C-File Discussion: The arts dominated by the wealthy

Just read a post on C-File that asked for opinions on the recent study in the UK that the arts were dominated by the wealthy. Their post went as follows:

The Guardian reported, based on a survey by the arts organization Create and Goldsmith’s University, that the UK’s creative industries are dominated by middle class people. That has implications not only for artists of working-class backgrounds but also for artists of different genders and ethnicities.


The Guardian quotes Create’s director Hadrian Garrard, who said that the UK was in danger of returning to a pre-1950s era when art was a closed-off playground for the wealthy. Compared to the last few decades, which Garrard called a “golden era,” that idea is pretty alarming. Suddenly the survey’s title, Panic! makes a lot more sense. The findings excuse the alarmist title. They are, according to Create:

  • Those that earn over £50,000 p/a are most likely to believe that they got there through hard work, talent and ambition. Those earning under £5,000 p/a are most likely to believe that it’s not about what you know but who you know.
  • The majority of white people in the arts don’t acknowledge the barriers facing BAME (black, asian and ethnic minorities) people trying to find a foothold in the sector.
  • Women are more likely than men to have worked in the arts sector for free and once paid are generally paid less than their male counterparts.
  • 30% of BAME people think ethnicity is very important to getting ahead, whilst only 10% of white people believe ethnicity is very important to their chances of getting ahead.
  • 32% of women are likely to have done unpaid internships as opposed to 23% of men.
  • On average men working in the cultural industries earn 32% more then women working in the sector


My response was:

People have been making art long before it was a job to make art. The contemporary profession of art making is just the tip of an iceberg that is spread throughout the whole of society and the entirety of our history. We have praised the professionals for entirely justified reasons, but perhaps in doing so have taken our eyes off the creativity that is a natural part of being human. Of course most people don’t get paid for being creative or even do it as a means of exposure, so we tend to push the work of professionals into the limelight. Professionals are visible because there is an industry supporting their work. There are institutions for art that thrive in the limelight. But as with any light shined, there are shadows and areas simply not covered.

Of course it is easy to have strong biases for the masterful work of professionals, but when we say ‘art’ we are not simply saying ‘good art’. And its usually only ‘good art’ that gets exhibited and praised on a cultural level. As someone who teaches hobbyists, amateurs, and children I have to recognize that there is so much more to art than simply making a living from it. There is so much more to art than striving for excellence. There is so much more to art than its commercial value or cultural impact. For every big name artist being shown in galleries there are a thousand kids with drawings on their parent’s fridge. For every talented actor on the big screen there are millions of kids playing with dolls acting out scenes from their imagination. For every published author there are enough natural story tellers to spin every yarn many times over. For every prime time musician there are countless people singing in showers or crooning along with songs on the radio.

There is something known as the survivorship bias, where we take as representative the ones who ‘made it’. This gives a very skewed perspective on what things matter. The truth with the arts isn’t simply that the survivors in the limelight are just the ones who developed a successful career and that the rest of the landscape is littered with failure. No. There is more to making art than simply having a successful career. Most people making art will never even attempt to make a living from their creativity.

I’m not going to question that coming from a middle class background, being white, and being male all have something to do with how well a person is able to play the system of earning a living from their art. Disputing that is like questioning why more poor people don’t drive Cadillacs and live in mansions. Society has rigged things in favor of its biases for as long as we’ve had culture. The point I am making is that art has more to do with natural human creativity than simply earning a living. Equating the arts with professionalism is such a narrow construal as to be quite laughable. As if art were invented when the first person got paid for creating something! (Prostitution may be the ‘oldest profession’, but I’d like to think sex wasn’t invented that way. If professional quality/availability were all that mattered its a wonder any species ever got up and running….)

The danger as I see it is not necessarily that many people’s paths are obstructed in reaching career level involvement in the arts. Yes, we need to do as much as we can to make that more equitable. Rather, its that we so devalue our native creativity that we see as valuable only those things which can be bought and sold in an arts marketplace and are visible in the larger cultural landscape. Looking at it like that we have put all our chips on the bet that the arts are only extrinsically valuable. In arts advocacy this has hampered our message and done very little to sway outsiders to an actual appreciation for the arts. What we have lost in this gambit is the knowledge that making art is often its own justification. We have lost sight of the intrinsic value of art done for its own sake and replaced it with the value it has in social benefits and simple marketplace worth. Art is so much bigger than those things. Perhaps it is time we honored art in its full breadth and humble glory……

That’s my opinion, at least 🙂

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to C-File Discussion: The arts dominated by the wealthy

  1. Denise says:

    Exactly. This is why our government has withdrawn funding from arts qualifications. The argument being that so few graduates become taxpayers via their arts training. It’s all monetary evaluation, no life enriching factor included.

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