The Tories’ funding cuts threaten to make the arts (even more of a) playground for the rich

The Government plans to halve financial resources for art and design courses in higher education. Where will the Michaela Coels of the future come from?

I think back to times when people at university told me they’d gone travelling for a year before they started their degree, or written a play before they were 21, or gone up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival and acted in a play for a month. I would gawp and ask them, doe-eyed, ‘But HOW? I’m working all the time I’m not at university! Squandering my father’s dreams for my education on £1 WKDs and somehow scraping through with a decent degree!’

I’m sure I seemed facetious. Nobody ever once said, ‘Because my parents gave me the the cash’. I wasn’t trying to embarrass these people. I was almost unbelievably naive about wealth and class, and truly believed I must be rubbish with money. Then again, I defy anyone to manage to do much with the wages the ASDA checkout was paying.

My point here is that those people got a headstart in the arts, or indeed anything they wanted to spend time on, because they could. There’s nothing wrong with having money, of course, but the point is: if there’s a way to get funding if you don’t have wads of cash and someone in your family doesn’t own a moat or married a Mitford sister, then the playing field is at least levelled somewhat.

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With the Government having announced plans to halve the funding to arts students (the organisation Public Campaign for the Arts launched a petition demanding the Government to promise “proper funding for higher education providers to continue to deliver world-leading arts courses”), we can all look forward to the next 50 years of the arts being dominated by jokes about butlers and hilarious slapstick set at debutante balls. OK, I might be exaggerating here, but you get my point.

The Edinburgh Fringe is dominated every year by white, middle-class performers who can afford to potentially throw five to 10 grand at the wall and have a laugh. When I went up to perform for a week in 2019, I documented the costs for myself and my show partner Rich to go up and do shows for a week, with mostly free accommodation and customers paying after every show, plus taking a week off work (which for myself, as a freelancer, means taking a week off money). We lost £40. This is considered a success in Fringe terms; not so much in terms of my bank account.

I’m a huge fan of the Cambridge Footlights lot and their surrounding contemporaries – Stephen Fry, Hugh Lawrie, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson and crew – who for a time, mainly in the ’90s, dominated British comedy. There’s no doubt whatsoever that these people are extremely talented. But they’re all very much from similar upper middle-class backgrounds, with similar stories to tell, and with a certain sense of humour. It’s only when money is ploughed into the arts that you start enabling those with different stories to tell.

Michaela Coel’s 2015 TV show Chewing Gum – adapted from her 2012 play – was something we’d barely seen on screen: a slightly (wonderfully) strange comedy with a black female writer and lead. Of course, Coel then went on to create the absolutely incomparable I May Destroy You, the likes of which we’d never seen before. When you cut funding to those studying the arts, who need funding, you essentially create a bottle-neck for those whose stories get to be heard. Not only that – it’s boring seeing the same things and the same faces. Faces who probably resemble those in the Government.

There’s been a huge outpouring of anger in the way the Tories have treated the arts in general, which has only intensified since the start of the pandemic. A right wing leadership is never going to favour the arts – firstly because they don’t perceive it to make money (their absolute favourite thing) and secondly because a lot of art is created by those on the left; by the marginalised, by those who have nowhere else to get their message across. In other words: the arts, traditionally, goes against authority.

There’s something to be said for the way that a lot of people seem to view the arts as pointless, as self-indulgent, frivolous and created to serve the ego. This is all true. But alongside that, they mean everything. You don’t play your favourite facts on your headphones every day. A Maths lesson has never challenged your beliefs on love. A Physics lecture has never made you laugh until you cried.

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The arts are at once pointless and absolutely necessary. Imagine the last year without great television, good music, podcasts, performances, books, or art. If you take away the funding at an educational level for these things, those stories that are important to hear – those protests, that satire, that constant struggle–  and resistance to those in power will disappear. And think about who that might serve.

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