Notes on Class and the Contemporary Arts: Class IS A Big Deal

Robert Holcombe - Immersion II (Milk Capital - Dayglo) [1970]

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, artist Wayne Burrows writes from the perspective of a “maker of culture”… 

“The catch is that we understand exactly what must be done to achieve success while being aware that success on the terms available guarantees the failure of the art itself by its own most important measures.”

From A Thousand Empty Bowls (A Provocation), 2017


Class is a fraught subject in general, but when applied to the arts carries a lot of distorting baggage. By far the most elephantine trunk in the luggage-set is a Catch 22 sense that simply by having an interest in art – let alone attempting to work in the sector – we forfeit our working class credentials almost by default. There’s an assumption shared by both the media and the managers and bureaucrats of the art world itself that the working class is at least partly defined by its lack of interest in art, its inarticulacy on the subject, and this manifests in both a lack of any committed coverage of the sector in non-specialist media and an attitude in discussions of widening access that see us as untapped ‘hard to reach’ audiences and occasional unpaid participants in community projects rather than active makers of culture on our own terms. Among administrators, journalists and much of the public – even many of those working in the ‘social practice’ sectors that set out to engage us with notions of Great Art For Everyone and Cultural Democracy – there remains a defensive but prevalent assumption that if we are sufficiently articulate to challenge the preconceptions on which these things operate we are also, by definition, not ‘really’ working class and can therefore be safely ignored on those relatively rare occasions when the subject comes up for debate.


During a recent conversation about work with a relative, he said something along the lines of “…but I suppose you went into the arts while I have to live in the real world.” It wasn’t meant maliciously, simply thrown in as a casual aside, but it clearly reflects a deep-rooted belief that the arts aren’t generally regarded as real work, or real life. This is possibly why arguments about lack of payment and poor working conditions for artists rarely fall on sympathetic ears: if the arts are not for ‘us’, and those we do see participating are not visibly short of resources, why would they? Any article raising the issue online will immediately attract strings of angry comments that suggest regular salaries, pensions, paid sickness and annual holiday leave, all largely taken for granted as entitlements among the holders of salaried ‘real world’ jobs (let’s say, for the sake of argument, jobs in digital marketing, corporate law, consultancy, PR and Human Resources, sometimes even at the more secure levels of arts management and administration) are perfectly reasonable expectations until applied to artists. If people want to indulge themselves in making art, the argument usually goes, we should fund it ourselves by getting proper jobs, do it in our spare time, and if in the process we somehow manage to sell enough of our work in the open market to cover basic living expenses then that is exactly as things should be.

“Making and experiencing art depends on having the free time and space, the physical and mental energy”


There are numerous problems with this position, of course, not least that the market is far from open and the kinds of ‘proper jobs’ – in teaching, copywriting, illustration, journalism, retail and the like – that might once have played this role for artists have in recent years seen their pay rates, terms and conditions eroded to a point where they now mostly run on zero hours contracts, vast quantities of unpaid time spent on applications and speculative meetings, and prove no more reliable than making art as sustainable sources of income. Where salaries and some notional job security do remain, the idea of these jobs providing any spare time to develop a viable practice alongside the job itself is mostly a distant memory: the realities are long hours, exhaustion and 24/7 stress. To view the situations of artists, writers, musicians, film-makers and performers in terms separate from the situations of cleaners and factory workers, shop and bar staff, teachers, nurses and security personnel, whether skilled and unskilled, in the public or private sectors, is a mistake. We have all been subject to the same engineering of political and economic forces over the last 30-odd years, undermining our conditions of employment and income security to a point where the gig economy has, in places, managed to reintroduce conditions last experienced by dockers, labourers and factory hands during the 1930s. These things are connected precisely because making and experiencing art, like unpaid care work, maintenance of community, cooking, gardening, playing sports and sustaining family life in general, always depends on having the free time and space, the physical and mental energy, to pursue them.


To talk about the role played by class in the arts in terms separate from its operations in these wider contexts is counter-productive, then. Perhaps it’s also worth noting, given the tendency to view class through a cultural filter – something expressed mainly in preferences for ITV over HBO, tabloids over broadsheets, lard over olive oil and the rest – that if we consider ‘working class’ solely in its traditional Marxist sense, meaning that we are defined by our dependence on waged labour for day-to-day survival, large segments of the formerly middling ranks of the old middle class have long been stuck aboard this leaky boat alongside us. True, some might still enjoy marginally more cushioned berths, accessed through family connections and accrued cultural capital, and many remain in denial about diminished status despite the fact that their children’s mountainous debts and zero hour, short term contracts continue to depreciate, but we are all subject to similar political forces. The distinction between working and regular middle class is now maintained largely because an even more precipitous decline in conditions is taking place further down the social scale. However bad things get in the cubicles and open plan offices of traditionally white collar sectors, they are worsening even more rapidly for the cleaners, warehouse hands and low-end production line workers whose shifts and working conditions are dictated by the outsourced agencies now routinely used to supply their labour to employers.

“The employment ecosystem has doubled down on its tendency to reward roles in inverse proportion to their proximity to production”


My own experience of these kinds of employment agencies in the latter half of the 1990s – working on pet-food canning and oven chip factory production lines, or unloading containers in vast out-of-town warehouses – was of a sector where low pay, short payments, unrecorded shifts, lump sum deductions for unsupplied safety gear and many other abuses were rife, and a few days – or in a few cases weeks – in which there would mysteriously be no available shifts invariably followed any complaints or corrections. Punitive restrictions on benefit claims had already removed most employees’ ability to walk away. These conditions have become far more widespread and general in the years since, and the employment ecosystem has long since doubled down, then doubled down again, on its tendency to reward roles in inverse proportion to their proximity to actual delivery and production. If teaching is a career dead end within academia, actual nursing a dead end within hospital trusts, then in the arts, too, the roles that command salaries, status and influence are largely reserved for institutional directors, the CEOs of national and regional bridge organisations, re-branded quangos, arts agencies, consultancies, educational bodies and other intermediaries, each with its own inevitable layer of internal management and administrative support system. These intermediate managerial and strategic bodies function all too often in ways that are closely analogous to the outsourced agencies of the wider employment sector.


One factor since the later 1990s has been the emergence of distinct professional networks tasked with Cultural Leadership. As a concept this has been refined to a point where organisations like Clore Foundation operate codified, almost Scientology-like, selective programmes where the values of the Business School MBA and Silicon Valley tech sectors combine with a veneer of social and ecological concern across a range of key positions throughout the arts. The holders of these positions tend to draw their language, strategies and approach more from models supplied by corporate lobbying, privately financed think tanks and TED talks than connections to working artists or potential audiences, operating as a kind of managerial nomenklatura on the strategic, conference and consultancy circuits. Subscribing to lists such as Arts Jobs confirms this trend, making it clear on a daily basis that the work most valued even within the arts sector itself consists mainly of administrative and managerial posts, lightly punctuated with walk-on roles for artists themselves. Where artists’ roles are paid, which is far from guaranteed, the advertised commissions and opportunities tend to be highly prescriptive in terms of age limits, medium, process, content, approach and required result, often amounting to contract work under the direction of project managers’ briefings rather than art-making in any more recognisable sense.

“The use of ‘practice’ to define our activity warrants more suspicion than it is usually given”


One clue as to the precise nature of this shift in employment relationships can be seen in the relatively recent change to ‘practice’ as the standard term to describe artists’ work. As a linguistic usage, ‘practice’, intentionally or otherwise, repositions artists within a model provided by sectors like law and medicine, where long specialised training is followed by placements with recognised institutions before licenses to practice independently are issued – licenses that can, of course, also be refused or revoked by institutional authorities. This adoption of a descriptor for artists’ activity from the tightly controlled middle class professions seems far from accidental, occurring as it does during a period when increasingly expensive qualifications have become crucial to artists’ chances of exhibiting and thereby being considered artists at all. Defining ourselves as artists by the act of making art is a universally accessible possibility, whatever the results might be, but to be considered an artist only when trained and licensed to practice by selective institutions – seeing our work judged by its provenance rather than its existence, substance or effect – marks a kind of back-door contemporary return to the kind of nineteenth century Academic Salon systems usually supposed to have been discredited after the 1830s. This is nothing new, insofar as provenance and context always shape the reception and reading of an artist’s work, but as a marker of this shift in power from artist to institutional manager the use of ‘practice’ to define our activity warrants more suspicion than it is usually given.


If this wasn’t enough, there has also been a structural shift in the economic base of the arts, with artists not only decreasingly often paid, or paid at lower rates than others in the sector, but all-too frequently expected to pay for access to potential platforms as well. The obvious example of this is the increase in fees required for study since 2012, with many degree and MFA programmes selling themselves with an implicit promise of access to otherwise closed networks and opportunities restricted to graduates of recognised institutions. It also covers subscriptions, membership fees, artist-financed exhibitions, donations of time and labour, travel, and much else besides. Given the insecure condition of many teaching staff within universities and the necessity for unsupported students to go into deep debt while simultaneously working multiple part time jobs to cover basic rent and living costs in the high-cost cities where most institutions are based, odds stack heavily against eventual success in taking the costly gamble of attending a university in the first place: even successful artists can remain dependent, even decades into high visibility careers, on a succession of insecure part time teaching contracts whose terms and conditions continue to erode.

“Access to markets is frequently decided on a ‘pay to play’ basis”


It needs to be noted that this does not happen because these artists have no audience or demand for their work. It happens because fees paid to artists for making exhibitions and delivering projects are too often barely sufficient to cover the expenses and costs of fabrication, materials and research, with time factored in at hourly rates that can only be justified as legal by being grossly underestimated. It’s not unusual for temporary roles paying superficially generous hourly rates for two days per week to require expensive travel and carry work-loads that demand three or four days each week to deliver without compromising quality or neglecting co-workers and students. It happens because access to markets is frequently decided on a ‘pay to play’ basis, whether in the form of hire charges, commission or competition submission entry fees, requirements to network that incur travel and accommodation expenses, unpaid residencies that – even when nominally supported and not actively charging submission or accommodation fees, as many also do – still demand an ability to take anything between a week and six months off other work to participate in. There is a proliferation of paid-for courses offering networking support and advice on how to ‘be creative’, on how to navigate the art world’s all-too opaque systems, sold on the basis that we need to ‘invest in ourselves’ while omitting to note that these opportunities are unlikely to cover the costs of the financial investments made under these prevailing conditions.


It might be argued, correctly, that much of this is about wider questions of pay and insecure employment rather than class in some more specific sense, but if class is not about the unequal distribution of resources at a systemic level then it is not class we are talking about. The lack of pathways into the art world capable of supporting even a basic standard of living without the aid of parental or institutional support forms by far the steepest barrier to entry and progression. Many of the schemes and strategies aimed at improving this, without addressing the fundamental issue, have a tendency to generate further, usually unintended, discriminatory effects. Age-restricted programmes for emerging artists offer one example, mainly benefiting those from backgrounds where opportunities are clearly signposted and the need to access highly specialised networks is understood at a young age. Those left to figure it out by trial and error tend to get started later, now further disadvantaged by no longer being the youngest things around. The expectation that artists should establish themselves early has a well-documented gender bias, but this less-readily acknowledged class bias is a factor too. Counter-examples and anecdotes in the traditional ‘rags to riches’ idiom are sometimes used to deny this, and it’s true that outliers with temperaments suited to the hustle, with knowledge of where the doors are and the confidence or sense of entitlement to push at them, who are gifted in self-promotion or happen to wander into the right place at the right time, might occasionally succeed despite these heavily stacked odds. But this rarely relates to their potential or actual achievement as artists, and still comes with the proviso that the likelihood of success rapidly diminishes the further from a financially supportive and already well-connected social background that artist begins.

“The arts are not insulated from the structural changes in employment conditions that have afflicted other sectors”


If all this is the case, it might seem paradoxical that we are also in a period when inclusion, widening access and broadening the remits of art are explicitly stated priorities among funding bodies and within institutions at all levels, as evidenced by a mountain of consultation papers, panel discussions, strategic documents and mission statements. But perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that – when analysed in systemic terms – the moment when previously excluded demographics defined by class, race, disability, sexuality or gender begin to gain some tentative access, as artists, to the institutions of the art world, we also see their arrival coincide with a shift of rewards and power within that sector to a professional class of ‘cultural leaders’ and institutional managers whose transfers around the art world’s administrative infrastructure are more lucrative and influential than the seemingly interchangeable works of the artists put on display within it. This is not to question anyone’s good intentions, or infer cynical motives, simply to acknowledge that the arts are not insulated from the kinds of structural changes in employment conditions and distribution of resources – notably widening inequality and the erosion of wages and job security taking place under ever-increasing administrative supervision at the hands of a disproportionately rewarded higher management – that, since the latter half of the 1980s, have afflicted every other sector of the wider economy to one degree or another as well.


Nor is this to claim that things are uniquely difficult today, despite the fact that many things have demonstrably worsened under the reverse redistribution of resources sold as ‘austerity’ since the systemic market failures of 2008. There was no Golden Age, and in many ways the situation has incrementally, if unevenly, improved for individual artists relative to bodies like the Arts Council since the days when resources were allocated mainly on the basis of proofs of existing success within fairly narrow cliques, or vast sums were thrown at dubious quangos to pursue the instrumentalisation of the ‘creative industries’ in the name of speculative redevelopment, large scale civic vanity projects and technocratic education. In campaigning for better representation and distribution of resources we will always need to be careful to not simplistically define ourselves or fall back on reductive cultural representations of our lives by way of cults of ordinariness, reflexive anti-intellectualism or obsessions with trivial cultural markers, even where these moves might buy access to institutional spaces, where we will necessarily remain not only replaceable but among the lowest-paid occupants. We need to acknowledge our roots in autodidacticism and self-definition as much as our traditions of place and community, and embrace the imaginative transformations of William Blake, Madge Gill and Mark E Smith as readily as the socially embedded realisms of Andrea Dunbar, LS Lowry and Handsworth Songs, all while refusing attempts to file the strongly-correlated issues of class, race, disability, sexuality and gender in discretely competing boxes. This requires an approach that resists populism without falling into cultural snobbery and remains conscious of the difference between making demands for resources to be set aside for what we are assumed to want or need by others and taking those resources into our own hands.

Wayne Burrows

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.

Image: Robert Holcombe: Immersions II (Milk Capital) and fictionally dated 1971

Posted on 18/01/2019 by thedoublenegative