Yes, Class IS A Big Deal

Photo by Nate Nessman on Unsplash

Perma-skint, exhausted, disenfranchised… We need to talk about why working class people aren’t getting ahead in the arts. And as we rarely hear directly from working class people themselves about the obstacles they face, we decided to start asking. Here, Mike Pinnington invites readers to share their experiences of an industry that is a long way from being fair or diverse…

“She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,

She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College,

That’s where I,

Caught her eye.”

– Jarvis Cocker, Common People, 1995

“Common People is not a song about a spoiled condescending female, however vivid the character. The song – part poem, part manifesto – is about Cocker (back then) and people like Cocker (as he had been): the long-term disfranchised and perma-skint, who spend their lives feeling broke, scared and hopeless, without a safety net… Crucially, it’s a story about a penniless working-class student rather than a rich slumming one, and in an increasingly polarised one-note cultural landscape, this sort of distinction seems ever more important.”

– Barbara Ellen, the Guardian, 2015

When we were in the planning stages of the inaugural The Double Negative Fellowship, central to our thinking was eligibility: who should apply and why? Who needs it most? We quickly concluded that a fellowship should benefit those writers who, through no fault of their own, had hit an artificial, metaphorical ceiling in their upward trajectory. In a nutshell, this boiled down to people whose access to key networks was limited – not by their talent, ambition or endeavour, but by their immediate, often geographical, circles. Ideally, the successful candidates also wouldn’t necessarily be able to recognise themselves in the current critical writing landscape. We condensed this further, calling for the discovery of “daring new voices from the North of England”.

“The percentage of people working in music, performing and visual arts with a working-class background is just 18.2%”

This thinking fell in close parallel with, rather than being directly informed by, findings published by Create London and Arts Emergency in their study: Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries (full report here). The report looked, in particular, “at the social class background of the workforce, and how this intersects with other issues, including attitudes and values, experience of working for free, social networks, and cultural tastes”. The report found that the percentage of people working in music, performing and visual arts with a working-class background is just 18.2%. Fundamentally, this only confirmed what any of us not granted a silver spoon or golden ticket conferred by privilege already knew: that things would have to change if “the idea of a fair and diverse industry” could take hold and become a reality.

Increasingly, questions of this nature are being posed and explored across the arts spectrum. Back in July 2016, Nikesh Shukla, the editor and author of The Good Immigrant, proposed via Twitter (where else?) that: “Someone should do a Good Immigrant-style state of the nation book of essays by writers from working class backgrounds”. Quick as a flash, Liverpool-based Dead Ink Books replied: “We would publish the crap out of that.” For the indie publisher, this instinctive response was akin to dropping a pebble into a lake, and those resultant ripples continue to be felt as readers discover the watershed collection of essays, Know Your Place.

More recently, writing about what he considers a crisis of the working-classes in the film industry in October’s issue of Sight & Sound, Danny Leigh speaks of our living in “a moment of gross inequality”, and asks the question: “What happens to working class talent in British cinema?” The answer, it’s safe to assume, makes for difficult reading.

“The problems outlined in the Panic!… study are deeply felt but rarely acknowledged”

One of the contributing authors to Know Your Place, Kit de Waal (a vocal figure on this issue), thinks that “the notion of social mobility has always smacked of: ‘How can we help you to be more like us?’ It seems to say that to be working class is to be a failure”. Leigh, meanwhile, recounts that his proposals for a project to celebrate working-class figures in film to a roomful of industry movers and shakers were met with bemusement. The consensus of the great and the good being that any such spotlight was unnecessary. But Leigh and de Waal, among others, are at least beginning to find traction and momentum in their respective fields.

The impact of these growing reports, publications and articles – and one feels this is just the tip of the iceberg – has been significant. For many, it’s led to an awakening of both consciousness and pride in their working-class status. Of course, for some this was never in question, and has proved crucial – along with perseverance, talent and, perhaps, anger – to sticking around long enough for a chance at success. It is, of course a nuanced, at times fraught, issue, and conversations absolutely need to be developed.

The world of visual art – where the problems outlined in the Panic!… study are deeply felt but rarely acknowledged – seems yet to have truly found its voice. In January of this year, we spoke to artist Larry Achiampong. Asked about the issue of class, Achiampong said: “I can be frank: class is such a big deal.” He reminds us:

“Achiampong reminds us that the working-class person is going to have to do crazy amounts of work simply to survive”

“Even on the basic level of resources, the working-class person is going to have to do crazy amounts of work simply to survive, versus someone who has that privilege who can really just wait for an opportunity. People of privilege can use their connections. I don’t think that kind of conversation is opened up. As a result, you tend to have conversations with people who don’t think it’s anything really to do with class, it’s just how hard you work. Excuse me, but this is bullshit.”

One feels the visual arts could do worse than look in the direction of and listen closely to what Achiampong, an artist increasingly enjoying popular exposure, is saying.

In that vein, The Double Negative hopes to foreground this conversation. Over the coming days, we will publish opinion pieces from writers currently employed in the arts, based in the North, who identify as working-class, including 2018 The Double Negative Fellow Denise Courcoux and Kenn Taylor, who is a writer and creative director. We’ll also be looking to publish YOUR stories. What are the obstacles you’ve faced and continue to grapple with? How do you relate to recent reports? Are you worried, angry, or optimistic? Make your voice heard.

Mike Pinnington

Read all the articles in this series via #classisabigdeal

Do YOU have a story (short or long) to share with our readers? Submit your experiences to and, or on TwitterInsta or Facebook #classisabigdeal

This series was conceived after long conversations with our writers, including Denise Courcoux and Kenn Taylor. We’ve written about our own experiences, and sometimes have suggestions for what can be done to improve opportunities for people in our sector.

We feel more than ever that it’s important for those who have influence and power in the arts — contemporary art, heritage, publishing, and everything in between and around the edges — to consider the issues that working class people face when entering the workplace, as part of wider intersectional concerns.

Photo by Nate Nessman on Unsplash

Posted on 22/10/2018 by thedoublenegative