Skip to main content
November 21, 2018

Art and Social Inequality

Edwin Wainaina and Lyra.
Edwin Wainaina and Lyra.

Inequality is the most important aspect for understanding our society and its future. But inequality is not merely an issue of income or wealth. 

Art and culture are the powerful manifests of inequality too. Capable of ‘effect change’, art and culture can change those who experience it and make difference to individuals and society. 

The UK Labor government of 1997-2010 explicitly used art to lessen poverty, poor education and unemployment.

In the societies that recognise the ‘effect change’ of art, art is consumed (accessed) differently by different social groups. The better educated eight per cent of the population, who usually occupy middle and upper middle class positions, are the most culturally active: they attend 28 per cent of theatre and art exhibitions, and 44 per cent of music concerts. 

An engagement in art becomes a marker of normality. They own paintings and libraries, they are art omnivores (accessing a breadth of cultural forms as opposed to having narrow, univourous, tastes), their children access high quality art education in school. 

Belonging to the lowest social classes tends to be associated with never doing these things. Middle classes achieve status through taking up the arts. Art constructs social status.

Members of groups or societies that don’t recognise the ‘effect change’ of art and culture - and therefore put a low importance on art consumption - find art institutions little or no relevance to their lives, off-putting and elitist. They tend to be interested only in culture related to their own heritage. Significantly, in such societies, art is ‘irrelevant’ across all social groups, not only lower classes. 

I have met high-profile Kenyans who during their study at Harvard University in America never visited any of its numerous art galleries. As parents, they fail to support children’s art actives in school. Indeed, in Kenya art education is almost non-existent in both, private and state schools. Low participation in art contributes to marginalization and exclusion.

Inequalities in art consumption play out in inequalities in art production, that is, in the production of art that we consume and that shapes our society (TV, films, games, music and so on.

Recently in the UK, the prominence of private school artists caused a furore at an award, while the Oscars shortlist raised questions about gender and ethnicity exclusion. 

‘Art had become profession for the affluent’ said artist Gary Hume, acknowledging that the creative industries are skewed towards white men of a higher social background producing art that celebrates their superiority and consumerism and undermines images of working class, women and races.

Art does not cause inequality, but there is an undeniable connection between how we value art and social inequality.


Alla is the founder of Mobile Art School In Kenya (MASK). Become the Patron of MASK to support art in Kenya. 

For more information, contact Alla on [email protected]


Poll of the day