top of page

Bigger Than Ourselves

Alan Morris

Long form Journal article: On the eve of the general election Assembly Arts Co-Founder Alan Morris discusses the importance of providing access to the arts

In September Assembly Arts celebrates its first birthday. As the date approaches we have been reflecting on the activities undertaken since opening our imposing blue doors for the first time. In the last year Assembly Arts has become the creative home of fourteen artists occupying studio space in the capacious Georgian dance hall, whilst we continue to expand our range of classes. We have hosted a number of workshops run by external practitioners, including in disciplines as diverse as cyanotype photography and creative felt making. The Assembly Arts Gallery has shown a number of exhibitions including art created by the dance company Ballet Folk and work made by the Assembly Arts artists. Forthcoming exhibitions include work by the South African photographer Luke Kaplan and painter Craig Jones. Events have included a moving screening of the film Connected made by Freedom to Roam with flautist Eliza Marshall and broadcaster Mathew Bannister, whilst in May we participated in the innovative Northern Design Festival, brilliantly organised by local art and design undergraduates. The Assembly Photographic Collective meets on a monthly basis to share ideas and practice and we have plans to set up similar groups exploring aspects of creative practice. Whether the member showing her extraordinary photographs of bees , the teenager attending pottery classes every Friday evening with her dad (bringing chocolate brownies for the resident artists) or the young girl enthusing about the magic of the darkroom after printing for the first time, it is clear that the organisation has a positive impact on many peoples lives as we foster creativity in all its forms.

Recalling his own childhood experiences at the Labour Creatives Conference, in April Labour Leader Keir Starmer spoke candidly about the importance of the arts. Although there continues to be a general view that no one really knows who the Labour leader is, I can testify to the personal sentiments Starmer expressed at the conference, having grown up in the Surrey village of Hurst Green at the same time and going to the same schools. We knew one another and I used to play with his brother, whilst his sisters and I took part in the same school productions. I am hopeful that the values Starmer espoused at the conference, emanating as they were from a genuine place, will come to some sort of fruition if his political abilities and fortune conspire and Labour go in to win the election as the psephologists suggest.

During the speech Starmer recalled how as an eleven year old he secured a flute scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Also the son of working class parents, (yes, his dad was a toolmaker...) Starmer described the opportunity as "life changing". He went on to express how crucial it is that all young people have opportunities to be “... moved by a piece of music, painting or a play... losing and finding yourself in the space that art creates” whilst being "... drawn into something bigger than ourselves”. After stating that “... a Labour government would put creativity at the heart of the curriculum" Starmer went on to emphasise the importance of the arts and the opportunities they provide in order to "...find your own voice. Telling your own story is the power of art in a nutshell".

At the conference Starmer proclaimed "Art and culture are about bringing us together. They should help young people find their place in the world" and continued “Talent doesn’t discriminate. Opportunity does”. It is possible that as Prime Minister Keir Starmer will be in a position to address inequalities in the opportunities to access the arts, not least because his speech suggested he is acutely aware of the impact of the prevailing political dogma of recent years. Nevertheless, if a Labour government begins to tackle inequalities in the arts it is likely to encounter resistance from those who mistakenly believe that merit is the foremost determinant of access to opportunities. Research published by the Fairness Foundation suggests that most people believe we live in a meritocracy, in which hard work is a much stronger influence on outcomes in life than luck. This perception is relevant when it comes to peoples access to the arts because the reality is very different. Some estimates suggest that parental income alone is a determinant of around 40% of an individual’s lifetime earnings. Combine other circumstantial factors and the figure is probably higher. Furthermore the belief that success is generally associated with hard work may explain why, far from disliking the wealthy, many people tend to admire them, unless they see their wealth as unearned. The Fairness Foundation also discovered that when asked about their own lives, many more people said that luck has had a more negative impact on their lives than a positive one. These are important insights for politicians like Starmer who say they want to build public support for policies that address social and economic inequalities, including in areas such as access to the arts.

When considering why it is that the arts have been undermined it is worth examining research exploring how people think about the world – and how these patterns of thinking influence their political views. The Frameworks Institute has embarked on a new project to track people’s mindsets and how they shift. Early findings suggest that, like in the US, "individualist" mindsets, which attribute success to individual effort, dominate over “structuralist” mindsets, which recognise the importance of contextual factors such as parental resources and education. Researchers at the institute suggest that the way we think about one issue (like access to the arts) can relate to how we think about other, seemingly unrelated issues – like health outcomes. Crucially it’s not one or the other: most of us have "individualist" and "structuralist" aspects to our understanding of the world.

Although globally humanity is at the pinnacle of material and technical achievement, it is paradoxical that many of us (both young and old) are anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how we are perceived, unsure of friendships and driven to consume with little or no community life. How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? As the work at the Fairness Foundation indicates, mainstream politics no longer taps into uniting us with others in a common cause and has abandoned any attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society. As voters many of us have lost sight of any collective belief that society can be different. Instead of a better society the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position - as individuals - within the existing society. Counter to the culture wars that have dominated domestic politics in recent years, it is essential that we shift attention from division, material standards and economic growth, to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies. Depressingly, as soon as anything psychological is mentioned, solutions tend to focus on individual remedies and treatments. The proliferation of monetised, commercially driven "well being" apps is perhaps indicative of this pervasive trend.

It is axiomatic that growing up and living in an unequal society affects people’s assumptions about all aspects of human nature. Keir Starmer alluded to this in his speech at the Labour Creative Conference, citing how his father's love of Shostakovich was at odds with the perceptions of many of his affluent neighbours in the stockbroker fringes of the capital. At a time of increasing inequality, instability and uncertainty it is essential that elected representatives increase people’s sense of security and reduce fear: to make everyone feel that a more equal society not only has room for them but also that it offers a more fulfilling life than is possible in a society dominated by hierarchy and division. That fulfilment can of course come about in part by access to the arts. Politics was once seen as a way of improving people’s social and emotional wellbeing by changing their economic circumstances. But over recent years the bigger picture has been lost. People are now more likely to see psychological wellbeing as dependent on what can be done at the individual level. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the authors of Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, state: "Rather than reducing inequality itself ... initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socioeconomic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people - particularly the poor - can carry on in the same circumstances but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs". Wilkinson and Pickett go on to assert: "Every problem is seen as needing its own solution - unrelated to others. People are encouraged to take exercise, not to have unprotected sex, to say no to drugs, to try to relax, to sort out their work-life balance and to give their children ‘quality time’. The only thing that many of these policies do have in common is that they often seem to be based on the belief that the poor need to be taught to be more sensible. The glaringly obvious fact that these problems have common roots in inequality and relative deprivation disappears from view".

Inequality in all aspects of society - including access to the arts - is the result of deliberate political calculation. By definition, and as many politicians are eager to promote, for some members of an apparently meritocratic society to be perceived as "winners" requires others to be "losers". However, as the bailout of the banks after the 2008 economic crash and the introduction of furlough payments during the pandemic both demonstrated, governments can pursue more egalitarian policies when they think their survival depends on it. At other times of national emergency Britain became substantially more equal during both the First and Second World Wars as part of conscious attempts to gain support for the war effort by making people feel that the burden of war was shared fairly. Eighty years on and shedding light on how it is that in 2024 millions of UK children are dependent on food banks and so called "breakfast clubs", the Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman has analysed the reasons for rising inequality, citing runaway incomes at the top, including amongst CEO's. Krugman argues that rather than market forces, rising inequality has been driven by "changes in institutions, norms and political power", referring to the weakening of the trades unions, the abandonment of productivity sharing agreements, the influence of the political right and government changes in taxes and benefits.

As the febrile divisions propagated by right wing governments have demonstrated (made apparent in the UK by the Brexit referendum, for example) for several decades progressive politics has been seriously weakened by the loss of any concept of a better society. Meanwhile many people feel that society has lost touch with what really matters. Consumerism and materialism are winning out over important values to do with with friends, family, culture, the arts and community. At the same time high levels of inequality in our societies reflect the concentration of power in our economic institutions. As Wilkinson and Pickett describe, the institutions in which we are employed are, after all, the main source of income inequality. "It is there that value is created and divided between the various gradations of employees. It is there that the iniquities which necessitate redistribution are set up. And it is there we are most explicitly placed in a rank-ordered hierarchy, superiors and inferiors, bosses and subordinates".

Whilst many artists eschew hierarchical structures in their life, despite the egalitarian nature of much of their art and working practices, many are nevertheless subject to day to day inequalities. The artist and campaigner Tina Rogers has written about the lack of opportunities made available to the working classes and the entitled hegemony of the middle classes. Citing the UK Disability Arts Alliance 2021 Survey Report: The Impact of the Pandemic on Disabled People and organisations in Arts & Culture, Rogers is blunt. "One of the core subjects ... is class and if you’re working class and want to be successful in the arts world … you’re stuffed". Rogers goes on to cite the work of Brook, Miles and Taylor who suggest that creative occupations are not, and have never been, "open" to everyone, arguing that "creative jobs have remained unequal in regards to the class of that person since the 1970s". The same research indicates that between the 1980s and early 2000s, children from more affluent families earned more in the arts than those from working-class backgrounds, and long-term employment is mostly achieved by those from "advantaged backgrounds" with a marked "fall in recruitment from working class backgrounds".

When considering inequalities in accessing the arts it is clear that education makes little difference to a successful career in the creative industries. With or without a degree, an artist "whose parents are more privileged have double the odds of gaining creative work compared with those from working class backgrounds". (Brook, Miles and Taylor:2017). Rogers also asserts "Living in London, being white, male and able to work for free is a huge bonus, and the likelihood of a person accessing core creative work is strongly associated with their class origins. The class advantage is in addition to the advantages this group already holds...(and)... there is no evidence this is a new phenomenon". As part of her wider research Rogers has drawn upon Panic! Its Arts emergency! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries a survey report Brook, Miles and Taylor undertook in 2021. When 2487 participants were asked by the authors what was the biggest influence on a successful arts career, the majority answered meritocracy. The authors note that the vast majority of respondents worked in the arts world, and were "highly-paid white men". These participants wrote they had "a small network of friends, and in the main, they did not know anyone who worked in a (typically working-class) manual job". As Rogers explains "These are the people who are the heads of arts organisations, the managers, curators, artists, gallery managers, influencers, the people in control, the dictators of our fate". This and other research makes clear that all art forms are populated and run by the more privileged in society. Alarmingly, whilst in 1981 around 25% of people working in the arts were working class, by 2012 the figure was reduced to 12% and that percentage has continued to decrease. Moreover finance - or rather a safety net of money needed to start and maintain a career in the arts - "... can only be achieved by those with money, contacts and privilege" (Brook, Miles and Taylor:2021). Many recent studies note that unpaid work in the arts is endemic, and this is where the divide between classes is most prominent. Rogers asserts "Almost all artists see unpaid work as inescapable no matter what their class, however people from affluent backgrounds mainly believe working for free is ‘a choice’, and although not ideal ‘leads to a career with pay’. This career may be enabled by them being part of a network of equals, and not having to worry about finance to live". Rogers states "If you have no financial security, no ‘safety-net’, working for free is impossible, yet, many have all done it because it is the only way available for the poorer working class and disabled artists to be ‘seen’. In my (and others) experience, the curators, galleries etc simply don’t know who we are - or what we do. I believe the reason for this is simple: they simply don’t look. They remain in the confines of their safe networks".

As we plan our first year celebrations it is clear that part of the important work that Assembly Arts undertakes is to demonstrate that art and creativity is both fulfilling and rewarding on a personal level, whilst contributing to the creation of a kinder, more egalitarian society. Speaking at the Labour Creative Conference Starmer spoke of his wish to put an end to the demise in the value of arts education. "Under the Tories we have seen a crisis in creativity in our schools. 14 years of arts subject being diminished and devalued. GCSE enrolments in arts subjects are down by 47% and it is working class kids that bear the brunt of that collapse". Starmer said that Labour would address this crises by supporting the arts in order to find out what we have in common. "Searching for truth and meaning. But ... culture wars are about dividing us, distracting us, and disrespecting working people. With Labour the war on culture will end". If Labour form a government on 5th July there appears to be hope that the arts will be once again properly valued and that when Assembly Arts celebrates its tenth birthday, their status restored.

bottom of page