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Panic! Culture and the working class

A new report on the working class relationship with culture has been doing the rounds recently.

Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries (which you can find here ( comes at the issue from the point of view of the working class and their opportunities to find careers in the cultural sector. I usually concern myself most with the audience aspects of this debate but this report does touch on matters that relate to that, too. The general issue was also recently making waves with respect to entrants into Oxbridge and with Owen Jones's huge Twitter spat about the class of those in the media. 

The Panic! report takes data from various sources and draws conclusions from it. Some of the conclusions are based on what appear to me to be oddly skewed impressions and some of the report sounds like an argument looking for a validation, rather than delving deeply into the causes of the issue. As with most arguments I have seen, the report simply fails to address the core, founding causes of the matter and rails against the symptoms.

The facts are quite stark on first impression (read the report for the detail!) but in short, the cultural industry doesn't appear to feature many working class or BAME individuals. It varies across different sectors and there isn't a great deal of detail on the sorts of roles we are talking about, but in general, the industry is presented as a white, middle class homogenous mass who are themselves exclusionary. 

Taking the data at face value, it is hard to conclude that the professionals delivering our culture are all working class. They aren't. But I read the report carefully and found myself open mouthed at some of the assumptions and conclusions it drew from the data. I'll try to address some of this below. I will largely look at it from my industry's point of view (opera) because I can't speak for film, visual arts, dance etc.

The report begins with an executive summary that essentially distils the argument into a set of conclusions; that the industry believes it is meritocratic, and that the people who believe this – the bosses being paid over £50,000 - also tend to mostly know other people in their industry. It also concludes that these managers/leaders have taste patterns substantially different to the rest of the population. It makes the point that this belief in hard work and talent is 'troubling, as the faith in the sector's meritocracy may signal a belief that little or nothing should change'. It concludes that the very people able to effect that change are those who believe most firmly in the meritocratic principle. The authors argue that this prevailing belief is not matched 'by the reality of the sector'.

The report features quotes from people described as white middle class or working class/ethnic origin and points to the stark differences in the perception each has of the industry. The middle class respondents believe quite strongly that hard work, talent and tenacity will pay off, whereas one working class respondent (seeking a career in the film industry) is quoted as believing  that what  matters most is 'who you know.' The other working class respondent is quoted as saying that she is amazed how a friend of hers is able to engage a room full of strangers at a seminar and thus was better at networking. 

The report then posts a graph which gave data on who creatives in the industry know. So, how many designers, plumbers, postmen, glass workers, clerical officers, designers. Unsurprisingly (something the report acknowledges) people who work in the creative industries mostly know other people from the creative industries. It just leaves this data hanging there, as if to suggest that employers in the creative industry ought to know more plumbers in order to assess the abilities of those applying for jobs. This section concludes not by debunking the truth of the meritocratic argument but rather poses a very loaded question that if the industry is so homogenous, how could it possibly be accessible to working class people if all the people in it are white, middle class, highly educated individuals?

And this really is where I start to get quite cross.

The report is basically ignoring certain realities whilst making significant generalisations. It looks at bare, quantitative data that few of us would argue with (not enough working class people working in the arts) and simply suggests that there is a deliberate exclusionary process at play because of that fact, assuming – or suggesting – that there is a mass of talented working class/BAME people pursuing such careers but are being turned away by the industry. But there isn't and the numbers, in large part at least, reflect this paucity of working class people pursuing careers in the arts, and particularly the classical arts. 

The report scarcely mentions education, except to refer to the level and quality of the educations received by the incumbent creatives (who apparently exclude the working class). Of course, we all know that middle class families who have better access to elite educational opportunities are given far wider and deeper exposure to the arts than our kids in working class schools. I am not sure if the report is trying to say that the quality of an education makes you a better marketer, director, designer (and if it is saying that, are we being asked to take lower quality applicants?) More relevantly and  importantly, it is my contention that your interest in actually being one of those practitioners is far more likely to be provoked by the fact your school exposed you to more culture in the first place. This report doesn't go nearly as far back in the process as it needs to. We cannot keep complaining that not enough working class kids go to Oxbridge or get jobs in the creative industries if we keep bloody ignoring the fact that not enough of them are being encouraged to do either in the first place – or that any interest is being nurtured in them as youngsters. This sad reality means that the proportion of candidates for jobs is going to continue to be weighted towards those who this report somewhat caricatures as posh, white, middle class lefties. The introduction of the eBacc which we already see markedly reducing the number of young people taking creative subjects will only make this worse. As ever, proponents of diversifying the creative industries are simply taking aim at the wrong targets. 

At Opera Holland Park, we do not encounter scores of applicants from working class or BAME backgrounds applying for jobs, including the 'creative' jobs. We are inundated with applicants from middle class backgrounds who pursued music degrees, or language degrees. They often went to schools that had rich and wide cultural curricula that encouraged a love and knowledge of the arts.  In my mentoring sessions at an inner city London school, the young people tend to be focused on what are perceived to be more practical outcomes; one teenager who loved English - and was good at it - felt she couldn't pursue it because it 'wouldn't get her a job'. The report points out that there is a good representation of the working class/BAME population in IT for example. Is IT less exclusionary or are the working class/BAME sector of the population more interested in those careers having been conditioned to seek out STEM subjects – something this government has been actively doing? In its eBacc paper the education secretary at the time actually referred to 'qualifications with real meaning and value.' We quite literally have an education system that trashes the creative industries.

It is well known that the two people who head up our company are resolutely working class so we somewhat debunk the reports findings in that regard, and if Opera Holland Park cannot find more working class candidates, you can be sure that in opera at least, they are not there in sufficient numbers. Yet I would contend that a great number of our staff – both on stage and off – ARE working class. 

The respondent in the Panic! Report who sought a career in film is quoted angrily rejecting the 'who you know' principle. We don't know how well she stacks up against the many thousands of people who want to get into the glamorous world of film, but we are invited to take her at her word that she is being hard done to. She is not entirely incorrect that 'who you know' helps, but I would contend this is a factor in most industries and that it is certainly not the primary factor when it comes to the scarcity of working class creatives. Of course, one of the backers of this report - Arts Emergency! - was set up to specifically combat this dimension and tries to help people by mentoring working class people seeking a career in the cultural industry. The idea – a good one – asks well connected creatives to give individuals access to their address books. However, a report that identifies this aspect as the primary problem is merely ignoring the massive elephant in the room; we do not give our working class kids a wide liberal, cultural education or teach them to value culture of all kinds in a deep rooted, aspirational way. AE! is very useful for those who eventually find themselves drawn to the arts but we cannot change the landscape until more begin to pursue such careers.

It is also specious in my opinion to entirely dismiss the concept that the industry is a meritocracy, that talent and hard work will pay off. Like all industries, there are people in jobs we don't believe arrived there on merit alone, but we do a disservice to working class people by trying to dismantle the belief in this concept in favour of the suggestion that we are merely exclusionary. It is unfair to those middle class kids who are talented and committed too. We cannot ignore the feelings of those who believe their way into the creative industries is barred by their social class because to some degree, all industries will have an element within them that are racist, or sniffy or prejudicial to 'class'. However, I would argue that the cultural sector is less infected by this than others – especially, as the report points out, it is largely peopled by liberal lefties. I take issue with the simple conclusion of this paper that working class people are somehow being held at bay at our doors in hordes. Furthermore, my experience tends to be that working class people are turned off creative careers, or even becoming audience members, by other working class people. Opera and the classical arts are these days usually attacked and derided most vociferously by the left-wing (which pains a lefty like me).

I have said it before and will continue to say it. Our industry needs to go right back to the core essentials of cultural development, to encourage the self-belief of the working class that they belong in any and all environments and most of all, simple, essential exposure to the arts in a compulsory and deep way. By doing this, we will significantly increase the pool of people seeking careers, as well as those becoming future audience members. The two are not unconnected either. If more working class/BAME cultural leaders are providing our creative outputs then our audiences will follow.

In my book about my school Woolverstone (Noisy at the wrong times), a place that did indeed take working class boys and give them the aforementioned liberal, cultural education (and produced actors, directors, authors etc) I considered how the school and its methods may have contributed to my ending up in the arts;

'It is indisputable that Woolverstone has contributed hugely to whatever success I may have personally had in creating and developing Opera Holland Park. The growth of the company, and the people and organisations with whom we have become associated certainly led me to a level of social and financial interaction wholly distinct from one you might expect a boy from my background to have in adult life. Such is the world of the arts I suppose, where the love of music and performance bind people of every social and economic hue. I have not changed my accent, and I am still foul-mouthed most of the time. The cockiness, identified and then assertively (but largely unsuccessfully) suppressed by masters at Woolverstone, has played its part, but so too has my enduring propensity to consider myself worthy of almost any station just shy of royalty. The reputation of OHP as a welcoming and accessible festival almost certainly comes from the backgrounds of the people who run the place; perhaps we believe ourselves to be the perfect illustration of the potentially universal appeal of the classical arts?

What Woolverstone showed was that if you expect great things of children, in everything that they do, then invariably they will deliver, rise to the challenge. Children, including those from impoverished backgrounds, have the facility and the capability to understand the tenets of Roman society, or the wonders of ancient Greece and the glory of Renaissance painting, or any number of things that seem to have been given only cursory presence in the classroom. Some children will always possess more intelligence or natural talent, some will always fight the system and some will always 'fail'. But the journey is all-important. If you aim low, then they will lower their sights with you, guaranteed to fulfil the pessimistic prognosis. We must enable our young people to believe that their paths are not set from birth. It is a tragedy to report that those who condemn today are our education system, our government and even our community leaders. The principle of education and cultural exposure for the pure, unalloyed pleasure of it is alien and rarely put into practice, and hopes for our children are lowering by the day in order that successive governments can claim their plaudits.'


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