Long life

You can’t force low-income people to go to an art gallery or the theatre if they don’t want to

So perhaps we would all be happier if we could just stop worrying about what class everyone belongs

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

I went last week to see the justly praised production of Wagner’s The Mastersingers at English National Opera, and I didn’t see a single black face there, nor even much dark hair (except in the case of Melvyn Bragg who, though now greying a bit, still seems to have Ronald Reagan’s gift for keeping white hairs at bay). This chimed with the finding of the Warwick Commission on the arts in Britain that much the greater part of live-music audiences, theatre-goers and gallery visitors is old, white and middle-class. Even though this wasn’t actually the reason for the Arts Council’s drastic decision to curtail ENO’s funding — this was because of its allegedly shambolic management — it easily might have been. For the Warwick Commission’s report has reawakened concerns that the publicly funded arts are, as it put it, ‘predominantly accessed by an unnecessarily narrow social, economic, ethnic and educated demographic that is not fully representative of the UK’s population’.

This is a longstanding worry. Already more than a decade ago, Britain’s most famous museums and art galleries were being warned that they could lose their government grants unless they managed to attract more visitors from ethnic minorities and low-income families. Specifically, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport demanded that 18 of them, including the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, should aim for a rise of 8 per cent in the number of visitors from the poorest and least privileged sections of society. In addition, it required that seven million more children should visit them during the next few years. These objectives were agreed by the museums and galleries, which were warned that if they failed to respect them they could have their public funding cut off.


I don’t know what progress was made in this area, but judging from the Warwick Commission’s report, not very much. Certainly museum and gallery curators showed eagerness to comply at the time. The then director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, even announced a plan to get 30 Bengali-speaking mothers from Tower Hamlets to ‘make a number of sustained visits to the gallery, many travelling by Tube for the first time’. But this wouldn’t have made much difference, and it certainly wouldn’t have solved the problem of how you get people to look at paintings or go to the opera or theatre if they just don’t want to. The National Gallery even made itself a new entrance at street level, claiming that people found the front steps ‘intimidating’, but that hasn’t solved the problem either.

The cost and the overwhelmingly middle-class audiences may deter poor people from going to places like the Royal Opera House, but our museums and art galleries are mostly free. And if theatre, art collections and other temples of high culture are considered good things in themselves, and if they need state subsidies to survive, it seems to me that they should get them, provided anyone who wants to have access to them can do so, but without their subsidies being made conditional upon them attracting the right numbers of people from different socioeconomic groups, an unachievable aim.

A problem, however, is the extent to which such subsidies cut into the funds available for other cultural purposes such as arts education in schools, the decline in which was one of the greatest concerns of the Warwick Commission. Creativity, culture and the arts were being systematically removed from the education system, with dramatic falls in the number of pupils taking GCSEs in design, drama and other craft-related subjects, it said. Whatever the reasons for this, I wonder if it has anything to do with the other strange phenomenon of the moment — the fact that posh people predominate not only in audiences but on stage and screen as well.

And it’s not only in the cinema and theatre that public-school people such as Eddie Redmayne predominate, but in pop music as well. According to Noel Gallagher, formerly of the pop group Oasis, there is a shortage of working-class bands in an increasingly middle-class pop-music world. ‘The working classes have not got a voice any more,’ he says. ‘There doesn’t seem to be a noise coming from the council estates.’ Heaven knows why this should be, but I can’t see what anyone can do about it. We want much greater social equality than we have, but we would all be happier if we could only stop worrying about what class everyone belongs to.

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Show comments
  • Extoryfruitcake

    A grammar school in every town would be a good start; that’s how very many working class people got a good start in life.

  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    Maybe we should force high income people to go Stock Car racing or or to a B&B in Herne Bay.Smug twit.

    • Helen of Troy

      Short-sighted moron.

  • Helen of Troy

    Western Civ goes down the history hole. I’m sorry but few others are.

    but without their subsidies being made conditional upon them attracting the right numbers of people from different socioeconomic groups, an unachievable aim
    A truth obvious to all but Leftists. God I hate them.

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Well, why is it that “minorities” don’t come? I think this has something to do with the fact that they are not in the least bit interested in European culture and the European way of life. Maybe their parents were (from the days of controlled entry), but they certainly aren’t. As to why the lower classes don’t go, this is more interesting. In Italy, culture is still seen as the right and heritage of ALL, and so everybody is taught at school the rudiments of literature and art history and culture. Some children absorb it better than others, but in principle all are exposed to it. Now, the class system is very strange in Britain – one is always going backwards and forwards between two mutually exclusive positions: that it is very strong, and that it practically doesn’t exist anymore. would venture the opinion that this can be explained if we understand that class is now far more ambigous a construct, and that class in a Marxist sense was always a bad descriptor of society. I would suggest, though on a very shaky empirical basis, that there was a brief time in the 19th and 20th centuries where cultural patriotism and nationalism meant that culture was seen as belonging to the whole nation, and that the whole nation should be taught to appreciate it, and that now we are gradually reverting to a system (long the default position), where the population becomes again ever more intellectually stratified. Hence the high profile of “ghetto culture” and so on and so forth. In this sense, Italy is just further behind the curve than Britain, and indeed the younger generations are already far less cultured and intellectually fragmented than that of their parents. Moreover, the crossover of people from different walks of life is becoming less and less frequent. Factories brought together (even if in antagonistic terms) middle managers, engineers and workers into a single location. Conscription and national armies, even with officer corps’ stuffed with aristocrats, forced together different people and put them on an equal level. Thus could “middle class” and “lower class” young men be made privates or NCOs, and different ways of life (even if very uncomfortably) interact. Nowadays, the strata simply don’t intermingle, what with the decline of manufacturing and universal male conscription. I have been wondering about this for some time, would be very interested in any challenge.

    • porcelaincheekbones

      They’ve been taught to hate us, by our own traitors.

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Is Labour’s solution “BME” (whatever this means) Proletkult then?

  • Lydia Robinson

    “The cost and the overwhelmingly middle-class audiences may deter poor people from going to places like the Royal Opera House” Many less well off people pay an annual membership fee which will get them into rehearsals at the ENO or Covent Garden for as little as £15.

  • PeterK10

    Getting the government out of “education” would be a good start. Governments create problems and then say they will solve them. No…the problems are always made worse.

    So, the government is going to withhold funds from art institutions because not enough of the downtrodden are lining up to get into exhibitions and concerts? Some of the downtrodden are that way because of the rotten, useless educations they and their parents got in government schools.

    Teachers should, without opinions attached, expose kids early on to the spectrum of world culture. Let the kids form their own opinions in class discussions; the teachers should merely fill in the information gaps when necessary. Fill in those gaps with the truth, not agenda-driven propaganda. Field-trips to museums and concert halls could be undertaken several times a year, although I realize how unlikely this is to occur.

    Many people with first-rate educations never go to museums, theaters, or classical concerts. I do not see the same concern with attracting them as audience members, although this would make much more sense. No, rather, let’s spend sleepless nights trying to figure out why Joe in the Gutter isn’t coming to take tea and stare at Gainsboroughs all afternoon. Gee…I wonder why.

    The liberal, utopian snobs and government morons are just going to have to accept this cruel rejection of what they consider to be life’s crème de la crème. Unless, of course, they are willing to revamp the education system and expose every student to the best the world has to offer.

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