From top left: Glenda Jackson, Johnny Marr, A A Gill, Stephen Frears, Viv Albertine and Jason Williamson.
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Johnny Marr, Glenda Jackson, Viv Albertine and others on whether our society has become too posh

Key figures from politics and art tackle the issue of the “class ceiling”. Has the world of culture has got more posh – and does it matter?

A A Gill: Middle-class artists get to be mediocre longer

The talent for making art is not meritocratic, fair, just or predictable; genius never lands on the people who deserve it, but to have it is to be immediately, indelibly and permanently privileged. It is the ancient and universal irony of culture that art is made by radical people who want change and to topple the old order – but art is always bought and paid for by people who want continuity and heritage, and are the old order.

Being middle-class or independently wealthy never made anyone a better artist or performer. It does, though, allow some artists and performers to go on being mediocre for longer. 

 

Alan Milburn: “People shouldn't have to rely on luck”

I grew up in an old mining town in the north-east of England . . . I’ve been lucky in life, incredibly fortunate. It could’ve turned out very differently. But people shouldn’t have to rely on luck. I want to make sure that it’s possible for a kid somewhere growing up on a council estate like I was to turn up in the cabinet. But if I’m asked, “Do you think that’s likely right now?” I would say it’s much more unlikely than likely. 

Alan Milburn is a former Labour cabinet minister and chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

 

Glenda Jackson: “Should we define private school as ‘privilege’?”

What worries me is the idea of what constitutes privilege. Should we as a country define someone as being privileged because they go to a private school? Shouldn’t we see the essence of the state school as to be giving the best education it can? In politics, we absolutely want a House of Commons that represents present-day British society and I think we are moving towards that – we’ve got more women, more ethnic minorities; we’ve certainly got people who are not ashamed to say that their sexual orientation is different from what used to be the accepted norm. But it comes back, oddly, for me, to this criticism that there are all these MPs with no experience of “real life” at all. I remember hearing a bit on the radio about Prince George’s first birthday and they found it necessary to say that Catherine Middleton’s family had a miner in it. Come on, get a grip. What are we saying? There’s a kind of very English inverted snobbery here. Privilege does not necessarily make you heartless or insensitive or lacking in compassion. 

Glenda Jackson was speaking to the New Statesman in August 2014

 

Johnny Marr: “To be working class was a romantic notion”

Are there fewer working-class people in the arts compared to years ago? It does appear to be that way. But it really is an oversimplification: the culture has changed significantly, and the class system is quite different, too.

When I was starting out, it wasn’t “easier” for a working-class person to get into the music industry – how would that work? Just as I don’t think it’s any easier for a middle- or upper-class person to get into the music business now. It’s irrelevant what background an artist or band is from when they’re trying to break through; it’s just a matter of whether people like what you do and if you get a bit of luck through working at it. It was a thing in rock culture to have “working-class credentials”, but it wasn’t particularly political: it was simply a more romantic notion. It seemed more authentic for someone to have come “from the streets”, and that was more fitting with the narrative of rock’n’roll – hence Joe Strummer adopting a less educated persona. The reverse is the idea that someone who isn’t from an impoverished background has not “paid their dues” and is therefore not authentic. That’s just reverse snobbery – and not accurate or relevant either, in my opinion.

Starting out in music now is very different because the world is different. For example: the cost of getting a band around the country is higher. How do young musicians starting out afford to pay for it? Petrol, insurance, parking fees . . . Even for a band with an average type of record deal, flying over to Germany or Belgium to do a little gig is economically not possible now, in a lot of cases. You can’t throw your cymbals and bass guitar cases in the hold of a plane any more without blowing what little fee you might be getting on inflated airline costs, and that’s why income from the festival season is so important for a band’s economics these days.

The other difference now is that there is very little support from the establishment for a new band starting out. The record companies are no longer prepared to offer long-term investment. Young bands usually have to set themselves up as being totally self-employed and often when they turn up at many of the so-called independent small venues they’re given no money to cover their expenses. The worst part of this is the “pay to play” culture, which has become absolutely the norm in bars and small clubs, and means that bands have to hand over cash for 50 or more tickets, or pay for whatever tickets they haven’t sold, leaving many of them to lose heart. I really believe this has to stop if we want to nurture new music and create innovative scenes. Imagine what would have happened to the CBGB’s scene if the owner had insisted on the bands’ friends and relatives paying $10 a go. No Patti Smith, no Talking Heads, no Ramones. This is what’s happening to young musicians all over the UK, and it doesn’t matter what school you went to or what your parents’ background is.

Music streaming is a tricky issue because, ideologically, I’m personally in favour of the democratisation of music – but in practice it means there are an awful lot of people who would otherwise not be doing it, and that can mean quantity over quality. When things are more difficult you need to be more committed, which tends to sort out the artists who are in it because they really love it and need to express themselves from the ones who just fancy being in a band and seeing how it goes, so to speak. But I do believe that there will always be young people who want to be in bands and that there’s no substitute for what a band is and can do.

I think music has lost its political edge because people are less interested, simple as that. It seems the establishment has succeeded in distracting everyone from their activities and agendas, to the point where it’s too much for a lot of the public to want to bother with it. And who would blame them? 

Johnny Marr’s latest album, “Playland”, is out now on New Voodoo

 

Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods: “The call centre was a life jacket for me”

Any notion about musicians surviving on the dole is arguably a bit of a myth. Today it’s very difficult to maintain the lifestyle for a lengthy period, given the amount you draw on Jobseeker’s Allowance every two weeks. It may also depend on the genre you’re working in: grime and hip-hop are very streamlined in their required tools, as opposed to, say, a traditional band set-up, which is much more costly. Other factors could fatten up that slender giro – for instance, under-the-radar income such as drug dealing, untaxed session work, paying gigs not put through the books and cash-in-hand casual work. But even with all this in mind, the liaising you now have to do with the Jobcentre makes it very hard to focus on your art.

Claiming benefits is an even more oppressive affair. It sucks the life from you and leaves you with very little to survive on. In my experience, the practice of full-time employment is the preferred option for most lower-class musicians these days. For me, the emergence of the call centre proved to be a kind of life jacket because its monotony suited me. It’s important to try to find work you don’t take home. Other jobs such as retail (which I’d been very active in) demanded you show some kind of passion, and the older you got, the more you were expected to fill manager roles and be actively motivated, which was awful. It got to a point where I couldn’t kid anybody in these types of roles and sackings aplenty occurred. Sackings are bleak affairs. To me, the call centre was similar to working on factory lines, and I have plenty of factory experience also. You zone out because the job generally calls for repetition, and once you’ve got used to that it is incredibly easy. Wages are low but you can make it work.

For me, music remained a viable practice due to my finding a kind of full-time employment that called for the least amount of effort-based allegiance. You can shape your musical activity in the evenings and at weekends only – that’s just how it is. You use holidays for tours, if that’s the level you’ve reached; if not, then you just have to leave your life as light as possible so you can accommodate music. Too many complications hold the creative quest back: being aware of this helps you to dedicate more time to formulating a strong collection of songs and to concentrate on live performance, finding an audience and on gaining popularity and a reputation.

Publishing deals are the new record deals in many ways – in the sense that you get cash advances – and if you have attracted attention via the points I mentioned, chances are that you will get publishing departments from record labels approaching you with offers. The offers aren’t massive but they’re another option for a chunk of income, and can direct your music towards adverts. If you are OK with hearing your tune while looking at a VW Polo on a clifftop, it can be quite lucrative. The more appealing you are to an audience, the more bookings you get. But bands at our level have to gig a lot – it’s the main source of income. Touring pays the mortgage.

The latest Sleaford Mods album, “Divide and Exit”, is out on Harbinger Sound

 

Stephen Frears: “I was lucky. I lived in sparky times”

I worry less about where actors went to school than about the composition of the cabinet. I thought Etonian Prime Ministers went out with Alec Douglas Home. I was lucky. I lived in sparky times. When I was young, we had Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Peter O'Toole and Tom Courtenay. We liked Elvis and John Lennon. We had a Welfare State. We had the Royal Court. We made If... Oh dear.

 

Viv Albertine: “Art made by the ruling class will change nothing”

The arts are dominated by the middle classes and yes, it does matter. No art is going to change any­thing when it’s made by the ruling class: it won’t move the world forward. Contemporary music has become mere entertainment, no matter how many tattoos, torn jeans and leather jackets you dress it up in.

Pop and rock comes from the blues and folk: it was outsider music, and used to be one of the few routes working-class people had to escape the confines prescribed for them by society. When I saw the Sex Pistols play I thought: this is the first time I’ve seen someone like me on stage. And the experience gave me the courage to have a go, too – even though I had no female role models and couldn’t play an instrument.

Instead of dismissing people when they raise the valid point that the arts are dominated by the middle classes (I’m not saying what they make is not enjoyable, but there’s something they simply cannot give), how about people in privileged positions helping to open the door for the less privileged? If they are given a glimpse of hope or validation, like I was, they will grab at the chance of making art. What they have to say, and how they say it, will benefit us all.

Viv Albertine was the guitarist in the punk band the Slits. Her memoir is published by Faber & Faber

 

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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