The State and art & design education in England: Part Three, exclusion past, present and future 

This blog series has kindly been provided by

Vanessa Corby

Professor Theory, History and Practice of Art
York St John University

While scratching my head about how to bring these blog posts to a close I kept coming back to an important exchange with a new student last year. At YSJU our Level 4 contextual studies curriculum asks students to question their perception of art and artists, drawing on seminar readings that perceive practice as a means of making sense of self and world, a vehicle for political critique and social change. ‘But Vanessa’, my new student countered ‘outside these walls nobody cares about art’. I imagine, perhaps unjustly (but I doubt it), that this opinion is an afront to the gatekeepers of Higher Education who never tire of deriding students today because they don’t know anything. Or, if the listener’s baseline expectations are more kindly disposed, that it’s sadly indicative of a lack of cultural capital, an ignorance of the discourses that speak to the complexity, diversity, and global significance of the discipline, which their education, in time, will fix. In other words, it’s not us its him.

To my way of thinking however, it is precisely because this student, let’s call him Jack, was not yet immersed in the narratives that fuel the discipline’s sense of self-importance that we need to listen to him. In only the third week of his degree Jack saw the gap between his curriculum and the ‘deficit of credibility’ under which creative subjects labour (Fricker, 2007). He didn’t articulate it in Fricker’s terms, he didn’t need to, his astute insight was born of a world in which art has no place, where his love of his subject and hopes for the future are unfathomable. The task which faces creative Higher Education, and the creative sector is, as I said in the first post, to take a long hard look at this gap, at the systematic discrimination at work in our discipline, and how these exclusions make it culpable in its own cultural, economic, educational and social precarity.

In 2023 a longitudinal study was published in the journal Sociology that analysed fifty-years of creative occupation employment data from the Office of National Statistics (Brook et al). Its aim was to question the commonly held perception that the want of inclusivity in the creative sector is a relatively new phenomenon, which stands in contrast to a heyday of ‘openness’ in the arts in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Their analysis found that the odds of employment for graduates from the most affluent backgrounds was double that of a peer from the working-class. Perhaps more shockingly, though not surprisingly, they also found that compared to people who were working-class and/or from ethnic minorities and/or women, a person was still ‘three times’ more likely to have a job in the creative occupations if they were male, came from an affluent background, lived in London, and yet didn’t have a degree (2023: 801). The systemic inequality of the creative sector is not, they argue, a recent development but endemic. Contrary to the belief that the arts were once a haven of meritocracy, they argue that opportunity for creative work is and always has been ‘profoundly unequal in class terms’ and that ‘gender and ethnicity compound inequalities of access to the cultural sector’ (2023:802).

This research is a game changer for the creative sector in two crucial ways. First, in no uncertain terms, it reveals just how much the odds of the Office for Students’ key performance indicators are stacked against academics and senior leadership teams working in widening participation universities, charged as we are with creating equal employment opportunities in a shamefully unequal society. As Brook et al. argue the relative advantage or disadvantage of socio-economic circumstances reflect ‘the continuing importance of traditional – family, and school-based – networks, and accumulated cultural capital, in mediating access to desirable jobs’ (2023). If the English education system doesn’t change, the class bias of the creative sector’s workforce will remain; cemented by the enhanced curricula and social networks of grammar, private, and ‘good’ state schools that select by via exclusion and postcode. This is an educational experience that is diametrically opposed to the heavy implementation of the EBacc in disadvantaged areas by schools desperate to placate Ofsted and enhance their chances of survival via league table performance (Centre for Social Justice, 2023).
Second, Brook et al. lift the veil of misplaced nostalgia that has been consolidated by the view that external forces (austerity’s cuts to arts funding, the EBacc, and the imposition of tuition fees) are wholly to blame for the exclusivity of our discipline. Again, it’s not us, its them. The arts have never been inclusive; Bourdieu said as much in 1999; our discipline is a toxic ‘universe where the operative principles are aesthetic qualities’ (2017). As he noted in his lectures on Manet and the École des Beaux Arts, ‘even today, the intellectual and artistic milieu tolerates people of humble origins much less well than the bourgeoise’, disadvantaged as they are by the vital attributes of ‘accent’ and deportment (2017). The tyrannical effects of what Bourdieu named the ‘pure aesthetic’ are evident everywhere (2006). It festers Bourdieu’s contempt for the parochialism he ascribes to Courbet (2017); it lingers in the office next door, home to my colleague who was recently accosted by a conference delegate who cheerfully informed him, ‘with that accent I thought you would be thick!’ Perhaps more startling, however, is that these claims to openness reek of the creative bohemian idyll, whose rhetoric legitimated decades of patriarchal, predatory studio culture. To claim that the arts were more open and inclusive in the past is to remove the discipline’s moral obligation to interrogate the exclusionary practices that shape its baseline assumptions in the present.

A timely examination of these mechanisms of displacement and their contiguity with wider economic, racial and social structural inequality in Britain, could be seen at the Baltic, Gateshead, last summer in the films of British-Ghanian artist Larry Achiampong. Wayfinder (2022, trailer) draws on gaming vernacular, following a lone character as they pursue a quest from place to place across a land from which they are estranged, fruitlessly searching for an affirmation of the right to be, to belong. Setting out from the wilds of Northumberland, the film’s black female protagonist finds themselves in the vestibule of the opulent Barry Rooms of the National Gallery, London. Vertiginous camera work reels from the eight great white male artists that adorn the cornice to walls hung exclusively with white, female nudes, disorientating the viewer. No longer at home in art’s pantheon the viewer is thus made ready to hear the barbed tone of the narrator; ‘our tutor challenged us with a task, to imagine things as you pictured them. As though there wasn’t an insurmountable gap between us’ (2022). Expulsion (2018, trailer) presents a more direct critique of the steady tide of micro and macroaggressions that embed disadvantage; the trap of low paid migrant work for the have nots, the failure of New Labour’s promise of ‘education, education, education’ for the successful graduate who collects JSA (Job Seeker’s Allowance); all thrown into sharp relief by the mindless pursuit of things for the haves.
Expulsion and Wayfinder bring me back to the point I have been labouring about the inadequacies of a pedagogical culture built on appreciation and assimilation; the gap between consumerism, legitimate cultural capital and the ‘culture of necessity’ that governs the lives of everyday people (Bourdieu, 2006). In Britain today the gap between rich and poor continues to widen at an alarming rate (Equality Trust, 2023; Centre for Social Justice, 2023). But what Achiampong intimates and I want to emphasise is this isn’t so much a widening chasm as a cycle of excess, self-interest, and exploitation. In this context I want to suggest that the government’s Creative Industries Sector Vision published in June, which sets out plans to grow its revenue by £50bn by 2030 (UK Gov, 2023), isn’t a lifeline for the arts it’s another nail in the coffin. The one million jobs Rishi Sunak promises in that document will not be open to all, but to those who have made it through a highly select talent pipeline. The continued ‘monetization of creativity’ will partition off good art and design for those who can afford them. Culture will be confined to the novelties legitimized by a society committed to the exceptionalism of individuals, conveniently masking the homogeneity demanded by market forces and the exclusion they cement (Mould, 2018; Adorno, 1975).


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