Well, there’s a mouthful of a subject-header. I was going to write a couple of short reviews of some exhibitions I’d seen recently, but I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, and that’s what I ended up writing about, instead.
People always talk about how awesome the web is for democratising culture, and it is. It’s great that it’s so easy to gain access to the cultural resources available in places people may otherwise be unable to visit (e.g museums in other countries). It’s brilliant that you can find a free tutorial for practically anything you wish to know about, or easily start up your own creative business. But sometimes you want to be able to look at a piece of art directly in front you — inspect how the paint was applied, or how the sculptor followed the grain of wood. Sometimes you want a hands-on demonstration from a skilled expert who is standing right next to you to explain how to improve what you are doing. You want to be able to feel the weight of the technical materials that real professionals use, the equipment you can only find in dedicated spaces, not in your kitchen drawer.
But those things are becoming harder to do, if you’re not wealthy enough to afford them. Experiencing creative culture (aka The Arts) is starting to feel like the domain of only those who can afford it. (Although I’m writing this from a visual arts perspective, obviously it includes things like music, cinema, theatre, etc.) While there are still a lot of free museums in London, cultural funding keeps getting cut, with museums and galleries having to consider charging for entry. Some have already started, and many smaller museums (especially those run by local authorities) have been forced to downsize or close completely. Corporate sponsorship of exhibitions has shrunk, which means the prices have increased. If you want to see any of the major exhibitions this summer, you’re looking at putting down at least the better part of £15 before they let you in the door — and that’s often the concession rate for people on a low income. People like me.
Educational institutions are having their funding cut, too. The college where I take my classes has had so much funding cut that they can no longer offer concession rates for many classes, meaning classes are only available to those who can pay the full rates. But they’re daytime classes during the week, when most of the people who might have enough disposable income to afford paying £200 for a course will be at work. People who have the time to take a midweek daytime course are often the very people who can’t afford to do it unless it’s subsidised — the unemployed, OAPs, people like me with longterm health conditions. So the inevitable knock-on effect is that because people can’t afford to pay full price for a class, not enough people will sign up, and the college will have to cut it from the prospectus due to perceived lack of demand, leaving the teachers out of work. Meanwhile the few classes left that still have concession rates are likely to become oversubscribed due to high demand, because many of the people from the classes which had their concession rates cancelled will migrate to the classes that they can still afford.
I count myself lucky — the printmaking class I was taking was the only print class that didn’t have its concession rates cut, so I can still afford to do it, and I managed to get a place, despite worries that it would already be full of all the other students migrating from the classes that no longer offer concessions. I’d been hoping to do two printmaking classes a week but obviously I had to rethink my options once I discovered there were no more concession rates for other classes. But again, I count myself lucky, because I managed to find a course at a different college that still offers concession rates on courses, albeit for a bit more money than my usual college.
The reason I count myself lucky is because, while I was looking into an alternative place to study, I discovered that a number of other colleges (including ones I’ve studied at in the past) no longer offer concession rates at all, meaning that in those places education is now only for those who have enough disposable income to use them. Meaning wealthy people, which means the classes will be the domain of people who are socially very much alike. One of the great things about colleges being able to subsidise courses and offer concession rates is that the classes were a wonderful social mix as a result, full of people who otherwise would never have an opportunity to rub shoulders, which meant that people learned more than just the subject they were all there to study. And if you notice I’m talking about it in the past tense, it’s because it’s much less likely to happen if all the people attending a class are of the same basic demographic.
It makes me so, so sad that this is happening to this country, because we have such a long history of adult education in Britain, and of having a wide variety of interesting subjects that were always made affordable for everyone and not just rich people. (There’s a very brief but interesting article on this history of adult education here).
All of this has a knock-on effect to the cultural psyche of a country (yeah, I know that’s a pretentious way of describing it, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Institutions can (literally) no longer afford to take risks, whether it’s a museum planning the next exhibition or a college planning next year’s prospectus. The knock-on effect is that this country’s cultural output gets blander and blander (how else do you explain the ever-increasing popularity of photorealism, which is the visual equivalent of those professional session musicians who can play everything pitch-perfect every time, and are utterly soulless and banal as a result?)
People talk about the Tory government and their return to Victorian values, but at least during the Victorian era there were philanthropists building institutions for the edification and education of the masses of people who would otherwise not be able to afford to see or create beautiful and inspiring works of art. All that we get these days are more cuts, and more closed doors. Yes, of course, there was always creative work happening in the past before the philanthropists stuck their oars in (so to speak), and lots of people were creating things at home, but craft skills were handed down throughout families (the very skills we now scour the internet for tutorials on, because they’re no longer passed on by family members), and those works were rarely displayed outside the home. Now we have the opportunity to display work on the internet, and find a like-minded community and that’s brilliant, but it’s not like seeing the texture of the paint, or feeling the weight of the press, for yourself.
The internet is great, but sometimes it’s not enough. Having to rely on it for your cultural education and experience is probably a scary thought for a lot of people, but it’s starting to feel as though it soon might be the only option some of us have.