The Discreet Charm of the Artistic Elite

Or the Making of the Professional Art-managerial Class

Spring is here and it’s time to head into the garden. I share my allotment in central London with about thirty other locals, most of whom live in social housing. We have a WhatsApp group through which we arrange get-togethers and argue about the best way to grow spinach. The little administration that needs to happen happens mostly by itself. Someone tends to the trees, someone else plants flowers in the communal patches, another obsessively clears out weeds. I take perverse pleasure in maintaining the compost heap. The garden feels like a healthy ecosystem of plants, land, and people, an exemplar of happy community life.

How did this idyll come to be? It wasn’t in the city planners’ master design for post-war living, it isn’t part of the local council’s allotment scheme, and it wasn’t even the result of a few locals’ good intentions. No, my community garden is an art project. Let that sink in: the vegetable patch where I grow kale and where slugs eat my lettuce was initiated by an artist collective. Every aspect of the vegetable patch was originally decided on by an artist. Artists brought the community together, mediated interests, divided plots, and allocated flower beds. When the artists did all these things, they did them as artists (all be it as artists that specialise in community and land projects) rather than as members of the community.

Five different funding organisations supported the artists’ work with the community. For months and years, the artists came and went, orchestrating events like communal bread-making and maypole dancing, each recorded eagerly with their 16mm film camera. Ten years after the project began and with the help of yet another public funding agency, the artists presented their artistic film work in an exhibition at a local non-profit gallery. The exhibition text boasted of the housing estate’s “Bangladeshi, European, Kurdish, Serbian, Turkish, Ugandan and West Indian communities” that came together in the making of the garden and the artworks.

Isn’t my garden a living example of culture doing what it does best, that is bringing people together and helping them work towards a shared purpose? Don’t we want to cooperate for more community gardens and more exhibitions? If there is some conflict between the artists’ and the participants’ interests, don’t we know how to resolve it ethically and with care? Isn’t the outcome a net positive for all involved? These are all pertinent questions that the art world answers in the positive, as do the communities, by and large. But there’s another dimension that causes me concern: did my community need artists to start an ad-hoc vegetable garden? Did my community need artists to become a community?

The great replacement

The terms ‘social practice’ or ‘socially engaged art’ could describe any number of activities ranging from the building of gardens, running after-school activities for children, leading walking clubs, to hosting dance classes. The one thing that these examples of socially engaged art have in common is that artists are involved. This practice came of age in the early years of the millennium in part as a by-product of the New Labour Government’s investment in the creative industries and the arts. The policy and political mechanisms that facilitated this evolution were complex and remain contested[1]David Hesmondhalgh et al., Culture, Economy and Politics: The Case of New Labour (Springer, 2015). but at ground level, it appeared as though the state’s mechanisms of policing, social work, welfare, and even healthcare were being replaced by arts interventions. Where once a social worker looked out for the young people of a housing estate, there was instead an artist leading a mural-painting workshop. Schools facing pressures found it easier to access funding for artist-in-residence programmes than for teachers. Eventually, under the aegis of ‘social proscribing’ healthcare professionals were asked to try sending some patients to pottery classes instead of burdening mental health services with them.

Cynically, one may observe that artists are cheaper than police officers or doctors. Almost as cynically, one may argue that artists are nearly as effective at holding communities together as the crumbling structures of the welfare state around them once were. In the decade of austerity economics followed by the pandemic crisis, calls on art’s ability to pick up the slack of civil society have only intensified. In principle, this is a golden formula: culture and artists have contributed to the public sphere for millennia. As demand for art’s social interventions grew, social practice became a viable career alternative for the ever-growing number of art school graduates and a generation of artists have now been trained in supporting communities.

Murals are chapter than social workers. Photo: Emily/flickr.

But what happens when the army of social art practitioners grows so large that it begins to make structural demands of its own? Who are socially engaged artists if we were to think of them as a professional class? How are they, as a guild, predisposed towards the communities they serve and towards the professions they have come to replace?

Artist-managers for the community

Artists can participate in communities in many ways. Sometimes, they may volunteer their skills and resources for the benefit of others. When they do that, artists hold no exalted space in the community’s hierarchical structures, at least not one that would automatically rank them ahead of nurses, teachers, or housewives.

In other situations, artists hold a degree of power over other members of their communities. As in my allotment garden, artists often act as the initiators and managers of projects that touch on questions of access to essential communal resources. In return, they receive a fee and are given the freedom to shape their projects. Such control may be subject to codes but in no small sense, artists working with communities can sometimes decide who gets to grow potatoes and who doesn’t.

With artists now deployed to serve community needs as diverse as social cohesion, crime prevention, employability, or access to training, let alone the physical state of social housing, community centres, or parks, the class interests of artists in these processes are not a trivial matter. Often, the power relationships follow straightforward Bourdesian lines. The Austrian artistic collective WochenKlausur, for example, has been practising ‘social intervention’ since 1993 and describes access to “an infrastructural framework and cultural capital” of an art institution as a “prerequisite” for every project”.[2]‘Method’, WochenKlausur, accessed 14 March 2022, WochenKlausur’s forty projects have included the renovation of a refugee hostel in Sweden and home improvements in a neighbourhood in Israel.

Why would it take contractor-artists to decide on the furnishings that refugees sleep on? Why do Viennese creatives need to exert control over whose house in Holon should have its faulty plumbing fixed? Crucially, why should WochenKlausur be handed control of the capital – both tangible and symbolic – on which their client communities depend? What is WochenKausur’s role in these endeavours if not that of professional – by which I mean remunerated – project managers?

WochenKlausur, Artistic Strategies in Psychiatry, 2016.

Perhaps social practice should be applauded for bringing art’s resources and skills, including access to arts funding, to communities. Sometimes, however, WochenKlausur appear to be doing the opposite and extracting resources from their subjects. Their 2016 residency in a mental health institution in the Netherlands is a clear example. After spending a period ‘researching’ the organisation, the artists negotiated further access – and further funding –  for a further artist to make a further intervention into the life of the hospital. While the collective’s website glosses over the project’s potential benefit to the hospital’s patients, its focus is to advocate for the importance of employing – and paying – artists as figures crucial to the provision of public health services.[3]WochenKlausur, Artistic Strategies in Psychiatry, 2016,

Art versus the community

Was WochenKlausur’s ‘artistic intervention’ performed for the benefit of a local Dutch community, or were artists themselves its greater recipient? Is it a coincidence that most of the subjects of the collective’s interventions are among the most disadvantaged in society while their facilitators are institutionally-credentialled artists and project managers? Is the artist’s participation in all these social projects strictly essential? Given that community gardens had existed without the involvement of art school graduates for decades, the role of artists in such initiatives may legitimately be called into question. 

I am not questioning art’s utility in solving social problems – this issue has received ample attention elsewhere. Instead, my interest lies in the unintended consequences of introducing artists as problem solvers at a mass scale and the costs associated with using them to replace structures that already had other solutions. At one level, the implications are practical: what proportion of the resources available for, for example, building a children’s adventure playground in Glasgow should be spent on artists’ fees and on publicising such a project when its designers Assemble win the Turner Prize?[4]Assemble. Granby Four Streets. 2013. What precedent does the distribution of resources in such a manner set for the construction of future playgrounds?

To understand how artists may behave when they are deployed into communities under a failing social contract, we must come to think of them as a class, a Professional Art-managerial Class.[5]I am not referring here to the profession of arts management but rather suggest that artists have become professional project managers. The first step in ascribing a class consciousness to artists is to consider their group affinity as recipients of a distinct type of training: the MFA holds a certain mystique to outsiders which separates the in-group from the out-group.[6]Lennart G Svensson, ‘Occupations and Professionalism in Art and Culture’, Professions and Professionalism 5, no. 2 (2015). Artists have access to shared knowledge and because much art education concerned with social practice follows progressive tenets, socially engaged artists can be united by a shared political outlook and aims.

The increasingly widespread access to art school education and its rarefied status leads me to consider artists as a contemporary mass elite, even though this term is highly unpopular among practitioners concerned with democratising access to the arts. This class shows many of the hallmarks of the elites described by Christopher Lasch in the 1990s,[7]Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, History. Cultural Studies (W. W. Norton, 1996). in particular its opposition to the traditional bourgeoisie, heightened geographic mobility, and a sense of rootlessness associated with social obligations that can be rewritten arbitrarily. For curator Nicolas Bourriaud harbouring thoughts of the altermodern in 2009, these were all conditions for a new practice that set the artistic elites apart from other social classes. Paradoxically, societal relationships were the very material of relational aesthetics and the social practices that succeeded it.

Assemble. Granby Four Streets. 2013.

What happens when aspirations of global mobility and unencumbered intellectualism meet the realities of fierce competition and institutionalised instrumentalism? By 2015, imagining oneself to be an altermodern citizen of the world meant, in the words of Prime Minister Theresa May, being a “citizen of nowhere”. Of course, May was not singling out artists, but she was contending with a liberal society that was oversaturated with cultural elites who refused to fall in line with their diminishing political and economic power. Something fundamental had happened in the past few decades: armies of expensively-trained graduates were spending their lives doing data entry for 10% above minimum wage and wondering where all their aspirations went. The easyJet fantasy of freedom had diminishing returns.

Many of those disenchanted graduates were artists. The growth of the visual arts sector and its art schools in the past twenty years has led to an overproduction of elites, a phenomenon described by the historian Peter Turchin.[8]Peter Turchin, Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History (Beresta Books, 2016). Elite overproduction has been characteristic of developed liberal societies in which the supply of university graduates has outpaced the growth in cognitive industries. The result is the oversupply of highly skilled workers who end up underemployed and underpaid.

If this sounds familiar, it is because there are many more artists in Western economies than there are good jobs for artists. The arts industry is in unfaltering denial of this imbalance as it argues for never-ending expansion, but it is no secret that the majority of art school graduates struggle to survive in an ecosystem that thrives on a steady flow of new, cheap talent. To add to the shared political orientation ingrained in them by the art school, artists are now bound together by their material experiences that involve the balancing of personal, social, intellectual, and artistic interests with subpar working conditions.

The Unprofessional Managerial Class

If low wages are one of the side-effects of this imbalance in the supply and demand of labour, another is the artificial expansion of art’s remit beyond its traditionally occupied realms. With this come questions of artists’ preparedness to address issues that are not primarily aesthetic but they are not news: debates over the art’s true commitment to politics have raged at least since the French Surrealists declared themselves anticapitalistic in the 1920s.[9]Abigail Susik, Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work, 2021. What is different today is the sheer size of the art world and the staggering number of art professionals. How many social practice artists are there in the world today? Tens, hundreds of thousands? How many more curators, outreach workers, publicists?[10]While I concentrate on the UK in this text, interest in social practice is now globally universal. Even political systems like China’s have made space for socially engaged art. See, for example, M. Wang, Socially Engaged Art in … see more

By the time there are more artists in the world than there are HR managers, it is no longer adequate to understand the class politics of this group by referring to their individual practices alone. Indeed, it is the practices that are shaped by the class interests of the practitioners. In that light, art’s interest in fields as diverse as school education or political campaigning is driven by the protectionist logic of a guild or a cartel. In other words, artists, and in particular those artists who operate outside the commercial art market, have become a professional-managerial class of their own. And as they acquire class consciousness, the preservation of their elusive grip on power becomes their key interest. 

This may be difficult to swallow, so consider instead the ‘class’ formation of human resources managers, the ultimate exponent of the professional-managerial class. As the practice of HR management has matured, HR managers have formed guilds, research institutes, and lobby groups. Their guilds guard entry into the profession by demanding that aspirants undertake costly training. Imagine, next, that despite this barrier, human resource management attracts so many aspirants that with time, the number of freshly qualified HR professionals vastly outstrips the demand for them in business circles.

How might the HR guild react to this scenario? Unless the economy expands and brings with it new employment prospects, all HR managers would be looking at a drop in wages. The guild could try and dissuade the trainees from pursuing their careers, except that that stands against the principles of their profession. Another solution could be to raise the status of HR management and thus artificially expand the demand for it within existing businesses. What if it suddenly became ‘more equitable’ for an HR professional to mediate all employee holiday requests? What if the workplace canteen came under the aegis of staff ‘welfare’ and now required new managerial processes that gave work to endless committees? Would it be so very difficult to convince workers that HR personnel were indispensable to the provision of bike racks in the office? Wouldn’t more senior HRs be needed to manage their juniors, too?

The purpose of HR management is to create more HR management. Photo: Rawpixel Ltd/flickr.

It is obvious where this ‘HR Karenism’[11]A phrase I borrow from Geoff Shullenberger, ‘HR-Karenism and Its Enemies with Malcolm Kyeyune’, Outsider Theory, 2022., is going. In a world where HR managers decide how many HR managers are needed and why, everything becomes a matter for HR and HR becomes critical to everything.[12]Indeed, this is borne out even in the evolving terminology of HR: the practice used to be called ‘personnel’, then ‘human resources’. Now, HR managers are responsible for ‘culture and people’. The parallels with social practices’ … see more In the first instance, such manipulation of the market does expand the employment prospects for HR professionals but in the long-term, wages tail off as businesses confront their soaring HR bills. So as more HR officers grind away at increasingly meaningless forms of intermediation, their work satisfaction, and indeed their power over the office, diminishes. Despite, if not because of its success, the professional-managerial class is left feeling bitter and disenfranchised.

Between Bohemia and managerialism 

But if the HR manager makes a living by mediating between the employee and the employer, why shouldn’t a social artist do the same by standing between local government and social housing dwellers? The function of both professions in their respective value chains seems arbitrary but it does not always appear to be wholly negative. The problem in this practice of profit extraction is that the various forms of capital that the managerial elites and artists trade do not originate with them. HR does not, contrary to its name, stand for human resources, it merely collects a premium on the concept. Social artists do not have a monopoly over the social. They do not even have a monopoly over art.

Nor are the artists themselves the target beneficiary community of their social practices. How disempowering must it feel to be providing cut-price social services, knowing that a social worker would be both better and better-paid? The Professional Art-managerial Class’ response to this sorry situation has been to reframe itself as a working class. Multiple attempts have been made by scholars to rehabilitate the idea of artistic work as labour.[13]Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019); Danielle Child, Working Aesthetics: Labour, Art and Capitalism, Radical Aesthetics-Radical Art … see more There is even a magazine called Arts of the Working Class[14]I contributed to AoWC twice and both times I felt pressured by the editors to portray artists in a positive light. whose editorial manifesto seems to be that all artists, save perhaps for those class traitors who sell their wares in the art market, are the deserving working class.

But the Professional Art-managerial Class’ grip on what the working class is just as loose as the PMC’s. How much do university-educated creatives who work with some of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions have in common with truck drivers or farm labourers? Indeed, the discourse of diversity, access, and representation in the arts has been fashionable of late, but for all its claims, the art school and the art world remain thoroughly middle-class in origin.[15]S Friedman and D Laurison, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged (Policy Press, 2019). This means that when the artists present themselves as synonymous with the deserving community,[16]I acknowledge that this impulse is not unnatural; I recall using a similar argument in an application for public funding circa 2009. the working classes who are ostensibly the beneficiary targets of social practice interventions are nowhere near to call them out on this bluff.

And yet, the precarity of the gig-economy that now plagues the working classes is nothing short of artistic fantasy. Ask an art school undergraduate and chances are that they’ll gesture at the creative freedoms of the Romantics or the aesthetic appeal of Bohemian lifestyles. The prospect of living ‘down-and-out in the art world’s capitals’ is so alluring because it promises to make good of the failed promises of liberal individualism. But it won’t be long before the same art student will have to confront the brutal realities of their fantasy, the interests of their client communities, and the managerialism of the institutions and liberal capital that they embody.

This class plight has the very same destabilising effect on communities and their ability to self-determine that Lasch saw in the lot of the wealthy ‘global’ elites. Turchin’s conceptualisation of elite overproduction accounts for the financial instability of the PMC and extends Lasch’s dark prognosis directly to their feet. The overabundance of elites is a burden on society and the economy because a growing proportion of society devotes itself to forms of unnecessary or non-productive labour. More, in a backlash against their material conditions, the same elites are driven to undermine the very relationship between social classes. For the Professional Art-managerial Class, the class logic is clear: as long as artists despise the bourgeoisie, there are doomed to emulate it. And if they despise the working class too, they want nothing more than to portray themselves as revolutionary class heroes.

La communauté, c’et moi

If artists have succeeded in convincing themselves that they are the communities, then the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ takes on an expanded meaning. When artists claim to be the arbiters of what benefits communities, they exert oversized control over the social conditions of growing aspects of society. This may lead to positive changes, no doubt, but we only have the artists’ word for it: the social workers and educators who could have held artists’ ideas to account are long gone.

In this world of few checks and balances, the next logical step for the PAC guilds is what Martin Kyeyune described as ‘selling fire insurance’. Where the managerial elite has no legitimate claim on the production value chains, it can always turn to extortion.[17]At first, this took place within the practice of art itself: consider the meteoric rise of the contemporary art curator in the first decade of the century and the rebalancing of power that this caused within the artistic sphere. But this couldn’t … see more Having forcibly inserted themselves into the processes of community-making or influencing public opinion, artist-managers are naturally incentivized to manipulate their subject’s interests until they serve their own too. The mechanism by which this happens is illusory and artists and their institutions will downplay it by pointing to debates on the ethics of social practices. But the effect is demonstrably that artists call the shots on whether a community’s interests are legitimate through the prism of their own interests and that artists determine if a political opinion is acceptable by checking if it serves their own class agenda. For evidence, one needs only to look to the gentrifying work of the architectural/artistic practice Assemble or the artistic class’ univocal opposition to Brexit. There can be no social or political art that opposes the artist’s politics. The power that the elite hold over the social need not even be made explicit. As Kyeyune jested, a veiled threat like “nice enterprise you have here, it would be a shame if someone called it homophobic” will suffice.[18]Shullenberger. The artist-manager, therefore, holds the ultimate control over what shape politics takes. Could a world built under such conditions not serve the art-managerial class?

Wolfgang Tillmans’ anti-Brexit campaign posters. Phot: M. Bertrand

In my community garden, I have often been asked to make decisions or to adjudicate minor conflicts over the ownership of tomato plants. I attract the respect of the community not because I have earned it but because of my class association with the artists, now long gone, who founded the garden. It is hard not to notice how disempowering such dependency on a managerial class is to working-class communities. If my neighbours feel beholden to the likes of me over access to the vegetable patch, it is no wonder that many like them feel ‘left behind’ in more important liberal power negotiations. 

What happens here is the very opposite of the ‘big society’. It may be that a community once capable of self-determination had lost some of its charms under the conditions of neoliberal isolation, but the state-appointed big society mediator run off with the means of political reproduction.

Seeking rent on cultural capital

The Professional Art-managerial Class’ logic of protectionism promises a profound shift in the allocation of power in favour of the artist. But even this has had severe limitations: what good is prestige under capitalism? In a world where the exploitation of capital resources is the only alternative to labour, artists can hardly be blamed for trying to turn their status into profit. The guild offers some ideas here: why not lend out scraps of your cultural capital for interest?

Oliver,[19]I changed the name and some details to spare my friend embarrassment. an artist I know runs a project space on the social housing estate adjoining my community garden. Few of the locals understand why he chose to open an art gallery so far away from the art world’s better-trodden paths. It all started with good intentions but after a few years of enthusiastic programming and creative experimentation, Oliver appears to have lost his former interest in staging exhibitions. It’s hard to tell why: perhaps the locals’ bewilderment at seeing contemporary art next to a pizza joint was not what he wanted. Today, the project space is more often rented out commercially than it is programmed by its owner. 

But even though Oliver now has no artistic dialogue with the architects, fashion designers, or artists who occasionally lease his space for exhibitions or events and even though they pay market rents, he likens his role as the landlord to that of a community elder. So confident is he in his beneficence that he demanded that local authorities support his enterprise as a work of essential public merit. The supreme irony of this story is that before Oliver took control of the space, it was provided by the local council as a pop-up venue to an unfunded amateur community craft group, free of charge.

Not glamorous but.. free. Photo: patita pirata/flickr

One may judge Oliver’s initiative for its complicity with processes of displacement and gentrification and thus disqualify him from the membership of the revolutionary class. But if the artist can extract rent on cultural capital, can he also collect cultural capital on physical property? It is telling the one time that Oliver’s gallery space was rented by a group of young black artists – a demographic in high demand for any art organization – my (white) friend boasted about his community-benefactor publicly role with double his usual zeal. 

Back on the vegetable patch

Easy as it is to caricature, the discreet charm of the Professional Art-managerial Class is irresistible: no number of essays on the ethics of social practice can render a whole class immune to the temptations of resource extraction or status-seeking. And it is in times of crisis that the campaign of strategic intermediation which the artistic elites have been embroiled in for decades becomes most graspable and most profitable. 

Sometimes, this is because art is particularly adept at capturing excesses in symbolic capital. This was the case, for example, during the Covid lockdowns when the initiative Artist Food Bank Network spent as much attention branding their no doubt commendable work as art as they did on feeding those in need. Other times, the PAC may be far more protectionist under the guise of benevolent solidarity. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, to take one poignant example, has given rise to no end of initiatives organised by artists for other artists. Art schools in Germany and Finland have opened their scholarship programmes to Ukrainian artists and residency projects across Europe have offered studio spaces to Ukrainian curators as a matter of priority.[20]Biedarieva, Svitlana. ‘Funding, Shelter and Emergency Resources for Artists Affected by War in Ukraine—and How You Can Support Them’. The Art Newspaper, 4 March … see more. There is, of course, nothing wrong with these gestures per se and neither are they extraordinary.[21]For example, Jewish communities in the UK have collected money to help Ukrainian Jews seeking refuge in Israel. But why not, at a moment of acute stress, ‘artists for accountants’ or ‘artists for the elderly’? Or, echoing ‘art for all’, why not ‘artists for everyone’? Seeing their members under profound existential stress, the artistic elites are united by shared class consciousness and are drawn to close ranks. This, surely, is the making of a social class.

Nikita Kadan, Limits of Responsibility, 2014, installation, sculpture, metal, painted wood, earth and vegetables, 36 colour slides, 3 book facsimiles, 2014

In the end, everything comes down to the soil. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan became the Western art world’s go-to spokesperson for his country. His 2014 work Limits of Responsibility captured the peculiar symbiosis of protesters and vegetables during the Maidan protest as some of the long-term demonstrators in Kyiv’s main square turned the very ground they occupied into a produce garden.[22]Nikita Kadan, Limits of Responsibility, 2014, installation, sculpture, metal, painted wood, earth and vegetables, 36 colour slides, 3 book facsimiles, 2014.

Kadan’s installation and photographs play out the Euromaidan movement’s relationship to land, to a homeland, as a resource that nurtures those who look after it well. Could Kadan’s portrayal of Maidan’s ad-hoc community-building in which he is an observer-participant be any further from the managerial control of my garden’s community artists? In the wake of the ongoing supply chain crises and the impending cost of living crisis, my entitlement to enjoy my community garden’s harvest may yet become more than symbolic.

I borrow the title from Buñuel and from Shannan Clark, The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).


Review: The Class Ceiling

The Class Ceiling 
Why it Pays to be Privileged

Sam Friedman
Daniel Laurison

Published by Policy Press, 2020
ISBN 9781447336068

Class may be the ultimate English taboo. Not long ago, the Labour Government minister John Prescott’s television documentary[1]‘Prescott: The Class System And Me’ (2008). UK: BBC 2. portrayed the UK as a country in which the very word was losing meaning in ways that should have troubled sociologists. In a memorable scene, Prescott interviewed a group of young unemployed people who refused to see themselves as ‘working class’ because, well, they did not work for a living. More recently, the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities [2]Sewell, T. et al. (2021) Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report. was widely condemned in part for suggesting that a class-centric, socioeconomic lens may be appropriate in addressing disadvantages experienced by ethnic minorities.

The Class Ceiling is one of a range of works to appear in recent years that attempt to renew the focus on class and its continued hold on the uneven distributions of social and cultural capital in sites of economic and political power. Titles like the theoretically-driven Against Meritocracy,[3]Littler, J. (2017) Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility. Taylor & Francis. the politically-sited The Tyranny of Merit,[4]Sandel, M. J. (2020) The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books Limited. and the historical and activist Snakes and Ladders[5]Todd, S. (2021) Snakes and Ladders: The great British social mobility myth. Random House. all serve to undo the naively optimistic narratives of merit as the prevalent organising principle of society and labour that have characterised much of the past decades. 

Friedman and Laurison’s study centres on the material outcomes and professional experiences of individuals engaged in elite professions in relation to their class origins to test the promise of meritocracy that it’s not who, but what you know that matters. As it is not only equality of opportunity but also the chances of equal outcomes that are under investigation, the book’s key questions are ones of social mobility: how likely is it that an individual beginning their life in working-class or intermediate class circumstances may end up in occupations that make them a prosperous member of the professional or managerial classes? 

The book opens with the story of Mark, a successful TV executive who attributes his stellar ascent in the industry equally to hard work and his quintessentially privileged background (professional-class parents, private schooling and Oxford, networks built on family connections, etc.). Mark is the archetype against whom all the other protagonists in the book must compete: his stocks of social, economic, and cultural capitals are high. Even in the scantest analysis, the odds are heavily stacked against individuals of working-class origin who are almost half as likely to end up in working-class occupations as to transcend class boundaries into intermediate, managerial, or elite professions. This framing illustrates the authors’ fundamental belief that social mobility is the key route to economic emancipation (Friedman is a member of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission) which favours ascent towards the top of the labour market pyramid.

The authors select the occupation of an individual’s parents as a proxy for their class origin. Consequently, the detailed work draws on extensive analysis of data from the Labour Force Survey as it pertains to individuals employed in a range of elite professions (medicine, academia, law, senior corporate management, and finance, among others). This quantitative work is accompanied by analysis of 175 interviews with individuals working in the prestigious fields of television, accounting, architecture, and the acting profession presented in the book as a series of vignettes and case studies.

The Class Ceiling builds on the tools of its glass predecessor in defining a range of mechanisms by which discrimination operates. In the professional milieux which Friedman and Laurison describe, class disparities are already visible at the entry-level: that the children of doctors are 25 times more likely to take up medicine than any other profession means that they dominate the competitive field from the get-go. Education is not the ‘great leveller’ either: “those from working class backgrounds earn even less when they go to top universities” (p. 63). These predictions hold across many co-variables including sex, disability, or ethnicity, although Friedman and Laurison’s multidimensional observations show that in most matters, demographic differences alone do not explain observed disparities. The book thus makes a case for adding class origins as a key dimension of intersectional analysis.

The headline finding that working-class origin people earn on average £6400 (or 16%) less per year than their colleagues from privileged backgrounds in the same occupations is a depressing starting point, but one that should put an end to any belief in the meritocracy of the UK’s job marketplace. The statistical analysis is detailed enough to present some counterintuitive findings, however. While, for example, “socially mobile women face double discrimination on earnings” in elite industries overall (p. 50) and women are overrepresented in journalism (p. 42), working-class individuals overall enjoy an earrings advantage in that industry (p. 51). In a section of the book filled with indictments of prevalent attitudes to class, a discussion of whether and why journalism may be a haven for working-class women would have been welcome.

The book takes flight in the later chapters which take to task a range of phenomena that the authors observed in corporate settings. We meet the job applicant Martin, who is as qualified as his competitor Sophie but is of working-class origin and therefore not a good ‘fit’. We hear from executives who suggest that career progression is a matter of ‘confidence’. When Friedman and Laurison explore the qualities behind those terms, it becomes clear that they are intended to reinforce barriers while rendering them opaque. Head of department Nigel may suggest that in his organisation “you can be who you want to be”, but in the very same setting, success hinges on choosing the correct brand of trainers for Martha (p. 134). There is an element of chicken-and-egg in these accounts that mirrors the homophilic in- and out-group sorting mechanisms of all groups and therefore the interviews and case studies are particularly valuable. 

The authors’ siting of the research in elite professions is productive because it allows for a discussion of both the disadvantages faced by working- and intermediate class origin individuals and the privileges enjoyed by their professional class origin counterparts. There are, however, limitations to this approach which Friedman and Laurison acknowledge: this analysis tells us little about how the ‘long shadow’ of class origin operates elsewhere. A way of generalising the observation that it is the class origin that prevents working-class individuals from prospering in elite professions would be to deconstruct the understanding of employment in those elite occupations as universally synonymous with belonging to a professional class. 

While The Class Ceiling provides evidence that working-class origin individuals don’t often progress beyond the lowest paying employment on entering elite industries, further insight could be gained from a longitudinal analysis of the rise of those industries in the decades of mass deregulation. The thematically linked Culture is Bad for You, for example, demonstrates that in elite cultural occupations, the golden age of social mobility is at best a myth[6]Brook, O., O’Brien, D. and Taylor, M. (2020) Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries. chap. 7. Manchester University Press. and that the statistically evident gains of the class politics of the 1980s may have been the result of a shift in terminology and not in outcomes. An analysis of class barriers in evidence today, perhaps, should take account of the stark class-type differences between the CEOs and the administrators who both appear in the data trails as belonging to the same professional class. 

Ultimately, the scholarly value of the work lies in its rehabilitation of the multiple measures and meanings of class as distinct constituent components in an intersectional analysis of any group’s professional or social outcomes. Friedman and Laurison’s quantitative work is certainly impressive in its multidimensionality and its investment in critical and numerical complexity. The relationship of this data with the qualitative aspects of the research, however, may be far from stable: the oral accounts of class on which the work is based do not always match the statistical classifications. This poses a challenge to the project because how class is measured and how it is understood are not one and the same.

That the understanding and signalling of class or other identity attributes may become an obstacle to classical class analysis is already evident from Friedman and Laurison’s data in a subsequent paper Deflecting Privilege[7]Friedman, S., O’Brien, D. and McDonald, I. (2021) ‘Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self’, Sociology. doi: 10.1177/0038038520982225. that observes a range of middle-class origin individuals constructing accounts of class adversity and disadvantage. This phenomenon even predates the 1980s’ spirit of individualism heralded by Giddens or Bauman: the pioneering American artist Lorraine O’Grady, for example, recalls her successful Black middle-class peers feigning humble origins in the 1970s.[8]O’Grady, L. and Davis, B. (2021) ‘Lorraine O’Grady on the Social Castes of the Art World’, The Art Angle. ArtNet. To echo her question: “what kind of class does that?”

How such considerations can be politically activated to form a convincing policy framework for ameliorating prevailing disparities remains an open question. For some, the classic Bourdieusian tools of sociology are beginning to fray in the era of identity politics and its intersectional demands[9]Heinich, N. (2007) Pourquoi Bourdieu? Gallimard (Le Débat). – the Sewell report comes to mind again. Slavoj Žižek[10]Žižek, S. (2016) What the Liberal Left Doesn’t Want to Hear. New York. has suggested that the same kind of deconstruction awaits class as is currently taking place with the gender binary. An entirely different political class narrative may be called for that transcends the boundaries of sociological understanding before returning to the discipline once again.

This is an Accepted Manuscript version of the following article, accepted for publication in Cultural Trends:
d’Alancaisez, P. (2021) ‘The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged’, Cultural Trends, pp. 1–3. doi: 10.1080/09548963.2021.1950512


At the limits of representation

Social practice – a prominent and growing aspect of contemporary visual art engaged in social and political realities – has claimed a significant role in bolstering cohesion, empowering communities, and encouraging solidarity between social groups in past decades. It has therefore been a disappointment that in the chaos of pandemic lockdowns, many museums and galleries suspended their social practice programmes, just when their communities needed them the most. With few exceptions, contemporary art’s civic consciousness and the ethos of engagement and inclusion took a step back from more pressing, prosaic concerns of art and artists’ own survival.

While one can hardly blame artists for failing to single-handedly defeat a deadly virus or its economic and social challenges, the pandemic has brought some old questions to the fore again. How do artists, museums and galleries decide whom to support with the resources and skills at their disposal? Why do certain social causes become the causes of art? 

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu[1]Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford University Press. offers an unflattering view of cultural reproduction. He argues that it is in art’s interest to join social struggles because these create a demand for art: making social art is profitable whether one believes in the cause or not. This model may help to understand some of the most misguided aspects of socially-motivated art practice, for example, Marc Quinn’s intervention that replaced the statue of Edward Colston toppled by BLM protesters in Bristol with a work of his own. Quinn was widely condemned for seeking cultural profit from the suffering of others.

However, Bourdieu’s analysis looks dangerously out of date in light of the armies of artists who until recently took on roles traditionally reserved for social workers, often with little reward. But if art’s social functions are today necessary to the functioning of society, they remain a somehow optional and voluntary aspect of artistic practice. It is then even more important to understand who is and who isn’t included in art’s social remit, and how the priorities of artists themselves shape the priorities of social practices.

A potted history of social art and its relationship to the policy-mandated drive for access and inclusion may help in answering some of these questions. The rise and rise of social art practice begun with the post-1997 cultural policies that charged museums and galleries with finding and nurturing previously unengaged audiences.[2]See for example, Hewitt, Andy. 2011. “Privatizing the Public: Three Rhetorics of Art’s Public Good in ‘Third Way’ Cultural Policy.” Art & the Public Sphere 1 (1): 19–36. To deliver these audiences, institutions hired a generation of freshly-trained artist-facilitators supplied by the ever-expanding and increasingly diverse art schools. In times of plentiful arts funding, this was art’s success story: more art was being made by more (and more diverse) artists for larger (and more diverse) audiences.[3]This is, of course, a simplified account. The argument which follows is concerned with the perceptions of these phenomena, rather than their empirical successes.

In a moment of intoxication with its new mission and unprecedented access to funding, the early 2000s art industry believed that it could tackle social ills at large, not to mention its own internal inequities. In other words, art’s promise of inclusion was not only of empowerment through art that was heralded by social practice. For many audiences, inclusion turned out to be an enticement into the art world workforce itself. 

Here lies a profound paradox: the unintended effect of this expansion of artistic activity is that it created a quasi-class of artists whose political ambitions and professional experience made them acutely critical of their own industry’s failings. Contemporary art’s drive to become more inclusive for its audiences ultimately contributed to the inequalities experienced by its workforce. In transitioning from a modestly sized, relatively homogenous industry of the 1980s in which the number of arts graduates tracked the number of job openings, to an explosive, diverse ‘creative economy’ free-for-all of the 2000s, the cultural workforce grew at a pace even greater than the demand for its labour.

The increased competition for opportunities exacerbates inequalities: if a larger (and more diverse) workforce is competing for more (but not so many more and not necessarily fairer) jobs, any asymmetry in the distribution of advantage becomes more visible. At the same time, long-term trends in the entire UK workforce create the appearance of industries like art becoming more inaccessible when in fact it is the pool of people who experience barriers to success that is changing.[4]For a nuanced discussion of these factors, see Brook, O, D O’Brien, and M Taylor. 2020. Culture Is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Manchester University Press. This means that as certain markers of disadvantage in elite professions have diminished in their effect (class, for example), others may have become more prominent. In intersectional analysis, for those parts of the workforce who came to art seeking empowerment, the disappointment of finding an industry unable to dispense it fairly has been palpable. 

Nothing of this, of course, is an argument against diversity. The ideals of access and inclusion, whether instrumental or genuinely felt, are not at fault. A long perspective on their side-effects, however, should prompt a re-examination of art’s continued claims of representation in respect of its stated social justice commitments. The pandemic has illustrated the dangers of relying on loose definitions of who is and who is not included in art’s social remit. In a curious turn, we are seeing artists demanding that they themselves be welcomed again. 

Early on in the pandemic, the Instagram-based #artistsupportpledge initiative saw artists pledge a proportion of their sale takings for buying other artists’ art. In what was an innocent peer-to-peer marketing campaign masquerading as democracy and mutual aid, it’s mission was clear: the artists’ priority is to support artists.

A more striking example came during last Summer’s strikes by a group of some 300 retail, catering, and commercial workers risking redundancy at Tate. The regrettable and all too familiar situation was distinguished by the arguments that the strikers put to management. They reasoned that because many of them were artists by training (despite being employed by Tate in non-art capacities) and because many of them were from underprivileged social backgrounds (which are overrepresented in low-wage sectors like retail), Tate owed them a double duty of care. The implication is profound: being an artist is synonymous with experiencing acute disadvantage aking to racism, sexism, or classism. If artists are by definition underprivileged and the boundaries between their own identities and those of the subjects of social practices are blurred, who is including whom? 

Read in Bourdieu’s tone, art’s principled stand with itself reflects the fact that the industry can stimulate the demand for art without reference to external factors. Having so effortlessly expanded its purview to include the material conditions and aspirations of any community (and therefore of artists), art has little need to include or represent anything other than itself. And since art is also able to adjudicate on the relative merits of any candidate for such inclusion on its own terms, it can continue to make unverifiable claims about its emancipatory power.

This is a version of a text originally published in The Sociological Review.
It is part of a series that continues in Art in Solidarity with Itself.

Main photo: Paul Campbell/Flickr.


Skills are cheap; chemistry is expensive

One of the upsides of the pandemic lockdown for some has been the opportunity to learn online and to develop new skills. The changes in the economy which will inevitably follow make up-skilling or re-skilling a smart choice.

However, predicting which skills will be in demand, and how to acquire them, is more difficult. In fact, the rhetorics of skills and their relationship to education and employability has been vexed for some time by narratives that include immigration, class, creativity, and an industry of educators resilient to change.

Unskilled, unwelcome

In February, the UK government laid out its proposals for a new ‘points-based’ immigration system. A migrant’s eligibility for an employment visa is set to be determined by their potential earnings and the level of their qualifications.  

These plans already had their opponents, but as the debate came into renewed focus in May, and the main bone of contention was the issue of skills. Nurses and paramedics, heroes of the pandemic response, were held up examples of professionals that would no longer be eligible for visas because their starting salaries fell under the government’s proposed salary floor. A widely-circulated tweet prompted outrage: is a radiographer really ‘unskilled’?

This in fact is a misrepresentation of the proposed policies: on that list of healthcare professions, most meet the government’s proposed criteria for qualifications, and earnings. 

All the same, the outrage continued. An opposition minister questioned the government: “Are our shop workers unskilled? Our refuse collectors? Of course they are not.” The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants echoed: “bus drivers and lorry drivers, care workers and shop workers, nurses and cleaners – they are not ‘unskilled’ or unwelcome.”

Whether one is skilled and whether one is welcome are separate questions. This appeal against the migration policies relies on a false equivalence: it constructs an analogy and solidarity between radiologists (qualified professionals with extensive training) and waste collectors (the dictionary definition for unskilled labour) on the grounds of their skills, rather than on moral or economic ones. There are of course plenty of other arguments for keeping borders open, for example to increase the diversity in the labour force, for the economic contribution migrants make, on humanitarian grounds, or more cynically because migrants are cheaper to employ.

If to be unskilled is to be undesirable, then skills become highly emotive. We can no longer recognise what skills are, how they are measured, and how to discriminate between them: the discourse proposes that all skills are equally good, useful and desirable. To deny this and to imply that some workers are unskilled is to strike against their dignity. 

It’s not what you know

Implicit in the desire for cutting low-skilled migration is the contested belief that a significant proportion of the indigenous population is economically inactive, probably fraudulently in receipt of state welfare, and only just qualified for those low-paid jobs. Ironically, that very same part of the UK population, perhaps having forgotten just how poor the conditions of low-wage work can be, are assumed to have voted to block migrants from competing in the job market in the Brexit referendum. 

A version of a popular meme circulating in early 2020.

This narrative is further confounded by stories of qualified surgeons who as immigrants drive taxis or wait tables, which inspire awe and resentment in equal measure. The flip-side of this phenomenon is brain-drain: countries like Bulgaria and Romania lament skilled youths fleeing their homelands for more prosperous EU countries, taking with them their states’ education. In reality, the picture is more complex: it is mostly the lowest-skilled workers who have taken advantage of open borders, and some countries like Poland have been able to convince many of their citizens to return. 

And so both anti- and pro-immigration politics produce almost the same attitude to skills: it most likely doesn’t matter what you know, but rather who you are and how hard you’re willing to work at whatever is left over when the better jobs have been distributed.

Home to world-class talent

The national morale is shaped by a country’s place in international rankings of wealth, education, productivity, and of skills. Britain’s marketing collateral maintains that the country is a powerhouse of innovation, ingenuity, and quality, all supported by a skilled workforce. Countries and businesses compete for those skills – one recalls for example the threat of financial services talent fleeing to Frankfurt if the Brexit trade settlement turned out unfavourably. 

Even London’s architecture competes for talent.

An index of an individual’s suitability for vacancies in the labour market is in principle useful to ensure that the public education system produces graduates with the right level of qualifications and skills to meet the demand of employers. Formally, skills are measured by qualifications and training. A master’s degree is a reflection of a higher level of skills than a vocational qualification obtained at secondary school. Until the 1980s, this was hardly controversial, along with the view that highly educated societies were wealthier, healthier, and happier. 

Things got complicated with the collapse of manufacturing and the rise of the service and knowledge economies: workers moved from the assembly line to the office and the office demanded different skills. This move coincided with the 1990s widening of access to higher education which flooded the labour market with graduates. Eventually, the same job could attract – or demand – candidates with a higher level of qualifications. Whereas a typical clerical job in the 1980s could be performed by a worker with college-level education, by the 2000s, it was deemed a degree-level position. 

Skills for all and all for skills

This inflation in qualifications demanded does not necessarily indicate that the job itself became any more complex or that university is now the best place to gain the required skills. The rapid spread of office technologies highlighted differences in skill levels between generations of workers, but given the subsequent adoption of the same technologies in everyday life, this gap righted itself without much intervention. 

Training and schooling naturally respond to external developments in technology and communication. Many children today arrive at school knowing their way around a keyboard, and undergraduates will have been able to access the world’s knowledge even before arriving at university. Formal education builds on those already cultivated basic skills. Given their head-start, a graduate in 2020 should in principle have wider knowledge or practical experience after three years of learning than a student with the same qualification from 1980, particularly in disciplines which have continued to develop rapidly.

There is, however, a draw-back for this student after university: not all the university-level skills which the graduate brings to their first office job are strictly necessary, and even less so if they end up in a mismatched career. If all that’s needed in the basic knowledge-economy office job are MS Office and Instagram skills, why spend three years studying anthropology? In the long term, this serves to devalue formal education, and eventually a degree course may be worth no more than a secretarial college diploma of the 1970s. As 34% of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, they may be better off not investing in gradate skills.

Do you want fries with that? The traditional view of value of a liberal arts education. Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

Some of this devaluation has already been internalised by the education system. A report a decade ago criticised much of the UK’s vocational training as unfit for its purpose, singling out a formal qualification in ‘personal effectiveness’ which taught 11000 teenagers how to claim unemployment benefits and to use a telephone. An explosion of Mickey Mouse degrees – for example bachelor’s degrees in golf management or cultural studies that include modules on the science of Harry Potter – attracted even more derision than art history studies traditionally did.

Department for good intentions

If we believe that skilled societies are wealthier, then Tony Blair’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ should still be the orthodoxy today. Instead, governments have struggled to capture the relationship of skills to the economy and society. In the past fifteen years, UK ministries responsible have included the ‘Department for Education and Skills’, for ‘Innovation, Universities and Skills’, then ‘Business, Innovation & Skills’, before splintering into the ‘Learning and Skills Council’ and eventually the ‘Skills Funding Agency’, an arm’s reach, non-political body.

The days of university education for education’s sake may be numbered as the government no longer believes that 50% of young people should go to university. According to the universities minister, the institutions have “dumbed down”, “inflated grades”, and left students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – with a “debt that didn’t pay off in any sense.” The answer, in the form of the forthcoming T-levels, a new grade of vocational qualifications that lead to careers in human resources, accounting or administration, seems designed to reverse the qualification inflation and to replace a range of degree courses with cheaper alternatives. 

Whether this critique of universities is fair is debatable, but a reversal in the higher education policy would complement the forthcoming shake-up of the migration system. Brexit Britain has committed itself to replacing migrant truck drivers and shop staff with indigenous workers, in one clean sweep reducing unemployment and cutting the education bill. In the long run, there will be little reason to keep investing in skills that these low-pay jobs do not require. 

The UK government polls organisations to identify which sectors of the economy find it difficult to fill vacancies owing to skill shortages in the working-age population. Contrary to the intuitive view that the most skilled professionals are always in highest demand (no-one has ever met an unemployed pharmacist or lawyer), the industries which report the greatest difficulties in filling vacancies are construction, utilities, transport, and manufacturing, all of which rely on semi-skilled workforces. 

Industries with either low-skill work (such as hospitality and retail) or with professional workforces (communications, education, business services) have fared better – but hotels, restaurants and factories have been most likely to look for employees from abroad when they struggle to fill vacancies at home.

Planning for this future, however, is riven with complexities, limited by the accuracy of forecasting of global trade and labour markets, and frustrated by a generation-long lag between investment in skills and its pay-off. The challenge to the economy posed by the Covid-19 pandemic will add to the difficulty of predicting future demand particular skills too.

Four skills good, two skills better

In sociological and population studies, the skill level of a job is a stand-in for its holder’s social class. Not surprisingly, social grade correlates with income, consumption of media, and spending patterns. Some 10-15% of the working age population are in either unskilled, semi-skilled manual jobs or lowest-grad and casual employment – and this proportion has been falling since the 1960s. 

In the UK’s historically-conditioned relationship to social stratification, nobody wants to be working-class. Politician John Prescott, suggesting that a participant of his 2009 television documentary was working-, rather than middle-class was rebuffed with a sharp “I don’t work, do I?”

If no-one wants to be working class, then no-one should want to be unskilled. The received wisdom is that education – twinned with hard work and good luck – is the key to social betterment. While the advice remains unchanged, every generation has its own framework for skills and education, and recent slogans in the UK have included ‘achieving excellence’ and ‘raising aspirations’. 

What skills should young people aspire to bring to the economy? One might disparage teenagers dreaming of careers as influencers or e-sports competitors: the liberalisation of education has arguably mis-sold dreams of careers rich in choice, satisfaction and reward to recent generations for whom work is a lifestyle as much as a necessity. 

Channeling these supply-side aspirations into a demand-led skill and labour market has been challenging. In 2011, the Russell Group of leading UK universities introduced guidance to aspiring students on school subject choices, favouring STEM  – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – as facilitating entry to the prestigious institutions and their most prized courses. Top universities were to be once again almæ matres to the professional cadres, training engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, while ‘softer’ skills would remain part of the less competitive open market for education. Far from encouraging debate about the kinds of skills society will need in the future, the guidance met with backlash from the humanities education lobby, who resisted the implicit characterisation of their subject matter as secondary. Some arts institutions have sought advantage by aligning themselves with the sciences-first ethos. The Royal College of Art, for example, markets itself as a STEAM leader – adding arts to the STEM canon. The recently updated Russell Group guidance for fourteen year old students now paints all choices as valid, disavowing the institutions’ responsibility for the viability of students’ careers.

It’s what you do with it

The A in STEAM has a legitimate place in contemporary life: one would hardly wish for a world run by and for scientists alone. The generous Covid-19 rescue packages for the arts have highlighted the importance of culture to national aspirations of Germany and France. In the UK, a generous bailout follows two decades of instrumental investments in skills for the creative economy. This has arguably created a concentration of expertise that made the country an attractive place for practitioners and investors alike, making it a powerhouse of film production, game design, advertising and fashion. 

By 2000, that ‘everyone was creative’ was a matter of public policy. Creativity was to fuel the growth of service and knowledge economies, and it became the must-have skill. The arts, cultural and media industries have been trading credit for their contribution to the economic value of the creative industries to secure funding and attention, and the relationship between arts education and the wider economy has eluded policymakers for some time. 

In a bid to become the skills provider of choice, it was art schools – rather than, say, technical colleges or universities – that presented themselves as experts. What did these institutions equip students graduating into the creative economy with? Given the trend for deskilling that characterised much of postmodern art practice and art education of the 1980s, this question is a paradox at best. Since Marcel Duchamp presented his readymade ‘Fountain’ in 1917, art has been loosening its demand for technical skill, and Joseph Beuys’ proclamation that ‘everyone is an artist’ became true.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, replica
Anybody can be a ‘creative’. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1918

The dominant art school curriculum at the turn of the century favoured concepts over their execution, and context over formal considerations. Art schools expanded their offerings and attracted unprecedented numbers of students, eventually blurring the boundaries between skills and aptitudes. 

If university qualifications were prerequisites for many entry-level white-collar careers only as a result of oversupply of skilled workers, is art school-grade creativity really necessary for careers in marketing, PR or events management, let alone the retail occupations which are the top destination of creative arts graduates

Shortage of creativity in the labour force is not a barrier for employers, but this has not stopped universities and art schools from promoting the idea that investing in creativity is an imperative. Such was the esteem for the creativity and critical thought of arts graduates that in 2004 the Harvard Business Review suggested that “the MFA is the new MBA”. 

Not lacking in creativity: other skills are in short supply, according the the Employer Skills Survey 2017.

Everyone can call themselves an artist: no trade body membership or accreditation are required. As art school degrees are a straightforward way to demonstrate commitment to the field, art schools obliged with a platter of qualifications. The Diplomas of the 1970s which recognised artistic training morphed into BA (Hons) of the 1990s. Today, an MA is the entry-level qualification for jobs in the creative industries, with PhDs not uncommon amongst practicing artists. 

If everyone can be an artist. everywhere can be an art school. A 2017 work by Bob and Roberta Smith. Photo: Loz Pycock.

The diversity of postgraduate specialisms has grown in recent years, indicating that universities have begun taking their responsibility for the employability of their graduates seriously. Where creative studio practices of art, design, fashion and photography were at the centre of most programmes, disciplines such as ‘art and internet equalities’, ‘photography and social practice’ or ‘data science for the creative industries’ have expanded the field.

Art is skill

The sculptor Eric Gill maintained that skill is crucial to art – “that it is the first meaning of the word.” In a world where creativity is universal, this view fell out of fashion as much as Gill’s work has in light of revelations of his personal life.

Eric Gill, Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety
Eric Gill, Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety Photo: Mike Knell

The loss of traditional skills is both the story of and material for contemporary art. Belgian artist Eric Van Hove’s work in Morocco is a lament of the disappearance of technical skills and experience with the passing of the country’s last generation of craftsmen. To avert this extinction, Van Hove employs a full workshop of carpenters, smiths and leather workers in an attempt to create a home-built alternative to the imported motorcycles ubiquitous on the country’s roads.

In this so far unsuccessful project, the artist is not the master craftsman, but its CEO and shareholder. And perhaps it is the business world that offers the most important skills to today’s artists; a traditional studio and gallery practice relies as much on fluency in marketing, financial management and contract law as it does on the quality of ideas and artistic technique.

Art and craft back together: atelier Eric Van Hove in Marrakech.

Art school students – increasingly seeing themselves as customers and conscious of the value of their education to their future careers – have placed pressure on schools to provide ‘professional’ training. The response has been mixed, and continuing development opportunities for artists are scarce. All the same, artists are finding ways to practice: in the US, almost 40% do not have degree education at all.

Skills are cheap

Throughout the history of avant-gardes art movements, art has made claims of its importance in shaping not only the communal imaginary, but also providing blueprints for social and political changes. Today’s art sees its social mission as core, and even the most commercial of art practices describe themselves as political. This ‘social turn’ coincided with developments in cultural policies that allowed the artist to take central positions in civic society. 

It is not long ago that the goals of social arts practice, such as education, facilitating dialogue or driving urban renewal, were the domains of teachers, social workers and architects. Today, artistic projects aimed at building community cohesion, encouraging resilience, or ameliorating social conditions are the mainstay of cultural providers. Arts Council England’s strategy that makes funding for arts institutions contingent on the positive social effects of their work is indicative of a drive to replace the traditional guards of social order with the free-form rebellious creativity of artists.If art is to appropriate the work of other professions, shouldn’t it at least pay heed to the skills which drive them? Artists don’t think so: a recent survey lists only the softest of skills in play: respect, influencing, diplomacy, leadership. In composing a lexicon for art’s utility, Steven Wright notes the fundamental difficulty: “to speak of artistic competence is to sound suspiciously conservative, if not downright reactionary”.

Nurturing creative instincts is arguably cheaper than technical training. It’s cheaper than chemistry, too, and this alone renders a nuanced debate on skills useless. So much so that Mal Pancoast, to whom the enigmatic, yet believable quotation in the title of this essay is attributed online, on inspection turned out to be fictional.