Art isn't working

The cultural elite ignore our industrial origins

Just to the north of Manchester city centre is a patch of grass. Roughly seven acres in size, it is a calm oasis in a city not known for its green spaces. But Angel Meadow is something more. It is where more than 40,000 of Manchester's poor were buried between 1788 and 1816. This is the place where the real cost of Britain's in dustrial revolution was marked - where the bones and blood of the working class, with their average life expectancy of 17 years, mingle with the soil. They were to be followed by tens of thousands more across the country over the following decades.

Yet it is hard to find this story reflected in our museums and galleries, and more widely in the arts - for class is the spectre absent from the cultural feast. Last year, the cultural world was united by the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Theatres, museums and publications both academic and popular explored the issues and the implications, taking care to imply a shared guilt for the white population of Britain. Failure to examine the story was condemned.

But when we look back to the start of the 19th century, another story was evolving, a story that the arts seem to feel no moral imperative to embrace: the story of the working-class people of Britain being forced from their land, being forced into the cities, taking their places in the deadly mills of the Industrial Revolution. Leeds, celebrating 800 years since the granting of its borough status, was criticised for not including the city's involvement in the slave trade. But Leeds, the Lascelles family of Harewood House apart, had little direct involvement with the slave trade. What it did have was countless wool and cloth mills where workers suffered and died in huge numbers. Ignoring this story passed without comment, yet it is a story shared by most of the ancestors of the people of Britain.

All this is not to compare tragedies. It does not downgrade the Holocaust to talk about the Khmer Rouge or Armenia. It does not downgrade the Atlantic slave trade to talk about the historical oppression of the white working class.

This class blindness also patently affects the artistic response to the news stories of today. And it is not just the white working class that suffers. The experiences of young British Asians, for example, are remarkably similar to the experiences of their white neighbours. When the former appear in novels, in theatres or in galleries, it is often through the framing of race or religion. The class associations are ignored. Yet the shared experience - even in a popular culture centred on bassline, bassbins and auto-modding - is extensive. For the artistic world, differences of skin colour are more important than the similarities of everyday lives. And at a time when even US presidential candidates are talking about class, it's time we did so, too.

Vaughan Allen is chief executive of the Urbis exhibition centre in Manchester

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug