The working class in the arts: where are they?

There is a known absence of people from working-class backgrounds in the creative arts. As of 2020, only 16% of the workforce in creative industries are from working-class backgrounds.

The Working Class Creatives Database (WCCD) manifesto

I recently joined the WCCD, which describes itself as “a platform to share and highlight the work of working class creatives by promoting a more accessible arts culture in the UK.” I liked the idea, though it’s clear that this is a friendly, promotional organisation rather than a disruptive one. It made me wonder what sort of creative disruption we’ll see in the arts as we enter new stages of economic, environmental, and military crises. The working class inevitably shoulders the greater burden of these events, and when many are beginning to push actively against increasing social pressures — strikes, organised non-payment of utility bills, large public support of Black Lives Matter — it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to predict similarly seismic changes in the arts too, albeit at a slower rate and initially through a middle class lens.

[R]esearch has found that if the UK’s Creative Industries were as socio economically diverse as the rest of the economy, there would be 250,000 more working-class people employed in the sector. This deficit is equivalent to the size of the creative workforce in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, 10 Sep 2021

If you live in the UK, you will have heard various government representatives making often rather hypocritical comments about how arts degrees are “low value” as they prepare further education cuts. “The arts” includes philosophy, history and politics — all subjects which teach a student how to critically evaluate their society. I’m not the only one who feels concern at the potential narrowing of thought-provoking adult education to a privileged few:

The study of literature should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to.

Phillip Pullman in conversation with The Guardian, 27 June 2022

At present, in order for a British university to qualify for government funding, at least 60% of graduates must go on to employment or further study. This is far easier for the traditional, wealthier universities where students have connections, the cachet of university name, and a comfortable economic cushion to enable them to take career risks and seize career opportunities. In my opinion, it’s disparities such as these which artificially inflate the academic and career success of Oxbridge graduates. It seems evident that the 60% criterion may be a blunt instrument used against working class would-be arts students and their teachers.

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Lord Henry in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Oscar Wilde

While a literature, communications or creative writing degree isn’t strictly necessary to become a journalist, 98% of British journalists have a bachelor’s degree. Taking into account the demands of unpaid or underpaid entry-level industry work in the form of internships, cadetships, self-promotion, work experience, etc, it comes as no surprise that only around 11% of British journalists are working class. I wonder how we could even begin to measure the impact this has on how our news is reported?

For all the talk of debt burdens, what I find particularly notable in discussions of tertiary education is how infrequently the cost of education is challenged at all. Is education a public good or not? Is all value monetary? How can we measure the success of an individual’s cultural contribution, or discuss worth in salary terms within a sector so notoriously underpaid? In the frightening new reality of 2020, the public overwhelming turned to the arts for support, picking up books, watching films, television shows, videos, and eagerly following artists on social media. In an era of crisis, I wonder if we can afford to elevate the societal worth of a business graduate over that of a creative and informed thinker?

I suspect this is only the latest symptom in the disease creeping across education at all levels, in which learning has been stripped of everything but the most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s dismal and dehumanising, and I’m afraid its effects will be far-reaching.

Sarah Perry, author of “The Essex Serpent” and “Melmoth,” The Guardian, 27 Jun 2022

I was a student at the Open University when their funding was cut and the institution was forced to raise fees to compensate. Working class adults disappeared almost immediately, replaced by fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds attempting to marginally lower university debt by avoiding the now-slightly higher fees of brick-and-mortar institutions. Tutorials became infinitely more boring and tutors, I dare say, more bored. Why wouldn’t they be, since they had lost, at a stroke, all the students with a burning need to truly understand?

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