a fashion designer or a grime artist. But this means going further than just defending arts education as it already exists, or even expanding the range of arts courses on offer to prospective students. The left shouldn’t simply settle for a system that leaves students in debt and forces universities to act like corporations rather than places of learning, but rather fight for free education for all.
Solving problems of access also requires a step-change in the culture of the arts sector itself, however. A university arts education shouldn’t be the only avenue into the sector, but right now degrees and postgraduate degrees are required to work in certain professions, whereas in the past paid apprenticeships were commonplace. What does it say about how the sector views ‘the Other’ when those who have not been through formal arts education – including huge figures such as the Pittman Painters or Cornish fisherman Alfred Wallis – are sometimes referred to as ‘outsider artists’?
Time and time again, reports have shown that at senior levels in the arts, there’s a lack of career progression, a lack of diversity, and poor wages. But resisting the immiseration of the sector will require more than just fighting to retain what we’ve had over the last 11 years – or even what we had under the last Labour government. It’s only by uprooting widely-held beliefs about the value (or lack thereof) of the arts to society, who the arts are for, and who can become an artist that we can ensure the arts remain a vital part of the cultural life of Britain for current and future generations.
Chardine Taylor-Stone is a Black feminist, trade unionist and socialist. Her book on the neoliberalisation of Black feminism – Sold Out: How Black Feminism Lost Its Soul – will be published in 2022 by Cassava Republic.