A few weeks ago I visited the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh for the first time to see part of the Art Festival and GENERATION – a Scotland-wide celebration of Scottish art. The exhibition of Glaswegian artist Jim Lambie was surprisingly amusing, with one item in particular making me laugh very loudly in the silent gallery. In the corner of one room an odd-looking mask was stuck to the wall between a record player covered in glitter and an upside-down Earth, Wind and Fire poster. The mask had been made out of aluminium tape and an old pair of boxers. I found it really funny, so I laughed. Unfortunately my laughter drew the attentions of a trendy young couple whose dismissive whispers and glares made me feel embarrassed and a bit out of place. With upturned noses and not-so-subtle glares they decreed my response inappropriate and wrong and it made me feel something I rarely feel – not middle-class enough to be in an arts space.
Snobbery and class policing around art is nothing new. Art galleries and theatres, dance and classical music performances, all involve unwritten codes about what is appropriate behaviour and what will get you chucked out. These secret codes are learnt through practice and exposure to the arts, and are heavily linked to class.
As a middle-class student with lots of experience attending and participating in the arts, it is an unfamiliar feeling to be made unwelcome. Yes, I might not feel that comfortable at the opera and still have a horrifying memory of clapping at the wrong bit during a classical music concert years ago (apparently you don’t clap between the movements of symphony … ), but overall I do not find the arts alienating and exclusive. And so as August draws to a close and the overwhelming Edinburgh festivals finish for another year, it is essential that we discuss that awful spectre at the feast – class and access to the arts.
Because class is not just about how much money your family make or what job you do, it is not just about unaffordable ticket prices at the Fringe or the general feeling that the International Festival isn’t for ‘people like me’. It is also about not knowing when to clap and when to keep quiet. It is about knowing how the festivals work and negotiating the complicated multiple box offices and extensive programmes. It is about being alienated from the whole of the city centre for a month because you don’t like being harassed by confident posh students. And even if you did end up wanting to go you can’t afford the bus fare to town, never mind the ‘cheap’ tickets and the £4 pints.
So what to do about access to the festivals and more generally to arts in the UK? Firstly, we must discuss the arts within a larger discussion about societal exclusion and what we value as important and worthy of public support. With the current coalition continuing to impose austerity measures on the public sector and pushing more people into poverty, discussions about the arts can seem luxurious given ‘more important’ issues. However, a recent discussion in the Guardian, that bastion of the middle-class left, about artists organising against austerity highlights the important role the arts play in challenging dominant political agendas. In actively trying to challenge the government’s policies through art, it helps us think outside the neo-liberal framework of the government policy discussions.
When I think about those things that are fundamentally important in society - free healthcare, free education, affordable housing, a living wage or sufficient benefits to keep you alive and well if you are unable to work or unable to find work – and realise with horror that none of these are a given in the UK in the 2014, it is easy to sideline discussions about the arts. But we should not limit our demands of the government or our society to the bare minimum. If people are unable to do anything but attempt to survive what kind of society is that?
The arts have always provided a platform for anti-establishment and alternative positions to reach larger audiences and on their own terms. From the widespread discussions of Scottish independence to comedy about capitalism, mental health, and the coalition government, this year’s Edinburgh festivals have provided important and interesting musings on the political and economic system we live under in the UK, allowing people a moment to think about who or what governs them and what that means.
Even if the arts don’t explicitly address big issue politics, I believe it is important to provide space for people to just be, to think, and to enjoy something a bit funny or a bit weird like the mask in the Fruitmarket that sparked this whole discussion for me. Because the arts are always political and class is always present, whether it’s about access to making them or access to seeing them. It is perhaps fitting that Jim Lambie only made that funny wee mask out of boxers and aluminium tape because, as he explains in a video he was too broke at the time to afford other materials. There is something commendable about being that honest. He could have made up some nonsense explanation and given the illusion of a freer choice, because there is a real and poisonous stigma attached to admitting the influence of such pesky practical reasons as money on one’s art. It begins to crack the illusion that art is not just for the select few, for those posh students who inundate Edinburgh every August to add to all of us who are already studying here. Whilst some people might not like Jim Lambie’s stuff, and one guy doing something a little bit more accessible in a proper gallery in Edinburgh isn’t really that ground-breaking, at least it’s moving in the right direction.
Poverty in the UK is not just relying on food banks and being unable to heat your freezing home, it is being entirely alienated from ‘culture’; seeing nobody ‘like you’ making art because how the hell could they afford to even if they knew how and had the time? After enjoying another long exhausting Edinburgh festival I’ve had to take a step back and remember that whilst it isn’t all a pile of bourgeois shite in content, it is an incredibly inaccessible month for most people and to actually address access to the arts it’ll take a lot more than concession tickets.