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Elitism: (is there a problem here?)

June 13, 2014

20140613-172005-62405827.jpgAnother politician in search of a headline – and without a policy – brings up the ‘problem’ of elitism in the arts. This time it is a senior figure from the frighteningly right-wing Labour Party (as opposed to the psychotically right-wing Conservative Party). People hear her words and start jumping about wondering how they should respond. How are we to please our future-master (should the ‘official opposition’ be the next to get their snouts in the trough of power), so that our future-master will feed us some crumbs? How hard must we wag our tails at the inane mumblings of an ideas-free avatar so that s/he knows we are friendly and entirely domesticated?

‘Elitism is a problem in the arts’ is a non-argument. It is brought up by those who don’t like art or don’t trust artists, who want to say something but have nothing to say, I have no time for it for a simple reason – it is built on lazy thinking and dishonesty, like blaming ‘immigrants’ for unemployment or ‘human rights legislation’ for rising crime. It is a headline-grabbing catchphrase used to distract from genuine concerns.

What exactly does ‘elitism’ mean here?

Is the problem that there are ‘elite’ artists – and that many artists aspire to be elite, by which I mean truly excellent at their work? Is the problem that there are some really excellent artists with high-level skills and techniques? That would seem like a strange argument – the problem with art is that artists are too skilful. Artists, to be good at their jobs, should not aspire to be too good at their jobs…

Is the argument that prices for attending cultural events are too high? There is some validity in this argument – there are plenty of events I cannot afford tickets for, but the argument does not really hold up when you compare prices for many cultural events to prices for sporting or commercial events such as music festivals. If this is really the problem, then the answer is simple: increase subsidy so that events rely less on box office and can lower admission prices.

Is the argument that artists themselves, being specialists, sometimes speak in languages and with degrees of subtlety that exclude the non-specialist? Undoubtedly this is true, as it is true of any area of specialism. After all, as the World Cup kicks off, everyone I pass on the street seems to be an expert in things I know nothing of. They passionately discuss tactics that sound like higher mathematics to me. Is the World Cup elitist? Or does it just mean that I, uninterested in overpaid divas kicking a ball around to enrich their commercial sponsors and corrupt administrators, do not know the ‘inside language’ of a ‘specialism’ I am not part of? If I was interested I would learn the necessary language and join the club of instant footy-experts. Surely that is not elitism, it is specialism. And personal choice.

Is the problem that too many people attending events come from a particular section of society? Certainly the long-established, ‘official’ art forms tend to draw from the hereditary ranks of the governing class. Does that make the art-form and the artists elitist? Or does it mean that the audience is drawn from the elite? If the former, then the fact that hip-hop or break-dancing draw their core audience primarily from the young makes those forms equally elitist, as they ‘exclude’ the old, the timid and – forgive my fatuousness – the uninterested.

Actually it is this last meaning that the latest politician to bemoan elitism was referring to. She noticed that everyone in the audience at the event she was attending was just like her… Even if we lay aside the dubious logic of ‘this art-form and these artists are elitist because those who watch the event are primarily drawn from the power elite’, is this the fault of the event? Or does it reflect deeper failures? Is the art-form ‘elitist’ or does the audience composition reflect an ideology that has educated children (the future audience) not to be curious, not to take risks, not to experiment, not to expand their minds? Is the problem that our education system still trains people to ‘know their place’?

Too often the argument seems to be that artists should ‘simplify’ their work, make it bite-sized and unthreatening so that ‘ordinary’ people can understand. How fucking patronising. And how pointless to demand that artists compromise their work to ‘attract’ people into it. Audiences are not stupid and if you attract them by compromising your work, they will, ultimately, wonder what all the fuss was about, when the work they have been ‘encouraged’ to see proves to be, well, not very good……

When it is suggested that ‘all art should be accessible to all people’ (which is largely true), this should not translate to ‘all art must try to make itself liked by all people’ (which is complete nonsense). Is the World Cup a failure because I could not care less about it? Would it be better if the sports (wo)men were less skilful (less ‘elite’), so that I, watching, felt the ‘anyone could do this’? Should matches kept shorter so that I do not get bored or feel intimidated about having to sit through a whole 90 minutes? Or should we accept that I deeply dislike commercialised sport, and so whatever they do, it is not going to be for me?

When politicians complain about the fact that too many people see ‘culture’ as not being for them, they are asking that artists try to undo the fundamental damage that the education system and our class-based inheritance-culture does, asking that artists, somehow, mitigate the sense of inherited privilege and entitlement that is the lifeblood of our disgusting, elitist, social system.

This is not to say that there is not further work to be done to ensure that all people feel comfortable going to cultural events . Some people feel some culture is ‘not for them’ – not based on their taste but on disenfranchisement. This reflects precisely the deeper, structural social problems politicians refuse to address. Artists did not create those structural problems (and indeed the arts are themselves deeply hampered by them) and artists have limited capacity to solve them. To suggest that this is our ‘problem’ is at best foolish and at worst dishonest. Much has been done and will continue to be done to break down the exclusive class-based tribalism of some art-forms and venues. It is important work, but not central. There are much more pressing cultural concerns, which are obscured by the tedious attacks on ‘elitism’.

Does it matter? Unfortunately yes. When a member of the power-elite makes a pronouncement, however baseless, everyone twitches. In my last post, ‘Bullshit’, I wrote about the funding situation thirty years ago when I started. Then there was an arts budget distributed by the Arts Council. But the Education Department also had an arts budget. So did the Health Department. And the Community Development Department. Quite right too. Culture ought to be integral to education and healthcare and community development and the rehabilitation of offenders and all others aspects of a civilised society. My two first jobs both received support; performing in a Grotowskian physical ensemble supported by The Arts Council, running a Youth Theatre supported by the local council’s community development department. I saw no problem with this, nor thought one source of funding conferred higher status than another.

In ‘Bullshit’ I wrote of how the foolish snobbery of some ‘Artists’ saw funding from the Arts Council as being ‘more artistic’ than funding from other departments. Nonsense of course, and now we pay the cost. Much of the funding for cultural projects that used to come from outside the Arts budget, now comes from inside it, and so there is less and less funding for work that is not ‘applied’ or ‘instrumental’ (in other words art without a defined and quantifiable social purpose or outcome). This is perhaps the great invisible cut in arts funding. Funding for culture has become the responsibility of the Arts Council instead of being a diverse stream of financial support integrated into all aspects of national life.

When a politician, without bothering to define her terms, muses on ‘elitism’, she causes artists and those who administer the pathetic pot of funds that are provided by our market-fundamentalist governments, to turn on ourselves and worry how to prove, yet again, that we are doing our bit to plaster over the failings of our culture, patronisingly providing bread and circuses for ‘ordinary’ people, thus removing from the power elite the need to address any of the deeper problems that our culture faces.

Instead (I know this is utopian but I have spent the last two weeks immersed in the dystopia of ‘1984’ so I am feeling determinedly optimistic), we should be proudly and defiantly fighting against the lazy catchphrase of ‘elitism’ and instead fighting for excellence in our culture.

This means, in a way, being elitist. All art should be excellent, excellently created by excellent artists. Whenever an audience encounters art (watching or participating) – prisoners, opera-goers, children, people on the street – the art should have the sort of vibrant quality that makes them WANT more. It should be expert art. We should not be creating a single, accessible (god, how I hate that word -I hate it almost as much as I hate ‘elitism’) ‘great art for all’, we should be creating multiple, unique, challenging (dare I say specialist?) arts that all are welcome to encounter but not all will like. We should be fighting for an education system that encourages people to take cultural risks, an education system that rewards curiosity not conservatism. We should accept, even celebrate, that some will like opera and some dub-step, some will go to the pub and watch the World Cup and some seek out the cellars of post-punk-pop-up venues where they encounter the performative avant-garde. This is how it should be, because, sorry politicians, we are not a mass of ‘ordinary’ people for you to patronise and control, we are multiple and we are diverse. We are all of us part of a network of ‘elites’.

And for artists? We need, as much as we can, to ignore the ill-considered, perhaps dishonest pronouncements of those who would be our lords and masters and get on with our job – creating extraordinary experiences for those who choose to be our audiences.

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