Sunday, December 23, 2018

"Are the Arts Just For the Rich?"

Watching Patrick Stewart in William Shatner's documentary The Captains' Close-Up talk about his childhood, I was surprised by his working-class Yorkshire upbringing. And afterward I couldn't help thinking that where the current generation of British actors is concerned, none seem to have a background remotely like that. Look them up, and you are far more likely to find they are a graduate of Eton, an alumnus of the Dragon School.

Naturally it was with interest that I read a series of pieces in The Guardian on the phenomenon--some dealing with actors specifically, others the arts more generally. The pieces were far from as incisive as they could have been--not least, in their use of the term "middle class." A famously fuzzy term, it can be used to deliberately cloud the issue, frankly to downplay the extent to which a person from an extremely privileged background actually comes from an extremely privileged background, and often is, not least by The Guardian when discussing artists. Consider the extract from its typically puff piece profile of Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge:
Waller-Bridge grew up in an upper-middle-class family with baronets on both sides. Her father co-founded Tradepoint, the first fully electronic stock market . . . and her mother works for the Ironmongers' Company in the City.
On what planet is someone with "baronets on both sides" of the family, someone whose father cofounded a company with its own Wikipedia page (Tradepoint, later SWX Europe), merely "upper middle-class?"1"

Even in a culture so mendaciously pretending that "we're all middle class now," this is too, too much.

All the same, if the term is used in a way so loose as to be obfuscating (at best), the pieces offer a robust round-up of a sizable body of anecdotal evidence (Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and other luminaries observing their chances would have been very different today), and a growing body of solid statistical study, that confirms what David Graeber (writing of America rather than Britain, though there is no reason to think all this is less applicable to it) remarked when looking at the social, class realities of intellectual and creative life that "if your aim is to pursue any sort of value [but money]--whether that be truth . . . beauty . . . justice . . . charity, and so forth . . . [and] be paid a living wage for it"--those "jobs where one can live well, and still feel one is serving some higher purpose"--only those with "a certain degree of family wealth, social networks, and cultural capital" have much of a shot, while for the rest "there's simply no way in" (253).

In spite of which they are typically told by the "successful," and sometimes simply "everyone," that their failures are entirely their own fault, that they simply were not "good enough."

Which bullshit--the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's term certainly seems applicable here--is the conventional wisdom in an era that has never had much patience with the claims of artists to support or even sympathy.

The attitude shows up the illusion that the contemporary world is a meritocracy, makes a mockery of its slogans about opportunity, and not only diminishes the lives of those cut off from such careers solely for having made the mistake of not being born rich and well-connected, but the arts themselves, and through them, society as a whole.

Bullshit Jobs and the New Hollywood
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Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber
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