elitism in the arts

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Melvyn Bragg on elitism in the arts

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 04/12/14

Melvyn Bragg is one of the most highly respected broadcasters and cultural figures working in Britain today, with a career spanning over 40 years. But he’s far from mellowed. Here, he talks about the Sky Arts Southbank Masterclasses, why politicians are philistines and why Nobel Prize winners can’t do what he can do…

Through the Sky Academy Arts Scholarships, five young emerging artists will recieve £30,000 funding and mentoring for one year to improve their creative practice. Why do we need schemes like this in the arts?

The scholarships are a brilliant contribution to young artists trying to make their way. To give them £30,000 to spend on whatever they can spin out of that sum – I suppose it depends on what part of the country they’re in – a year to get on with what they want to do. It’s golden.

You’ll find that a lot of people in the past have had scholarships, grants, that sort of thing. A lot of my generation got a scholarship to RADA or the Royal College of Art.

The fact is, when people are well taught and given opportunities in this country, we turn out to be good at this. The arts budgets are being sliced all over the place so this is at least a supplement.

I also think this can be inspirational. A lot of people begin a career in the arts because they see something on television, read a book or go to an exhibition. It’s a sparking off.

You’ve said that it’s still quite hard for people from economically deprived backgrounds to break into the arts.

It’s harder now that it has been for a long time.

We know that over the last 30 or 40 years, art schools have been one of the key crucibles for the making of painting, music, photography, all sorts of things. They’re centres of creativity. And they used to be open to people in a way that they now are not. The government is demanding that they have huge fees comparable with the best universities. A lot of these kids don’t want to take that on. They can’t see how they’re going to possibly earn that back. It’s a disgrace.

It’s, as usual, the government being completely short-sighted about one of the most fertile, enjoyable and psychically important things that’s happening in this country. We’re good at it because we train people and give them opportunities. But those opportunities are being denied to an increasing number of the population.

If you look at the actors coming through now – some of them are very good actors, I’m not decrying them – but many of them have been to schools such as Eton where there are theatres in the school. There are all sorts of massive facilities for training, as well as the connections later. But most people in this country don’t have that. They have good, enthusiastic teachers, but they don’t have those facilities. That’s what we set up the art colleges for. But those are becoming the preserve of those who can afford it.

How do you defend the right to an arts education in a time of austerity?

The argument for arts education is that we’re a rich society. We’ve shown, since the end of the Second World War, that by putting proper investment into arts institutions and allowing them to be as open as possible, that we can produce playwrights, actors, singers, dancers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, television producers, television directors that are contributing colossally to this society. The evidence is there; it’s striking you in the face. Look at the West End, look at the British film industry. We don’t have to prove anything.

But what they think – because they’re philistines, politicians – is that it starts with the idea of price. But it starts with an idea of value. At 21 you’re taking a chance on something you value.

They’re running the country like a supermarket, and they ought to realise that supermarkets are on their way out. In the arts politicians are a disgrace. They don’t get it. It’s appalling. These white, middle-class, English males do not get it.

What would you have done with £30,000 at the start of your career?

If I’d had £30,000 when I was 20 I’d have bought half the town I lived in. You could get a house for £400 then.

Your generation seemed to produce so many great writers, artists, musicians, broadcasters – do you ever suffer from jealousy?

Of course you suffer from pangs of envy. But it’s a complete waste of time. Even Nobel Prize winners can’t do what I can do. And I can’t do what they can do. Once you get that in your head, it’s OK.

I can’t write like Chekhov. But he can’t write like me. People seem to prefer Chekhov, but that might be a passing phase.

Just get on with what you can do. It doesn’t mean you don’t have ambition. Do the best you can do.

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