Mike Quille interviews Mark Taylor, co-author of Culture is Bad For You, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, published by Manchester University Press.
Q. The usual mainstream assumption is that culture is good for you – that it’s enjoyable, keeps you healthy, socially connected, inspiring etc. So ‘Culture is Bad For You’ is an interesting title for a book – can you tell us what you mean, the kind of research you’ve been doing over the last few years, and the core arguments that you’ve developed?
A. Culture can be good for you, depending on who you are. If you’re White, you’re not disabled, you’re a man, and you grew up in a household where there was at least one adult working in a well-paid high-status job, culture’s great. You probably grew up with positive examples of art, music, theatre, and so on all around you. You might also have decided you wanted to work in the creative industries: sure, you might have had to do a couple of unpaid internships in art galleries, or you might have spent months on writing your first Fringe show that you ended up losing money on, but you had good contacts that meant you were pretty sure that a promising agent would come to one of your performances, and you could keep living in your parents’ house in London while you were putting this together.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone: not everyone who works in the creative industries fulfils the stereotype above, and it’s not as if every single wannabe actor with parental wealth ends up making it. But our research shows that this is the broad direction of travel. There are exceptions to this, where some forms of culture do more to challenge social inequalities, but overall we conclude that culture primarily reinforces existing inequalities.
The first core argument in the book is to make this explicit. Culture is sometimes narrated as a place where anyone can make it and thrive; we show that it’s much easier for some people than it is for others. But we also want to unpack some of the reasons why this is, rather than stopping once we’ve mapped out the numbers. The second core argument is that this isn’t a new phenomenon. We often hear claims that there was a “golden age” in cultural work, and that the situation’s got worse more recently, particularly with reference to social class: we show that this is entirely due to changes in the labour market, and that cultural work has always been unequal. The third core argument is that negative aspects of cultural work that seem ubiquitous – for example, periods of working for free and navigating a freelance lifestyle – are in fact experienced very differently by different people, where they can be seen as freeing and exciting for people who are better-resourced and fit the “somatic norm” of a White middle-class man, but crushing inevitabilities for people with less money to fall back on and those who don’t fit that stereotype.
So culture can be bad for you if you’re working in the cultural industries and you don’t fit that stereotype of a middle-class, White, male person. What about as consumers of culture, can culture be bad for you then? And can you say something about how culture is defined?
When we’re asking how culture is defined, we need to think about who’s defining culture. For some people, “culture” will mean “the sorts of things that were funded by the Arts Council sixty years ago”: literary fiction, classical music, ballet, experimental theatre. For others, “culture” will mean hanging out with friends, going to gigs in independent venues, going to non-league football matches, or attending religious ceremonies. Both groups are right, but the first group tends to have its voice heard more often than the second group. It’s important to recognise that there are people who are in both groups, and that there’s plenty of other equally valid approaches to defining culture.
Consuming culture can be bad for you in much the same way that producing culture can be. Consistent with other research – people have known about this for decades! – patterns of attending different kinds of events, and patterns of people’s cultural tastes, are strongly associated with dimensions of social inequality, such as social class. The activities which skew most heavily towards people in the most privileged positions also tend to be the ones which are heavily subsidised by organisations like the Arts Council. This isn’t a criticism of the Arts Council, who are doing their best; it’s impossible to revert long-term patterns in a single strategy document. This means that the overall effect can be that when people from less privileged backgrounds attend these sorts of activities, they can feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Another effect can be that the activities whose audiences are largely from less privileged backgrounds are less well-supported financially, with programmes more likely to be cut. Of course, this isn’t deterministic: we’re not saying that every single working-class person walking into an opera house will feel uncomfortable and won’t come back. However, several of our participants from historically marginalised groups reported feeling uncomfortable and marginalised as cultural consumers, just as they did as cultural producers.
Ok so your research suggests that there are deep and enduring inequalities both in the production of culture, and in its consumption. Is this true of all cultural experiences, or are there exceptions? Is the pattern of inequality broadly the same in all regions of England? Your book also suggests that the inequalities are ‘intersectional’, involving social class, gender and ethnic background. What does this mean, and what is the relationship between inequalities in the cultural sector and inequalities in wider society?
In many ways, everything is an exception! Thinking about consumption, there are some activities that seem to cut across different groups much more than others. Carnivals are a good example: there’s similar fractions of people from different social classes, similar fractions of men and women, and similar fractions of White people and people of colour. (There’s also more younger people than older people, which is the reverse of the pattern that we see for a lot of activities). Video games are another good example.
Thinking about production is a bit different. We can start by comparing people working in film & TV with people working in museums, galleries & libraries. At first blush, they look very different; 29% of people working in film & TV are women, while 81% of people working in museums, galleries, and libraries are. So if your goal was to get all sectors to 50:50, you’d have to take a very different approach. Then again, what both sectors have in common is that the workforces get more male as jobs get more senior. So, while they’re different from each other, they’re not as far apart as you might think.
The patterns of inequality aren’t the same in all regions of England, but in many ways that reflects the large fraction of cultural jobs that are in London. We find that you’re much more likely to end up working in a cultural job if you grew up in London, and that’s after we take into account the strong associations with parental social class, education, ethnic group, and gender.
Finally, we find that the intersectional experience is really important. Some of the people who’d had the most negative experiences working in culture were women of colour from working-class backgrounds. Of course, these experiences of working in culture reflect wider society. But we found that some of the informal structures of cultural work, such as people getting jobs through informal networks and a hostility from more senior people to what they see as bureaucracy, can make the situation worse.
It seems to be a very sobering, not to say depressing, picture that’s emerged from your research – but it’s one that clearly has major implications for cultural policies and strategies. The research seems to confirm theories which claim that ruling classes and elites own and control cultural production and consumption in order to reinforce and legitimise wider economic exploitation and social oppression of women and people of colour – or perhaps to divert attention away from it. Is that fair to say? And is there any reason to suppose that other cultural activities, such as sport, or religion, or broadcast and social media, differ significantly from this picture of structural inequality?
I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Some of our participants were senior White men from middle-class backgrounds who are working, or who have worked, in senior roles in cultural organisations. Of course, we wouldn’t expect them to explicitly say that they’re reinforcing and legitimising economic exploitation and social oppression of historically marginalised groups, but it went further than that: they described a real distress at the inequalities in their sectors and recognised how they personally exemplified structural problems. It’s for this reason that I don’t think it’ll be possible to transform inequalities in the cultural sector by addressing the cultural sector alone. When you have a sector that large numbers of people want to work in, people who go in with better resources are in a stronger position. This can’t be overturned with changes to how the Arts Council distributes money; I often find myself thinking that the most significant way to confront inequalities in the cultural sector would be to transform legislation around private rented accommodation.
In terms of how other activities differ from this picture of structural inequalities, I’d point to work by people like Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman, who’ve investigated how the fractions of people from different backgrounds vary across industries. Culture, as you’d suspect, isn’t alone: in fact, it’s very similar to higher education.
If it’s true, as your research clearly seems to demonstrate, that class-based inequalities in cultural production and consumption mirror wider social and economic inequalities and class divisions, and that generally they reinforce and legitimise those inequalities, what should be done? What kinds of policies on culture should the current government adopt to deliver the promise of ‘levelling up’ the North?
What should ACE, local authorities and other bodies charged with managing and funding cultural experiences do to tackle the problem? What role should the labour movement – trade unions, trades councils, the Labour Party and other political parties – play? Should we be aiming to protest the unequal situation of working-class people, seek representation on strategic bodies like Compacts? Should we set up and support our own theatre groups, film networks, publishing houses etc?
A lot of the kinds of policy interventions that would be most effective in confronting inequalities in the cultural sector are broader than the sector itself. A simple example is formally regulating (and almost certainly banning) unpaid internships: the consequences of unpaid internships are particularly visible in cultural work, but it’s just as important for think tanks and the policy research environment more broadly.
A more complicated example is housing: several of our interviewees reported spending large amounts of money on low-quality accommodation in London where they were on edge about their landlord ending their tenancy at no notice. A few different policies would get at this: regulation of the private rented sector to look more like Germany; far more socially rented housing to look more like Austria; more homes being built so that housing is no longer such a scarce resource. This kind of transformation wouldn’t be targeted at the cultural sector, but for me it would be the most effective way to confront existing inequalities.
This doesn’t mean that the cultural sector is off the hook. It’s easy to blame broader structures for the inequalities in the sector, rather than taking responsibility. There are things that organisations like the Arts Council and DCMS could do, given the right support, such as committing amounts of money to Black-led organisations. There’s a very interesting and persuasive argument for this that Kevin Osborne’s recently written, that I’d recommend people read.
For people working in the sector, the first thing to draw attention to is campaigning and activism. There’s organisations operating in and around cultural work that are drawing attention to the inequalities in culture, and doing things about it – I’d particularly highlight Arts Emergency, who both campaign around these issues and work directly with young people from historically marginalised to improve their chances of working in culture. People working in and around culture can support campaigning charities like Arts Emergency as individuals; they can also try to convince their organisations for an institutional commitment. We should recognise that the unusual working patterns of a large number of people in the sector aren’t symptomatic of a stereotypical contract – although the precarity associated with cultural workers goes far beyond them – and defend and extend workers’ rights and conditions through trade unions.
Beyond this, a radical approach to addressing these inequalities needs radical measures. In the book, we suggest that it’ll be necessary to bypass current modes of cultural production: big changes don’t start by transforming the Tate, but by starting something new. We suspect that this is likely to follow from new digital business models, driven and controlled by the marginalised themselves. In addition, there’s also a responsibility from audiences: if there’s an alternative to mainstream cultural production, with all the problems that we describe in the book, then we should support it.
We demonstrate in the book that there’s an overwhelming belief in the power of culture: culture can change lives. This isn’t a marginal issue that we can deal with once we’ve confronted all the other inequalities and injustices in the world, it’s inextricably linked to them. At the moment, the power of culture is often negative. If we want to transform that, everyone needs to do their part.
Culture is Bad For You, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, is published by Manchester University Press.