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January 21, 2019

How to look at art: Arts alleviate social inequality

Louis Nderi, 23- No matter where you are from your dreams are valid 2
Louis Nderi, 23- No matter where you are from your dreams are valid 2

Some 82 per cent of the global wealth generated last year went to just 1 per cent of the world’s population. Economic growth widens social inequality. The way the contemporary society is stratified and structured and people access power and resources threatens the function and stability of our life and the future. To understand how to meet the challenge of the rapidly growing social inequality, we must consider the arts as an essential aspect of the discourse. 

Art has an unlimited power to change the minds and behaviour of those who experience it. Therefore, it makes a significant difference to the lives of individuals and society. According to the AHRC’s ‘Cultural Value and Inequality Review’, art lessens social exclusion, disadvantage, poverty, poor education and long-term unemployment. The Review argues that to understand how art relates to social inequality, we need to know how art is consumed (accessed and participated in) and how art is produced. Who consumes it and who makes it? How does consumption influence the ability to produce art?  

Consumption of art is strongly related to social class and status. The wealthiest and better educated 8 per cent of the population who occupy higher class positions are the most active in art. They accounted for at least 28 per cent of attendance to theatre, 44 per cent to music concerts, and 87 per cent to all art museums visits. They buy paintings and books and display a wide range of tastes for art forms. Their children have good access to the arts in private schools they attend.

People of the less affluent and educated backgrounds are associated with low activity in the arts. They find institutions such as museums, theatres and concert halls of secondary importance to their lives, elitist or even off-putting. The problem is not the costs as, for example, most museums in the UK are free, but lack of belief in the power of art to lessen their oppression and exploitation. Their children are less likely to access art education in school. In state schools in the UK, there has been a cull of the arts (due to austerity measures or class discrimination), making the most disadvantaged children’s participation in the arts even harder. Many universities exclude the art subject, too, belying ignorance of the wider benefits of art in terms of the creativity skill — a top skill sought by employers across sectors — that art develops.

Inequalities in arts consumption play out in inequalities in art production. Experiencing artistic creativity from an early age is essential for the ability to produce art. As a consequence, the cultural industries are skewed towards those of higher social background. This means that art that shapes our society (music, films, TV) is produced by the more affluent, and, therefore, celebrates their superiority, legitimises consumerism, conceals exploitation, and brings profit-motive in art production. It demonises and mocks working class, women and ethnic minorities. Such ‘art’ increases the alienation of people of lower socioeconomic positions. The UK’s Equality Act 2010 includes nine inequality characteristics, such as age, race and gender, but excludes social class, which in effect normalises the class discrimination.

There is an undeniable connection between arts and inequality. The access to the arts is curtailed by social background to an unacceptable degree. The less affluent should claim the arts for themselves and surge their efforts to participate in all art forms whenever they can. The wealthiest need to realise that growing social inequality will destroy their way of life — the poor will rise and seize their wealth — and develop the alternatives to the existing art policies. Art organisations should make the arts more visible at school, local and national levels through campaigns and live and digital infrastructure. Schools must provide art education for all children offering them opportunities in a broad range of art activities. 


Alla Tkachuk FRSA is the founder of creativity learning programmes in Africa, MASK and MASK Prize, [email protected]


[1] K. Hjelmgaard, ‘Vast majority of new wealth last year went to top 1%’, USA Today, 2018, [2] D. O’Brien, K. Oakley, ‘Cultural Value and Inequality’, Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), 2015

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