The elitism problem at the heart of the arts industry

Published

Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov

Emily Hay
Columnist – Books

Unravelling one of the most deep-rooted issues of the arts

In September revered publishing house Bloomsbury announced that they would be holding an event charting how Bloomsbury Publishing came to be the recognised brand that it is today. The event titled “Founding Bloomsbury Publishing: The Inside Story” has been marketed as an educational talk for aspiring publishers on how to break into this notoriously difficult industry. There’s only one slight catch: tickets cost £25 per person. Yikes. The publishing industry is already infamous for underpaying those who have actually made it onto the ladder. So how can it be justified for people just starting out, who aren’t making any money yet, to be expected to pay £25 for a one-off event which claims to give them a leg up with knowledge on success in the industry? It isn’t. Now, I don’t necessarily blame Bloomsbury here, but this represents a wider problem in the arts industry as a whole: lower-income individuals are being blocked out of jobs and experience by the financial barriers put in place by institutions of this kind. It’s been a problem for a long time, yet even as more and more working-class students are walking through university doors, the elitism problem in the arts job market shows no signs of letting up.

As a Scottish Literature student, this is a constant source of worry for me. I always thought publishing was the industry I wanted to get into after I graduate, but as I hear more and more stories like this one, I’m increasingly coming to the realisation that it just might not be possible for someone in my situation. I work a part-time job to be able to afford my rent and food because my maintenance loan is tiny and my parents, although they do their best, can’t afford to help me out to the same extent that others can. Over summer I live in the deep depths of my overdraft because rent bills don’t stop just because my SAAS does. I don’t have savings of any kind, so taking time off work unpaid to be able to do the vital work experience that I need to even get anywhere near the first rung on the publishing ladder is a struggle for me even when staying at home. Internships in the arts, publishing especially, are almost always unpaid and the problem is exacerbated even further when you consider that almost all of the big names who will take on interns are located in or around London. I can barely afford my rent in Glasgow whilst working, there is no way in a million years that I would be able to afford to do an unpaid internship in London of all places. For these kinds of arts-based career paths, we’re constantly told that we can’t expect to break into the industry without experience; that we need to just keep doing work experience and internships until they turn into jobs blah blah blah – but if there isn’t someone supporting you financially, how are you meant to keep yourself alive while doing all of that unpaid work?

To further this sorry tale, this culture of unpaid work and internships is lowering the value of artistic work for the lucky ones who are managing to make some money. Publishing offices and other arts workplaces are getting away with hiring fewer paid members of staff as they are relying on the constant revolving door of interns to do the bulk of their heavy lifting. Writers looking for experience write free articles for publications, meaning that those publications value their paid commissioned work less. This desperation for experience forces us to offer our services for free to get established which only hurts us in the long run, as it means that once we are established our services are worth less as the market continues to be oversaturated with desperate people working for free to build up their CV. Increasingly, if you don’t have someone or something else financially supporting you, even if you do get that all important experience you simply cannot afford to go full-time in the arts industry. The money just isn’t there.

In April this year, The Guardian published an article titled “Arts industry report asks: where are all the working-class people?” The answer to that is simple: the industry is placing these seemingly invisible barriers in the way of people from lower-income backgrounds being able to enter the elitist job market they’ve built. That same article highlighted that the people who were most likely to believe that the industry is fair in its hiring practices (that the best jobs always go to the best people) were the white middle-class men at the head of the industry. That speaks volumes about why the arts are stuck in this inaccessible rut: the privileged at the head of the industry are, purposefully or not, blocking out the lower classes through unpaid work and cultural elitism. Perhaps they’re trying to keep the industry “pure” in some twisted sense. It’s pretty well known that the arts have a snobby streak when it comes to the people and projects that it tends to associate itself with. Maybe these financial barriers are a way of those middle-class high-ups not allowing their idea of what constitutes art to be diluted by the working-class who have a different, newer, more inclusive idea of what culture and art can be. As more working-class young people move through higher education, the increasing prevalence of unpaid internships could be seen as a way of the industry heads putting the brakes on progress, lest their own positions and power be threatened.

For an industry that projects this façade of liberalism, the arts industry is doing a pretty damn poor job of actually promoting the inclusivity it preaches. It is not only blocking a host of potentially wonderful, exciting voices with its financial elitism, but it is devaluing creative work as an art form and a career. The world of the arts simply cannot continue on this backward trajectory. It is edging closer and closer to its own self-destruction. The arts have an elitism problem, and it is the single biggest problem facing the industry today. For its own sake, it had better do something to combat this and the disillusionment it has caused – and it had better do it soon.