Where has all the chaos gone?

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Where has all the chaos gone?

More private spaces, over-curated public spaces and property prices are all reinforcing the exclusivity of the arts. How can we think more creatively about making and showing work that audiences will respond to?

By John Kieffer

The sheer amount of cultural activity in London and the ever-present tourist population tend to mask un­derlying structural concerns in the arts and creative industries. Cultural venues are full, the commercial creative industries are booming and London is at the centre of an art market worth billions. What’s not to like? Well, alongside the well-rehearsed current issues of funding cuts, escalating rents and the like, there is an elephant in the room: it has been there for a while, and it is getting bigger all the time.

At a recent dinner with my one of my oldest friends, the conversation turned from the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman to the question of whether people from similar working class backgrounds would thrive in the creative sector now, when social mobility has stalled and probably gone into reverse.

In Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, Robert Hewison concludes that ‘the majority of people are not taking part’, and notes there has been ‘only a marginal shift, if that, in the social patterns of cultural consumption since 1997’. There is a small but growing body of evidence showing that the cultural workforce is similarly resistant to change. (An ex-student of mine who is analysing special interest groups on social media recently characterised the arts traffic as, ‘basically the same 600 people incessantly bigging each other up’.)

There are many examples of individual arts organisations and creative businesses showing great initiative in trying to address the social cleansing of the cultural sector. In truth, those who work in the arts are in a strange position when it comes to the changes taking place in London: simultaneously victims and protagonists. Cultural funding agencies have often celebrated the ‘regeneration’ development of cultural quarters, only to stand by helplessly when the artists and creative types who made the area are priced out, along with pre-existing communities, when property prices rise. This leads to an ever more refined and homogeneous atmosphere: culture is a nice place to work if you (or your parents) can afford it, and the people who work in it and enjoy its products are very nice too. But they are increasingly homogeneous middle-class nice people.

The not-for-profit arts sector in particular has been trying to diversify the workforce and the audience for the arts and culture for over 30 years, deploying the same tricks over and over: access and education programmes, targeted funding, subsidised ticket schemes and apprenticeships. These have plainly not worked. Perhaps it is time to put some of the undoubted creativity and imagination that is applied to making the art into making it resonate with a wider public.

Where can we find the kind of cultural chaos that helped create the Bowies and Rickmans of 40 years ago? That had much to do with people from radically different backgrounds being thrown together in art schools, drama schools, music venues or design studios. But public space is turning private and cultural public spaces are increasingly over-programmed with content: the chances of having an accidental, meaningful and extended encounter with someone not like yourself is very slim. At times, the arts can create a sweet spot where the public feel at ease and simply want to be together. Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate and Theaster Gates’ recent Sanctum in Bristol 23 all created a very different kind of audience. What would it mean to extend these sweet spots into permanent cultural spaces? At the very least, it would mean locating artistic activities in places that were defined as much by the audience as by the artist, re-imagining perhaps the ancient Greek agora.

It could be time to stop re-running tired access programmes to try to make people like things that they don’t like, and instead start thinking more about how human beings interact with each other through culture that they do like. Nobody can plan exactly what cultural creativity will arise, or how or where it will be expressed, let alone how it will be received and perceived. But we could certainly benefit from some new role models and directions. What would a 21st-century version of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop look like, for example, or a 21st-century version of a 1960s art college?

With each year, a higher proportion of the arts is funded from the National Lottery, rather than from general taxation. If Lotto players in Sunderland are seen as essentially subsidising the Grand Tier of the Royal Opera House, people might reasonably be expected to wonder why.

  • 23 I declare an interest with the latter. I am the chair of Situations, the commiss­ioning body.