What Does it Mean to Be Working Class in the Arts?

A new online exhibition exposes the financial and cultural obstacles working-class artists face breaking through – and offers a reminder of the distinctive perspective workers bring to the arts.

An image of artist Gordon Dalton by Kev Howard.

The current online exhibition What Does it Mean to Be Working Class, created by Sunderland-based curator Michaela Wetherell and hosted by Pink Collar Gallery, seeks to show that working-class people, despite appearances to the contrary, are among the artists and culture workers active within the arts. This is in a context where the privately educated white upper-middle class remains a heavily over-represented majority within the industry.

The exhibition quotes the 2018 national survey ‘Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries’, which found that people from working-class backgrounds made up only 18.2 percent of those working in music, performance, and visual arts; in publishing it was 12.6 percent, and for film, TV, and radio it was even less at 12.4 percent. One of the strengths of this exhibition is the time and space it takes to tell the audience how it feels to occupy this marginal status, exploring the particular struggles, both practical and personal, of being working-class in the arts – but also the unique contributions that are made when a more diverse set of people have the power to shape culture in the UK.

Although some of the artists were commissioned to be part of this project before the Covid pandemic struck, the show is shaped by it, and responds to the challenging problem of access to gallery spaces under lockdown. It also acts as a reminder that the Covid crisis has intensified the difficulties faced by working-class culture workers. For those who are freelance and/or on temporary contracts, already struggling to make ends meet on the government’s furlough scheme (one of the least generous in Europe), a career in the arts is now more precarious than ever.

It’s organised around links to pages showcasing the five artists’ works: Kev Howard, Shonagh Short, Erin Dickson, John James Perangie, and Mark Parham. All of the works presented have clickable audio-commentary as well as written text, making reading, listening, or viewing from home a much more comfortable and intimate experience than being in a gallery space, and making it possible to take your time and come back to the works and listen again.

A still from the video works ‘Me Garden of Eden’ by John James Perangie.

So often when working-class lives are depicted in visual culture the tone is dour: a pervasive bleakness covers all, there is depression, both economic and personal, and much to be angry about. But that’s not the sum total of working-class lives, which is why the film Me Garden of Eden by John James Perangie is so good. In a joyous subversion and queer reclaiming of outdated stereotypes of traditional working-class maleness, we see John in a multicoloured painted suit and make-up dancing around a high-glamour party or wake, mess and tinsel everywhere, while we hear the trade union song ‘Solidarity Forever’ performed by male and female voices accompanied by folk instruments.

This doesn’t feel like a clash: it feels right, an acknowledgement that solidarity can also be a celebration of pleasures shared, not just through the hard times. We then see John marching down industrial streets with a refashioning of miners’ gala banners – a painted placard with the slogan ‘Equality for all / Solidarity and pride’.

Again, following a thread of historic working-class creativities, in Kev Howard’s work the poet and lecturer Bob Beagrie says:

There is a tangled thread of tradition that connects me to the Pitman Painters and Poets, to the dialect poets, to the folk tradition, to the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levellers, to the Peasants’ Revolt, all the way back to the Scops, Scalds and Bards of tribal societies where arts and poetry were central to the people and of the people, an expression of the people.

There is pride in remembering these traditions, feeling part of this continuity, which makes explicit that working-class people have always created culture.

Kev Howard had hoped to document working-class disabled artists, ‘a marginalised group within a marginalised group’, as he describes it, yet with vulnerable people sheltering and restrictions on travel his initial plans weren’t feasible. In ‘Voices’ he instead turned to people already known to him, taking 13 black and white portraits of artists, poets, musicians, promoters, lectures, and writers. Each portrait has a different style, a different mood, and different surroundings, expressing the unique personalities of the working-class cultural workers whose voices and stories we can hear or read.

There are certain themes that repeat across each artist’s works, particularly pushing back against class stereotypes, the desire to communicate and express yourself, and the barriers that make it difficult to do so. Not being in a position, like your middle-class peers, to undertake unpaid internships and projects for exposure, as well as spend hours of unpaid time writing artist grant and funding applications, can make it too precarious to continue. The need for time to dream, space to think and create, is often unfulfillable when working day-jobs alongside an art practice. Cathie Sprague, a drama therapist photographed by Kev Howard, says that she gained an ‘understanding that it’s only the wealthy classes that can afford to be artists full-time. Knowing I will always have to supplement my income with other work.’

Many of the accounts speak of being discouraged from going into the arts, pressured instead to ‘get a proper job’ with ‘security’. For working-class kids without financial safety nets this seems like good advice, yet it reinforces the assumption that art is not for ‘people like us’, and maintains art and culture as exclusive pursuits of the wealthy. Lisette Auton, an author and poet, speaks of the pull of choosing a sensible (i.e not creative) degree in order to get a ‘proper job’

with pension and career prospects and progression and a salary that comes in on the dot of midnight on the 3rd of the month and if I do not lose this job I will be safe and there will be money and security. Security is very important. My body breaks. My brain breaks. I leave my job. Nothing is secure. The world has tipped, and I did everything I could to remain secure. Security is very important. My body and brain no longer ticks the correct boxes. Security loves tick boxes. How do I remain secure?

And yet for Lisette, it was being released from the time constraints of such jobs that provided the time needed to start creating again: ‘Security does not breed edge-space for day-dreaming.’ Her first book will be published in February 2022. ‘I am not secure. I am working class. I am disabled. I am a writer. I am an author. I am not a paradox. This is not a paradox. It’s messy, it’s insecure. It’s mine.’

Common frustrations run across these artists’ experiences, arising from having people from higher class positions making funding decisions that affect your ability to keep producing work. Bobby Benjamin argues in Voices that ‘The future of the arts in our towns will be decided by people who think they’re shitholes and live elsewhere.’ In the same work, the artist Gordon Dalton makes the connection between classist assumptions and opportunities:

Sure, there’ll be the odd box ticking here and promises of doing things differently, but your aspirations are severely limited by the people saying you have none. If anything, the working class has more aspiration than ever before but are stomped on whichever way they turn. Frustrated aspirations lead to resignation and pessimism, which is not a great recipe for your mental health.

The experience of having your identity constantly questioned by others, of modifying dress, accent, language in order to be treated as worthy of being considered an ‘artist’, is another connecting thread. Bobby Benjamin says that being a working-class artist for him ‘means I’ll have to consciously soften my accent when talking to arts professionals, so they don’t think I’m thick.’ These class-based biases of accent are brilliantly used by Erin Dickson in her video work, Pain in The Back of My Neck, where after facing professional discrimination for her Geordie accent, she explores the embodied nature of our accents by attempting a process of ‘accent elimination’ in which she is tutored in Received Pronunciation by professional voice and accent coach Nic Redman.

Over and over, she’s asked to repeat ‘Hello my name is Erin and I’m learning English.’ This supposedly neutral ‘English’ speech is just a posh southern accent, defined as the correct ‘standard’. What we see in these exercises is how language is such a bodily thing – her Geordie accent, she’s told, moves the mouth horizontally, while the RP mouth movement is vertical. This process is reminiscent of Eliza Doolittle’s training at class-passing in My Fair Lady, which shows that class truly lives in the body: to ‘learn English’ requires a whole new set of sounds and facial movements, framing all other ways of speech as counterfeit and in error. Yet the film humorously shows the absurdity of this, ending with Erin ordering a drive-through in the Queen’s English.

Instead of the white cube of the gallery, in Shonagh Short’s Play Hard, we are taken to her imaginary pub Bread & Roses, to play an interactive slot machine designed by comic artist Rob Jackson. Click to spin the wheel of icons including a smartprice white loaf, cocktail glasses, a sofa, an alarm clock, a bed, a football, a widescreen TV, an ashtray, Roses chocolates, bingo cards, a newspaper, a washing machine, or an armchair. These illustrations line up options of how time can be spent in leisure or labour.

’12 years on from the Scampi Factory’, a work by Mark Parham.

Get three in a row and you’ll be rewarded with pop-up texts from philosophers, artists, sociologists, and newspapers illustrating how the working-class are represented as undeserving, grotesque, and in need of control. The war on benefits claimants, the coercive morale of work as a common good, is contrasted with the desire for rest and space and time to one’s self, alongside lyrics from Pulp’s ‘Common People’. This mixture of supposedly high and low culture feels very apt, and shows that intelligence and humour are found in more places than the middle classes think.

Mark Parham’s 12 Years on from the Scampi Factory is a recorded audio conversation between himself and Kraig Wilson, stemming from Wilson’s 2009 photograph of his sister Jo, who’s captured at home after work, undressing before taking a shower. They discuss the class-culture-shock of a London arts education, where Wilson was awarded a funded place. With parallels to Richard Billingham’s photographs of his family captured during a time of displacement at university, it was homesickness that instigated Wilson’s trips home to record these intimate portraits.

Although many students experience a level of homesickness, for working-class students, there is a feeling that home and university are two separate and irreconcilable worlds. Despite winning places at prestigious institutions, working-class students are still not made to feel at home within academia and the arts.

This exhibition has lots to say – that working-class people are various, complex, vulnerable, resilient, pissed off, funny, smart, often swinging between shame and pride, and all fed up with the classism of the art world. This makes it all the more disappointing that with the exception of a portrait of the poet, writer, and musician Dominic J Nelson Ashley, all the artists and their collaborators are white. This is a great exhibition, but the story of what it means to be working-class in Britain is incomplete without the contribution of artists of colour – a full representation of working-class artists in Britain, with all its racial diversity, would make a richer survey.