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Arts and class… new research demonstrates something that might seem sort of obvious. February 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture.


For those of you who peruse the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) website you are likely to come across the following. For the ESRI and the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) have sponsored a report entitled “In the Frame or Out of the Picture? A Statistical Analysis of Public Involvement in the Arts”. It’s quite interesting, but the conclusions… well, they’re hardly surprising.

And a piece that announced this in the Irish Times on Monday noted some of the main findings:

PEOPLE FROM less well-off backgrounds are many times less likely to go to the cinema, music concerts or art exhibitions, new research shows.

Although education has the strongest influence on whether people attend arts events, people of higher income or social class are also much more likely to attend.

For example, people with a degree are nearly three times more likely to go to a film and twice as likely to attend a play or art exhibition compared with the rest of the population.

This can hardly be news, can it? Many years ago I was involved in arts administration. It was an interesting opportunity to get an insight into how the arts are structured in Ireland, and have at least some insight into the NI and UK experience. A couple of fairly obvious impressions. Firstly the arts live in a curiously symbiotic embrace with the state. Their individualism (and collectivism) draw directly upon state funding. I’m well past the argument of why we benefit from such funding, but…that said we’re not necessarily all benefiting equally, or anywhere close to equally from it. Secondly those involved tend, in the main, to be drawn from the middle classes. Neither of these is, per se, a problem, but it does indicate the terrain upon which we tread. Now, lest it seem that my second point there is an outrageous example of classism consider the following:

“What is striking is the range of events affected,” said Dr Lunn. “Social background strongly influences attendance right across the arts spectrum, from a classical concert to a gig in the pub, or from the school play to the latest blockbuster.”

Other findings show that those from less well-off backgrounds are not as likely to read for pleasure.

But the same pattern does not occur for direct participation in the arts, such as playing an instrument or performing in shows, where social background has a much weaker influence.

This is probably less true for those who organise the arts, a reasonably significant group. No, hold on, it is true of those, and moreover, as the report itself (available as PDF from the ESRI here – go to the publications page) notes:

A third policy implication arises from the finding that awareness of arts officers is heavily skewed towards higher socio-economic groups. This raises a concrete example of the kind of resource trade-offs that policy-makers must make. The result does not imply that arts officers do not do a good job, for that depends on how much emphasis is to be placed on reaching out to more disadvantaged communities as opposed to other duties. Certainly, it suggests that if cultural inclusion is to be taken seriously, a degree of redirection and training, as envisaged in NESF (2007) will be required.

Still, what are the reasons for all this? I can guess of one in particular… but let us turn to the conclusion of the Report.

It argues that:

the number of potential causal routes between socio-economic status and involvement in the arts is such that to offer a single explanation for the primary conclusion just arrived at is a daunting task.

Which is true, but… some effort should be made…

Take educational attainment. An individual with higher attainment is more likely to have been born to educated parents, who in turn would be more likely to be involved in the arts themselves. She or he will have spent longer in full-time education, surrounded by people also more likely to have a connection to the arts and, in many cases, to be studying them.

So, it’s a cultural thing.

After moving into the labour force, the individual is more likely to be surrounded by a network of other educated people, who have experienced the same advantages. Note that all of these advantages listed thus far do not take into account the simple possibility that education itself stimulates interest in the arts and promotes faculties useful for comprehending and enjoyingthe number of potential causal routes between socio-economic status and involvement in the arts is such that to offer a single explanation for the primary conclusion just arrived at is a daunting task.

No wait, that sounds like class to me, at least in part.

Still, something is missing, some factor which might in the past have predicated, even before acculturation through the relatively recently developed upper working and middle classes extant on this island, against widespread participation by those from less well off socio-economic groups.

After all, the report also notes that:

Nevertheless, there is some evidence arising from the present study that the impact of socio-economic factors extends beyond their influence on interests and tastes. The models described in Section 5 show that even comparing individuals who profess the same interest in the arts and who watch or listen to television, radio, CDs or DVDs of a particular artform, those in more advantageous circumstances are still considerably more likely actually to attend an event.

Which means there is some other factor. Something… like…perhaps…

cost – it is more expensive to attend arts events than to watch or listen. Recall that a more accurate measure of household income would be likely to be still more strongly related to involvement in the arts than is indicated by the figures presented.

Cost… who’d have thunk it? Well, actually no end of people. We see in a report available here that “Barriers to participation” include:

Family commitments, time, cost, transport, literacy, social & psychological barriers (Dec 2006 survey)

Indeed a press release from the Department of Arts, Sports, and Tourism notes that the Arts and Culture Plan 2008 will:

Also, as part of the increased access initiative, [see] proposals will be drawn up this year for the launch of a new National Cultural Day, which will begin in 2009, during which admission prices will be removed or reduced for events at publicly funded organisations.

But this is the point. If there is already a ‘social or psychological’ barrier extant that somehow arts and cultural activities are in some sense beyond the pale or elitist (not an entirely incorrect notion as it happens) then the very costs of engaging with such activities reinforces precisely those barriers and prejudices.

It is revealing, to me at least, that in Section 9, under Further Research the authors admit that:

In particular, no details of individual and regular involvements with the arts were collected, such as duration, time, context, cost, frequency, initial contact etc. Moreover, the range of background characteristics was narrow.

Yet the report suggests that:

The data analysed here also provide some suggestion that cost may be a factor for them, and so subsidies to reduce ticket prices associated with targeted marketing could be fruitful.

I’m certainly not arguing that cost alone is the determining factor. As the report notes…

Another potentially important factor, as implied by the example of educational attainment just described, is networks. We do not have data on how people first become involved, or what leads them to develop the habit of attending arts events, but social and family networks may be very instrumental.

But cost is crucial to the process of engaging with the arts and pivotal to the reinforcement of negative attitudes towards the arts. And as the report notes this isn’t restricted to the ‘high’ arts but also to cinema, music and other seemingly less elitist pursuits. And this fact that even supposedly ‘popular’ events such as music are in actual fact still tilted towards middle class participation is almost, but not quite, entertaining. Or as the Irish Times notes:

They [people with a degree] are also significantly more likely to attend music events such as pop, traditional or classical music concerts.

It makes sense when one stops and thinks about it (although it certainly sheds a certain light on claims of authenticity and credibility appropriated by those who perform). And here education is crucial. Because as qualifications spread cross class they pull, through the processes developed in secondary and tertiary education, people into engaging with the arts and culture.

Is notice being taken of these issues? In the Arts and Culture Plan launched by the government this week we read that:

[the Plan] commits additional funding of €40m for arts and culture infrastructure projects countrywide, restoration of the Heritage Fund for the acquisition of works of artistic and cultural significance, extended and more flexible opening hours at national museums, cultural venues, galleries and libraries, and a doubling of funding for national touring programmes to bring drama and cultural events to a wider audience.

And it is true that across a range of public museums, as the Plan notes: Ireland is the only country in Europe where the cultural experience is largely free of charge.

But, that is to draw a smaller circle around a specific range of cultural ‘experiences’. It is the broader area of cultural activity which is important and there cost is a factor. It is notable that the mention above in the Arts and Culture Plan is the only one that refers to cost.

Of course, much of this debate depends on how we define ‘arts’ a tricky and contentious issue in itself. It also depends on what value we accord these ‘arts’. But… to me the most interesting finding remains the fact that even supposedly middlebrow pursuits remain locked off from participation.

I have this image of a void in our society where many people simply don’t go beyond their house or their community and engage in cultural activities – other than the television. This too, the physical distance between activity and individual, is an issue. And beyond that is the sense that arts and culture are activities engaged in and produced by others. This is in no way to diminish those both from within and without communities who are working in precisely this area, but when the broader cultural narrative is one where culture is something that is locked into through education and disposable income the barriers to engagement are perhaps too high to be removed without active intervention by the state.

Talking of art and class, and perhaps the middle class in particular, can I direct you to this link which refers to the image used above…


1. John - February 28, 2008


Well you hit the nail on the head right at the end. What is art? Is Corrie art? Eastenders? And are we talking about the consumption of art or its production? Kids who can’t afford to go to the theatre or who feel intimidated by it will nevertheless create and produce art, even if it results in demonised and ridiculed activities like graffiti or hip-hop or synchronised dance routines with their best girlies.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to aspire to middle- or highbrow arts but that creativity will out one way or another regardless. And people who stay at home slumped in front of the TV still expect to be entertained and engaged, even if what engages them is not something that their “betters” necessarily approve of.

Can I mention Bourdieu before anybody else does? 😉

And also Steven Johnson’s book “Everything Bad is Good for You.” It’s worth checking out for what it has to say about the complexity of “low-brow” culture.


2. WorldbyStorm - February 28, 2008

Surely, and I don’t want to dismiss cultural forms, indeed I hate the term ‘lowbrow’. But atomisation driven by media corporations …etc, etc.. strikes me as a real problem and more to the point the barriers to participation remain with yet further retreats into enclaves (social and psychological). Splintered Sunrise was discussing Bourdieu recently, was he not?


3. WorldbyStorm - February 28, 2008

that should read “non-elite/non ‘high’ art cultural forms”


4. Michael Taft - February 28, 2008

Quite a few years ago the Arts Council published a survey conducted in the West on theatre attendance. It found that while most people weren’t interested in attending, a singificantly higher number expressed interest in participating in producing a local stage play. I have no idea of the class or age component of this survey (I have been unable to find a source for it) but it dovetails into quite a bit of what WBS writes about. If participation can unlock doors to wider arts and cultural involvement then we should be focusing at (a) the school curricula – why the teaching of a musical instrument is not a required subject is beyond me; (b) the provision of a public infrastructure for the production of art, free or heavily subsidised at the point of use – stages, recording studios, cameras and editing suites, art studios; and (c) the subsidation of art consumption.

A few years ago an economist wrote a paper on how the arts scene in New York during the 1960s made a real economic contribution to the city. It was criticised at the time for mixing up cause and effect but there is no doubting of the link. Cities are more than the sum of commercial transactions. They are living networks of which art and culture both contribute and benefit from. A city ‘full of art’ is a far more interesting place to do business in than a city full of calculators – an intangible maybe, but nonetheless real.

In all this, ‘participation’ is the key – whether in access to production or consumption. Amazing that participation is the key to so many things – in the workplace, in the community, in the wider polity. There’s an old fashioned word which the Left should take back, recast and send back out into the world – democracy. For when it comes to art, capitalism – the private acquisition of productive assets in furtherence of profits which in turn feed the private acquisition of productive assets, ad nauseam – well, it’s so boring.


5. John - February 28, 2008


Is atomisation driven by media corporations or is it something they dream of? After all, there are two sides to every act of communication, and as a result there is always going to be a lack of control over how the recipient of the signal is going to interpret it or what they’re going to do with it. It’s conceivable that messages that are sent from on high are discarded or ignored if they don’t say anything to the recipient that they want to engage with.

The barriers to cultural participation, I think, are there regardless of the actual artistic endeavour being performed; it’s a matter of deliberate class exclusion. This is Bourdieu’s point, I think. It isn’t about making accessible to all people the glorious, highest achievements of humanity but recognizing the role played by “culture” is delimiting access to power. Has that increased or decreased since Bourdieu wrote Distinction? I couldn’t say, but I’m not sure anyway that an increased restriction on access to political and social power is necessarily incompatible with an increase in autonomous cultural activity among ordinary people. They may indeed be inversely proportionate.


6. John - February 28, 2008

“in delimiting access to power.”


7. Phil - February 28, 2008

the same pattern does not occur for direct participation in the arts, such as playing an instrument or performing in shows, where social background has a much weaker influence

As a folkie*, I was interested by this. My experience certainly suggests that the self-selecting minority that plays music by ear is drawn from a wider socio-economic background than the s.-s.m. that participates in pub quizzes, let alone the s.-s.m. that goes to meetings with the word ‘socialist’ in the title.

*I don’t play the Irish stuff, mind you – far too hard.


8. John - February 28, 2008

Hi Phil–

I remember someone else making a similar observation a while back casting aspersions on the street cred of punk when contrasted with folk music, making the point that it requires much less of a financial outlay. It’s a fair point (possibly), but I’d be skeptical about the lack of influence of social background on participation in the arts. Even in that quotation from the text, “playing an instrument” is a generalization that omits so much. Even if the statement is true, for instance, it does not ask whether social or geographical location play a role in whether or not someone takes up the electric guitar as opposed to the cello or the piano or the tuba or a traditional Irish instrument. Surely they must. Moreover, cost has to enter into the equation somewhere, even if it isn’t in the way we might expect (length of study required to learn an instrument, travel costs for tuition, whether or not it is possible to teach oneself, and so on). In other words, not all instruments are equal. And there are shows, and then there are shows.

And without disputing your experience, we’d probably have to ask whether we’re comparing like with like. Folk music, after all, is something I imagine you do for enjoyment, whereas the wankers who go to pub quizzes do so just to show off how fucking smart they are. 😉


9. WorldbyStorm - February 28, 2008

Mick, that point you make about a city full of art is absolutely bang on. I think of Barcelona or Paris and the linkages above and beyond tourism, etc are so obvious. The same is true of NYC even today. And I’d argue that in Dublin for a brief shining moment, perhaps in the 87 – 92 period the city centre and in particular Temple Bar in it’s in between incarnation had that quality. It was a bit ropey but it was there. A big problem in Dublin is the distance between everything, which is a bizarre paradox for a small city, but also the way in which nothing is properly connected… which is something the left should be addressing.

John and Phil, artistic authenticity is a further topic again which follows on from what you’re both saying. Incidentally don’t get me wrong… doffs cloth cap. My tastes in many many things are resolutely ‘middle’ brow. Which is great, because the rest of the culture appears to be sidling over to me as I get older. Or perhaps it’s not because coterie interests I had are now a bit too broadly liked for my taste… 😉

Phil, which Irish stuff in particular do you not play. A great person for folk who sometimes comments around here is soubresauts. A massive fan of Planxty etc, etc…


10. John - February 29, 2008


Can I suggest, tentatively, that what’s more important in that construction of the arts you propose is less to do with which arts in particular are involved than the actual process of reclaiming ownership of the streets. Much of Barcelona’s vibrant street art is artificial gloss for the tourists – at least my friends in Hospitalet think so. Michael has it right, i think: Democracy. But not so much democratic access to particular arts, but genuinely democratic recognition of working-class culture and activities and their right to express them (at least as much as the middle classes are entitled to express theirs and have theirs subsidised).

Like I say . . .tentatively.


11. WorldbyStorm - February 29, 2008

No, that’s very true. Although having worked in the area I’m unsure as to how much of any arts/culture activity is really much more than a gloss – consider the St. Patrick’s Day ‘festival’ now winging its way towards us in Dublin. That it grew out of something more organic is undeniable (albeit that more organic something was pretty grim) but it’s a sort of … er… superstructure… or at least the pinnacle of same. And the corporatisation of these events is a problem. I’m sort of agnostic here too. I think its great that people inhabit streets during these but they’re during carefully constrained limits. I completely agree as regards your last point and that’s also what is interesting about the report that it can’t/won’t define working class culture/activity because the perceptions brought to it, as indicated even in the makeup of those involved are ones where the slant is towards the ‘high’ arts… (and again, I was surprised to see them actually regard cinema and ‘popular’ music as part of the mix, something that when I did Arts Admin in the early 1990s wasn’t on the table seriously. Indeed I remember a colleague pointing out that Feis Ceoil was perhaps the largest single event and yet due to content and history tended to have a much lower public profile in certain circles say than more publicised ‘high’ cultural activities…


12. Phil - February 29, 2008

WBS – I don’t play Irish whistle tunes. I took up the whistle a couple of years ago (although I did play the flute as a kid), and cut my teeth on English tunes, which are twiddly but in a reasonably predictable way. Turning to the Irish repertoire was like a cold shower – can’t you come down the same way you went up just once? I can do “Lanegan’s Ball” and “the Blackthorn Stick”, but that’s about it. Mind you, nothing’s worse than those Northumbrian tunes that drop in and out of the Mixolydian (i.e. some of the time they have one flat too many, and some of the time they don’t).

John – and the people who come to meetings with ‘socialist’ in the title…? On second thoughts, don’t answer that.


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