Art, Pretension, and Class

Accessibility in the Arts is an issue that practitioners high up in the art world have only recently begun to take seriously. Pursuing Arts being an elitist practice – or not even being an option for those of lower class or non-white backgrounds – has prevailed for decades. But when did the Arts become so exclusionary?

The relationship between art and social class in history has been something of a constant flux. Goldsmiths, tapestry weaving, painters, and court musicians proliferated in flourishing empires, commissioning works as their profession. The painter-patron age in the Renaissance saw skills becoming curated by the rich, which then became academy-oriented, and then transformed into 20th century avant-garde art. What is shared throughout history, however, is funding: either to sponsor the artist or the subsequent purchasing of the work. And maybe this transactionism is what becomes discouraging, and ultimately, exclusionary in the Arts. At the end of the day, paying to consume art is most definitely less filling than a loaf of bread, when in need.

But art closing itself off makes it fundamentally resistant to its function: creative expression. Art is not a thing meant to happen in and perpetually inhabit a pristine, enclosed viewing space. The idea that creative work is only meant for those who can properly appreciate it is by far outdated, and yet this still seems so resonant in the art world. Create London and Arts Emergency in their 2019 study on creative industries found that only 18.2% of people working in the arts sector were of a working-class background. Art itself is representation – and currently, there is a gaping hole in the narrative being painted of the 21st century.

And oftentimes those historically established standards for art is what continues to oppress and deny access. In the world of classical art forms like ballet, for example, it is necessary to go through years of intensive, expensive training – making it impossible to pursue for those who can’t afford it. And exclusion in these practices goes deeper. The narrative that a ballerina should be thin, ideally with no curves, and having pale pointe shoes to extend her leg line fundamentally excludes black bodies from the ballet aesthetic. The ballet world treats it as masculine and inappropriate, regardless of the dancer’s skill. And in treating gender, there exists a distinct binary in masculinity and femininity within dance form. There is such a damaging lack of space for LGBTQ+ dancers that has turned a beautiful form of expression into something elitist and inaccessible.

Arts organisations, however, have been fighting in various aspects of artistic inaccessibility, and those who have, have achieved poignant results. London-based physical theatre company Frantic Assembly  tackles this exclusionary issue with no mercy. Through their vocational programme Frantic Ignition, young people, especially those with little to no experience or access in theatre, are given an opportunity to train with the company. The key is to be, to the actors themselves, specific and intentional – which directly maps onto their theatre making. It becomes a wonderful digging and mentoring of creative potential everywhere.

Art is vital in today’s world as a platform and safe space; there is no room for the likes of classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia that have historically barred so many people from practicing art. The art world is opening up in its expansion and redefining what art can be, but there is still a way to go. Perhaps it is about finding credibility in art that is messy and loud and without a price tag.

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Allison Ko

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January 2022
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