By Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor
It’s a strange time to proclaim something as bold as ‘culture is bad for you’. Across the world we can see lockdown and reopening presenting significant challenges to those parts of the cultural sector dependent on visitors and on audiences. In the UK, the press is full of tales of culture in crisis, with redundancies sitting alongside potential organisational and business failures.
This is not the whole story. Some parts of the cultural sector, those most able to take advantage of the boom in demand for digital content as people have stayed at home, may be doing well. Those sections of the cultural industries aside, the future for culture is troubling. It is troubling because the impact of the crisis is not evenly distributed. COVID has exposed and reinforced the longstanding, embedded, structural inequalities that characterise the cultural sector.
Culture is bad for you maps and explains these inequalities. The book demonstrates the issues that characterise the production and consumption of culture. These include the persistent under-representation of those from working class backgrounds within the cultural workforce, and the dominance of well-educated, high-status middle classes within arts audiences.
This analysis of nationally representative quantitative data shows the patterns of inequality in contemporary society. The rest of the book is about explaining how these patterns are sustained and replicated. Inequality begins young, with clear differences in access to culture in school and in the home. These differences in childhood cultural engagement set up lifelong divergences in the chances of different demographic groups making it into cultural occupations.
The expectation of unpaid labour is now endemic to the cultural sector. It is experienced differently according to social class: for those from middle class origins, with the most economic, social, and cultural resources, unpaid work is an investment in their career. It might mean a show at the Fringe, an internship at a prestigious publishing house, or working for free on their first short film; For those from working class origins, unpaid work is experienced as exploitation, as dead-end opportunities that most often lead nowhere.
The book stresses the need to understand inequality in an intersectional way. It focuses on how race, class, and gender interrelate, privileging some whilst punishing others. For women of colour who are socially mobile, the experience of cultural occupations and cultural institutions is of an often hostile environment. For white, middle class origin men, the experience is of a smoother rise to the top of organisations, institutions, and art forms.
At this moment of uncertainty, it is understandable that many seek a return to normal, to business as usual. Commissioners, funders, and investors in culture may worry about taking risks. Sadly, as Culture is bad for you demonstrates, what counts as ‘risky’ in the cultural sector is, very wrongly, associated with women, ethnic minorities, and those from working class origins. This must be challenged and these mistaken attitudes must change.
The irony is that the real risk is to seek a return to business as usual. Business as usual, to give a few examples of inequalities that the book makes clear, excluded women of colour; it had no room for women with caring responsibilities; its audiences were disproportionately those from the affluent middle class; and it failed to fully reflect, and adequately represent, society. As we recover and rebuild, a ‘business as usual’ cultural sector will struggle to find legitimacy if it reverts back to an exclusive workforce and an exclusive audience. The prize is a cultural sector that is more open, more innovative, and ultimately, more economically and socially secure. Culture is bad for you shows what has to be fought against to win that prize.
Culture is bad for you is available now.
Orian Brook is an AHRC Creative and Digital Economy Innovation Leadership Fellow at the University of Edinburgh
Dave O’Brien is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Edinburgh
Mark Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the University of Sheffield