Blunt v Bryant: Diversity in the Arts

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Dan Anderson weighs in on the Blunt / Bryant debate about exclusivity in the arts.

It has been fun to follow the handbags-at-dawn spat between the singer James Blunt and Chris Bryant MP.  By way of a recap, in case you missed it, this is how it all went down.  Newly appointed as shadow culture secretary and in advance of publishing the new Labour arts manifesto, Chris Bryant gave an interview to the Guardian where he said:

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk.”

He also said a lot of other stuff, most of which made sense.  Clearly offended by this quote, however, Blunt responded with a scathing letter in which he accused Bryant of being a “classist gimp” and a “prejudiced wazzock”.  Bryant boldly defended himself by asking Blunt not to be so “blooming precious”.

It would help if these guys didn’t try to establish their rock’n’roll street cred by trading insults that sound like they came out of a bad Downton Abbey script.  Leaving that aside though, I can’t help thinking that Bryant is basically right and Blunt has rather missed the point.  Bryant probably shouldn’t have made it personal, but his basic premise is not wrong.

I noticed this, in fact, about a year ago when we were working on The Old Vinyl Factory and trying to get under the skin of the current music industry.  It was around the time of the 2013 Brit Awards and a former NME journalist pointed out to me that an ‘alarming’ number of winners, presenters and nominees were public school educated or came from a generally privileged background.  Which is not say that rich toffs can’t make great music — he simply raised the spectre that maybe we were approaching an age where only rich toffs could afford to take the financial risk of trying to make great music for a living.

Anyway, I checked.  It was true.  The best British Male Solo Artist came from a Trust school so hard-up that it has its own astronomical observatory built into its 17th Century manor.  The Best Breakthrough Act nominees included a graduate of the Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, whose esteemed alumni includes a who’s who of novelists, actors, athletes and musicians.  The founder of 2013’s Best British Group went to Kings College in Wimbledon, part of the Eton Group of schools.  The list goes on and on.

Noticing this weird shift in the musical landscape does not detract, in any way, from the quality of their music.  Song of the Year nominee, Spectrum, is just a great song, irrespective of the fact that Florence Welch also attended Alleyn’s School.  For that matter, as derided as it is now, there is no escaping the fact that Blunt’s own hit, ‘You’re Beautiful’, is a pop song so perfectly crafted that it was only ever damned by too much airplay.  Who cares that he went to Harrow?  The numbers don’t lie.  Four million people can’t be wrong.

It is no less true, however, that it is getting harder and harder for people from underprivileged backgrounds to practice in the arts professionally.  And that is the real test of the health and diversity of the country’s arts and culture – not access to cultural output, but access to jobs in the arts.  The ability to pursue one’s passion for money; to make a living out of making art.  It can’t be a coincidence that such a high concentration of professional actors, artists and musicians from privileged backgrounds are suddenly dominating the music charts and movie awards.  What is it about the arts that prevents a wider spectrum of people from taking part?  This is the point that Bryant was trying to make and it is an important one.

It is worth remembering, in fact, that before he went off on a tangent about class, ethnicity and gender, the whole discussion started with a question about the geographical imbalance of cultural employment between London and the Regions.  That debate was quite rightly triggered by Stark, Powell and Gordon’s excellent report on Rebalancing our Cultural Capital and its follow-up PLACE Report.  The truth is that employment in arts and culture is more exclusive than it used to be and overwhelmingly concentrated in London.

In all of these debates and discussions, however, nobody ever seems to make the critical distinction between the consumption of culture and its production; between the demand for culture and its supply.  It’s fine to concentrate theatre funding in London, so the argument goes, because those shows will eventually tour to the regions.  So what?  Being able to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is nice, but the opportunity to work on Curious Incident  – as an actor, director, designer, musician, etc. – is the real prize.  And those roles are all being cast in London and are disproportionately going to a narrow cohort of well-healed graduates.  Those numbers don’t lie either.

Blunt accused Bryant of peddling “populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas”, which may even be true, but – at least in this instance – those ideas happen to be factually accurate.  I hope that Bryant sticks to that principle.  This is, after all, the party that championed free admission to National Museums in the face of any and all evidence that it might favour a London elite at the expense of people in the regions.  That was the mother of all populist, vote-hunting ideas – with far more damaging consequences to the sector than the bruised ego of a posh pop star.  What will the upcoming Labour manifesto for the arts say about that?