As economics and culture blend, art is getting taken over by the privileged

Photo: Croswald9/flickr

A recent depressing study of Toronto schools found that kids who go into public high schools for the arts are disproportionately white and wealthy: 67 per cent white versus 29 per cent in the general school population.

Half of the students come from 18 "feeder schools" that lacked diversity; a quarter from just five largely "homogeneous" schools; 57 per cent come from "high income" families versus about half that in the general school population.

Not surprising since the former, unlamented school board director Chris Spence once said the purpose of "academies" and special schools was to offer "private school opportunities within the public system." Whose kids did you think all those special programs (including French immersion) were created for?

But it got me thinking about who rules in the arts altogether. A few years ago I found myself frequently checking family backgrounds of actors, mostly because with Wikipedia, you can: they usually start with family background.

So Hugh Grant's forebears are "a tapestry of warriors, empire-builders and aristocracy." Zooey Deschanel's parents were a cinematographer and actor. Benedict Cumberbatch's are actors; his granddad was from "London high society" and his great-granddad was Queen Victoria's consul-general in Turkey. Gene Hackman's dad, though, was a typesetter who abandoned the family.

Let's not overstate. The arts have typically implied nepotism and privilege, even in cases of black sheep who scorned the family firm to run off with a theatre troupe. But there was something down-market about the arts that made room for the lower orders -- especially with the mass audience that came along with movies. Most of all, you didn't need a university degree to get a foot in.

There were outsiders and scalawags like Charlie Chaplin, who grew up rough and learned to hate middle class do-gooding social workers; or Edward G. Robinson, who lived in a tenement and became a tony art collector to compensate. There was a coarser look to many of them; you didn't need perfect features. It was even was an asset not to have them since that mass movie audience could identify. Charles Laughton actually played romantic roles. One of the last was Hackman, who didn't seem to know he wasn't Cary Grant. (Grant's parents, on the other hand, were a factory worker and a seamstress.)

But the privilege element has now moved up to another level. This is partly due to the so-called "culturalization" of the economy, where art is no longer economically peripheral. It's as gainful and respected (or more so) to be an actor, musician (or news anchor) than a tycoon. In fact, they all sort of blend.

This shift gets most noted, naturally, in the U.K. with its hyper sense of class. There's debate about a takeover by "posh" actors: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hollander -- stars of The Night Manager -- who all went to the same private elementary school; the former two went on to Eton, alongside Eddie Redmayne and Damien Lewis. Almost everyone attended Oxford. This may underpin the "Downtonization" of British TV drama. In Canada, we tend to phrase these trends in terms of race, but it largely amounts to the same thing.

Much (in fact, too much) depends on education, especially with the decline of other routes to the arts, like provincial rep companies in the U.K. In the early years there are arts programs, where wealthier parents can fundraise for supplies, such as musical instruments or theatre trips -- though here they can't yet buy actual arts teachers for their kids' schools.

Then come university programs that are harder to access with rising tuition; and even if you get there as a poor kid, you probably need to work rather than try out for plays.

The grad programs follow, which require auditions (which often demand fees) and prepping for those. The same goes for writing, where postgrad creative writing degrees have become ubiquitous, though what they mostly provide is simply time to write.

What gets lost? Voices -- literally in the case of actors. I knew a theatre director who made a note during auditions: "has access to class." That won't matter much if you don't have writers who write about class, as David Fennario did in Canada.

What would've been lost if Mozart's or Chopin's dads hadn't been composers and teachers? But wait -- what of all the latent Mozarts and Chopins whose dads weren't? How much richer might the world that kids arrive in have been?

Not to mention the small matter of justice (social variant).

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Croswald9/flickr

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