Have the arts become the preserve of the wealthy?

Young people today face difficulties, but shouldn't give up hope.

Do you really need to come from a privileged background in order to succeed in the arts? It's a question that is more topical than ever right now. For sixth-formers dreaming of an arts-based career, but with little in the way of financial backing, it’s more than theoretical – it’s a pressing concern. Should they apply to courses? Will they be able to afford to pursue that kind of career? Or have the arts become the sole preserve of the wealthy?

Olivier award-winning actress Clare Higgins certainly thinks so. She is so concerned about the current state of applications to theatre courses that she has revealed a plan to create a free drama school just for young actors from working-class backgrounds who “lack the means” to pay £9,000 a year for their training.  “One of the things I really care about is to get out there and say to young actors, particularly those who don’t have any money and who have not gone to Eton or Harrow, ‘Come and see me and I will train you for free’. If we don’t look out, LAMDA, RADA, Central and Guildhall are going to be full of rich kids, but there won’t be any working-class kids,” she told The Stage newspaper. “We can’t go on with this [situation] any longer, where only rich people can afford to train in the arts.”

Higgins is not the only high-profile performer to harbour concerns about the future of the industry. Although she won’t name names, she has hinted that she is working on the proposal for her new school in partnership with a few “very concerned” established actors. Earlier this month, Julie Walters echoed these views when she talked about what she considers to be a terrifying lack of opportunities for young working-class people in the arts right now. Talking about her own training, she said that “back then, it was still possible for a working-class kid like me to study drama because I got a grant. But the way things are now, there aren’t going to be any working-class actors. It’s just a shame that those working-class kids aren’t coming through.”

It’s an understandable concern. If you were to look at our television screens today, you might well conclude that the “Downton effect” is taking over. You could be forgiven for assuming that a plummy accent and convincing aristocratic air are now the main qualities required for entrance to the upper-echelons of British acting. If you were to read a list of the actors who have recently achieved success and have cemented their place in the public consciousness, you might have your worst suspicions confirmed. Dominic West of The Wire and Homeland’s Damian Lewis were both educated at Eton. Laurence Fox of Lewis went to Harrow. And if you believe the (slightly hysterical) hype, you may well have become convinced that you have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth so that you can rely on the bank of Mummy and Daddy to support you if you wish to embark on this notoriously unstable career path. If you’re not a “rich kid” with stacks of connections and what amounts to a ready-made career, you’re doomed. That’s the message that teenagers are having drummed into them. There are no other options available, no possibility of an alternative path to the top. It’s hopeless. No wonder there are fewer working-class kids going into acting and the arts; this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes and looking a bit like an otter, offered an alternative view of the situation when he told the Radio Times last month that he believed his privileged background had actually been a stumbling block for his acting career. Tired of being typecast in “posh” roles and apparently thought of as a “rich, moaning, public-school bastard” (he too went to Harrow), he complained that the UK’s culture of “posh-bashing” made him long to up sticks to America, where, he assumes, he would not experience the kind of class prejudice that has hindered his career over here. Just who it was that thought of him in these terms is unclear and, unfortunately for Cumberbatch, his public whine only served to reinforce the opinion of his detractors and make it even more widespread. Personally, I had no idea what school he had attended until I read the article and, I suspect, neither did most people, barring the most ardent Cumberbatch fans. Who would have really cared, anyway? The beauty of acting is that it doesn’t really matter who you are or where you come from; nobody can really tell, because the entire point is that you are pretending to be someone else. There’s no reason why someone who went to Harrow couldn’t plausibly portray a more rough-and-ready character and it works the other way as well: a boy who grew up on a council estate could easily end up playing an aristocrat in a TV drama if he’s a good enough actor. Even if, for some inexplicable reason, you insist on only actors being hired whose real-life personalities fit the available roles, it’s clear to see that the BBC’s penchant for the “posh” is a passing fashion. The wheel will soon turn again.

An arts training is still a valid choice for young people with talent. Just as students from every kind of background are now expected to take out a hefty loan to cover their history or law degree, young people need to borrow money if they wish to be trained in a more creative discipline instead. Of course it’s tougher for young people from poorer backgrounds, with neither the money nor the connections to “make it big” in the arts – but then it always has been, whatever people might fondly remember, misty-eyed, about those halcyon days when tuition fees didn’t exist. The reality is that going into an arts-based career has never been the safe or sensible option and is naturally an easier choice for those with greater financial security. However, it’s not impossible to succeed, and would-be actors from working-class backgrounds with talent and drive should emphatically not be put off by tuition fees which admittedly at first glance look astronomical, but in reality are unlikely to turn into the crippling debt that they fear.

Certainly scholarships and schemes should be (and in most institutions are) in place to help disadvantaged students. But the overall outlook for young people in the arts might not be as bleak as we have all been led to believe. Perversely, it is probably the incessant gloom from the media that originally put off the despairing students whom Higgins wants to help. The more widely that these defeatist attitudes are propagated, the greater the number of talented “working-class kids” who will be put off applying to art, film or drama schools, and the more their understandably concerned parents will discourage them as well. Few people can afford to pay £18,000 up front, but with the way that student loans are structured and with graduates only paying back what they can afford, it is hardly unmanageable debt. Besides, contrary to what Julie Walters thinks, grants haven’t disappeared. Higgins’s intentions are good, but her concern is probably a tad premature and her proposed free drama school far from necessary. Young people who aspire to a career in the arts should keep their heads up, apply to courses and not let what they read discourage them from striving to achieve their dreams. Granted, this is much easier said than done, but if young people from poorer backgrounds give up on the system the arts really will become the  preserve of the wealthy. And it needn't be that way.

Benedict Cumberbatch: too posh to act?
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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era