Are the Bowies and Rickmans of Today Daring To Dream?

The deaths this month of David Bowie and Alan Rickman were saddening for a number of reasons. Both were cherished British icons and immensely talented men, who between them covered roles as eclectic as Hans Gruber, the Thin White Duke, Severus Snape and Ziggy Stardust. At the relatively young age of 69, both were also taken long before the world was ready to say goodbye.

A troubling realisation also came with their deaths, however. Billy Brag summarised it thus: “Both were working class kids from council estates who went to art school, where they gained enough confidence in their own creativity to find fame and fortune. Is it still possible for working class kids to realise their potential in such a way? The social mobility that Rickman and Bowie experienced is increasingly stifled.”

Tributes expressed doubt as to whether we’ll ever see the likes of Alan Rickman and David Bowie again. Literally speaking, the answer is no – it’s hard to imagine anyone creating deliciously magnetic villains quite like Rickman did, and as for Bowie, well, I was never convinced he was one of us mere mortals anyway. He was the one-off of all one-offs. Looking more broadly, though, the chances of finding 21st century Rickmans and Bowies – the sons of factory workers and waitresses, growing up in the terraces with fledgling artistic dreams – seem ever more remote. These two men could well prove the last of their kind.

There are, of course, the arts cuts themselves. For any government looking to decrease spending, the arts sector, easily seen as frivolous and expendable, tends to be a first port of call. This was the case with the coalition government, who slashed Arts Council England funding by 30% (which a recent 1-2% increase is struggling to compensate for). Elsewhere, local council cuts have resulted in the closure of hundreds of libraries and museums, while in cash-strapped schools the provision of arts education is increasingly surrendering to a focus on the more immediately practical and quantifiable STEM subjects. George Osborne has put out consistent reminders that the BBC is anywhere but on terra firma, meanwhile, and in the past year looming privatisation has led to sackings and strikes at the National Gallery.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson might be quick to laud our successful artists, hailing them the ‘best of British’ and promenading them at every ambassador visit and Olympic opening ceremony they can find. The truth, however, is that their ethos of cutting and privatising is putting a stranglehold on the very industries they celebrate.

THE ARTS ARE JUST ONE FACET OF A WIDE-RANGING AND DISGRACEFUL WASTE OF TALENT

The result is a sort of social purging where music, theatre and art risk becoming closed shops, open only to those able to afford hefty tuition fees and unpaid internships. Without money to ride out the years of inconsistent work that form the beginning of most creative careers, or to live anywhere remotely near London (whose dearth of affordable housing is causing its own social purge), talented working class artists have slim hopes of getting their careers off the ground. This has been highlighted by the likes of Eddie Redmayne, who spoke of the number of students that contact him struggling to pay rent in “impossibly expensive” London, and Julie Walters, who commented: “the way things are now, there aren’t going to be any working class actors”.  

Even without specific cuts, though, the arts were always going to be impacted by the Conservatives’ assault on public services and the welfare state. Rising inequality goes hand-in-hand with the lowered social mobility Bragg described, meaning that, for many, artistic professions seem so far away as to virtually not exist. The arts may be meritocratic to an extent - logically, the best actor should be cast and the best singer should be signed regardless of their background. But that counts for little when people who have to be pragmatic about earning a living, who see few viable ways out of their entrenched poverty, can’t even make it into the audition room. For them, the arts are a luxury that only the rich can indulge in.

And can we honestly say that similar things aren’t happening in other fields like journalism, finance and even politics? Really, the arts are just one facet of a wide-ranging and disgraceful waste of talent.

Not only is the gradual exclusion of an entire class from their country’s culture unfair – it also dilutes that culture. We lose authentic depictions of Britain as millions of its inhabitants experience it. We lose the Alan Bennetts and Victoria Woods; they either give up, or are confined to soaps and fleeting bids for fame on Big Brother. When we look at TV listings, we’re met with the dichotomy of Rich Kids Go Shopping on Channel 4 and My Big Fat Benefits Wedding on Channel 5. The working class become more easily misrepresented and stigmatised, which in turn makes it easier for policy-makers to penalise them.

I’m not arguing that every supermarket worker in the country should abandon their pricing gun and take to the stage. They should, however, at least have the option to. Could David Bowie - not David Bowie, the young lad from Bermondsey, but David Bowie, the orange-haired androgynous sex alien of rock - have ever come into being without believing he had a shot?

Reversing cuts to the arts isn’t enough. Arts provisions will only work if they’re implemented in conjunction with a genuine focus on social mobility, and its glorious promise that where people are from shouldn’t determine where they’re going. This is something that we owe to ourselves and to our culture. Most of all, though, we owe it to all the budding writers, actors and orange-haired androgynous sex aliens out there. In austerity Britain, they’re barely even daring to dream.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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