‘Skint or rich, just keep doing it’: the working-class creatives striving for inclusivity
The creative industries have long been dominated by the middle class, but a new breed of young working class creatives are demanding change.
When you think of the creative industries what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of self-expression, unique talent, or artistry. But, what we often fail to consider is the classism that infiltrates a sector which is supposedly built on open-mindedness and originality.
How can we expect to see a true representation of our diverse society when only 16% of the creative industries’ workforce come from working-class backgrounds? The homogeneous identity of the art world needs shaking up; a much-needed shift in the dynamics of the industry is well overdue, and there are a bunch of young creatives paving the way for this change.
Seren Metcalfe, a multi-disciplinary artist and writer from North Yorkshire, is one voice that is breaking through the bourgeois barriers of the industries. The Working Class Creatives Database is an online collective created by Metcalfe, which aims to give underrepresented creatives from working class backgrounds a platform to share their artistic talents.
According to the database, its aim is to “facilitate a space that puts working-class creatives at the forefront: a space for conversation, connections and sharing of opportunities, skills and knowledge”. Consisting of a digital site and an Instagram page, the database has become a community for like-minded individuals, enabling them to virtually network with one another.
With 258 artists across a wide range of creative fields – and this number growing by day – the space has become a gallery of diverse ingenuity through which employers in the arts can use as a means to hire or commission these individuals.
Alongside the majority of members are artists, Seren is also building a support network of industry professionals that is accessible for the creatives on the site. Mentoring can be really beneficial to working-class individuals, and through this support, they are able to get first-hand advice to help them prosper in an industry that is inclined to set them up for failure.
“I’m always thinking, is the creative sector delivering on representing individuals, communities? Can anyone really make it? Social mobility and class consciousness has declined but inequality has increased” – Joanna Coates
Finding the right people to network with can be hard for marginalised groups that don’t have wealth or a long list of family connections on their side, but with the guidance of these supporters, artists are given more of a fighting chance to make it in challenging environment.
Often, the bias towards the middle class in the arts leaves aspiring working-class creatives doubting whether or not they can succeed. As Joanna Coates, a documentary storyteller and member of the Working Class Creatives Database from the north of England explains, there is negativity towards marginalised groups which can often result in many young creatives giving up their dreams in order to conform to what they feel society expects of them.
“I’m always thinking, is the creative sector delivering on representing individuals, communities? Can anyone really make it? Social mobility and class consciousness has declined but inequality has increased,” says Joanna. “You end up thinking is this world really for me, I would have a much better life if I just stayed where I belong. Why am I bothering? As you reach the end of your twenties, you start to worry.”
Joanne hasn’t let such thoughts ruin her chances. She has overcome these obstacles and put in the work to help advocate against the inaccessible nature of the industry. As well as being a member of Seren’s database, Joanne has created her own collective with two fellow working class photographers: The Other.
The main goal is similar to that of the Working Class Creative Database, to end class discrimination within the industry by raising awareness and supporting low-income artists, but focusing on the photography sector within the arts. “One of the ways the platform can be supportive is firstly, by being there, being visible! There is a reading group, crit sessions and much more.” explains Joanne. “I’ve heard really damaging comments such as ‘let’s dump that whole class thing’ usually by those that haven’t experienced the damaging effects of it.”
Joanne really is going above and beyond in order to help disadvantaged artists; she also runs non-profit organisation, Lens Think, which is striving for diversity in the North for those who are part of the photography scene. “We want to be an amplifier of the voice of working-class artists, to embed them in the cultural sector and ultimately to create a space where there can be equality in the arts,” she continues.
“Artists, organisations, producers, programmers, curators, critics, funders and others across all art forms need to be a part of the conversation around access in the arts and to discuss the issues, solutions and possibilities with working class people themselves,” she says.
“The arts are hard to get into, success is not guaranteed. Class is the word that is missing from our conversations about diversity and accessibility. It’s not easily defined, it’s hard to pin down, hard to solve. That’s why we need to talk about it!”
It can too often be a battle for young creatives who are trying to enter the industry, with them even having to conceal parts of their identity and heritage in order to fit within the hegemony of the arts. The working class are slaving away at unpaid internships, expected to juggle multiple jobs to stay afloat, all while trying to get a degree under their belt.
Even then, all this hard work is overshadowed by middle-class competition with more cultural capital. “You are working 150% harder than your peers, but constantly feel as though you aren’t working hard enough to deserve those basics, or opportunities that you earn,” Joanne claims. “Many of those with privilege are also talented, I am not here to ‘posh bash’, but there is an ugly truth hard for many to accept, that, middle-class privilege is in many ways premised on working-class exploitation.”
“We need to just unite, make work, show it within our own spaces, push ourselves, and make the art world see what it’s missing” – Jim Brook
London is one of the largest creative hubs in the world but it is still one of the hardest places for young creatives to succeed. Jim Brook is an artist represented by Working Class Creatives Database who hasn’t followed the well-trodden path to the capital to pursue his career.
Working from his home, which he shares with his gran in West Yorkshire, he expresses how we can overcome the preconceptions of the class divide. “We need to just unite, make work, show it within our own spaces, push ourselves, and make the art world see what it’s missing.
“I do think the North is doing this already, mainly because if you’re not in London or have no money no-one wants to know. It’s obvious that the middle classes and upper class are almost the gatekeepers of culture, and a lot of the time that culture is stripped from the working classes.”
It has become a regular occurrence for middle-class creatives to attach themselves to issues that reside within the low-income backgrounds, with the mindset that poverty is trendy because they don’t know the meaning of true hardship; they steal the narrative of those who fight daily to have their voice heard and capitalise on it for their own gain.
Jim says: “I’ve always said I’m not an artist who makes work about the working class, I’m a working-class person who makes art, and I think this is really important. I don’t believe you should make work that’s not your own lived experience. The middle classes dip in when they like, to unpick the culture of people they have never even spoken to, to put it on white walls for fellow middle-class people to view.”
If the working-class are having their stories stolen, their work undermined, and their identity criticised – then how can they truly win the battle against bigotry in the art sphere? How really can working-class folk compete in an industry based on ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, doesn’t this make you question why you put in all those years at university?
“It’s systemic, I think it’s hard for anybody from a working class background trying to break into this field as you have no links or ties” – Marcus Lister
“The reason the working class can’t succeed within the art world is because working class people have to survive, they have to get jobs and pay bills; they don’t have the privilege to sit back and take in another culture and use it for art because to be frank they are living it,” continues Jim. “Things can’t change until working-class artists are allowed to make work within and about their culture and upbringing without feeling the pressure of profit and acceptance within the middle classes.”
Marcus Lister is yet another working-class artist/advocate, part of the Working Class Creatives Database, who is addressing the classism in the industry and its impact on him personally.
“Throughout my education, from secondary school to university I’ve barely had any help with my dyslexia and over the years it has shadowed over me like a dark cloud,” he says. “This is why I have always been more expressive within my own art practice, it’s given me a voice.”
Although Marcus has found his voice through art, the industry has still been no easy ride for him. “It’s systemic, I think it’s hard for anybody from a working class background trying to break into this field as you have no links or ties,” he says.
Luckily, university has allowed him to gain confidence and find a community where he feels he can share his work, no matter his background. “University changes peoples lives as it takes you out of your community and brings you into an environment where you can make connections, friendships and learn about each other’s differences.”
This positive experience that Marcus has encountered during his studies doesn’t mean that he hasn’t still faced judgement due to his background: “I do feel sometimes people don’t take me seriously from the way I talk: my accent, which isn’t really that strong anymore as I’ve lived away from home since I was 18.”
Similarly to Seren and Joanne, Marcus too wants to create a platform to champion artists like himself, and so many others that don’t get enough recognition in the arts. It is vital for creatives to shed light on discrimination and encourage heterogeneity within the creative industries.
“My main goals for the future are to create a platform in which I can help creatives like me to have a better chance of getting exposure for their work. I have some ideas in the pipeline,” Marcus says. “On a personal level a goal for me is to just keep creating work. Skint or rich just keep doing it!”
With more and more young talent advocating for change in the creative industries, it brings up the question: can we hope for a better future for the next generation of working-class creatives? We think so.
All photos used by kind permission of the artists interviewed.