Why the arts? Why are they important? What’s all this fuss by comedians about not being recognised as art? This is not the way this new blog was meant to start. This blog was supposed to be about a new piece of solo theatre work I’m making for the final of my Masters in Theatre and Performance. But it was while researching some work on the importance of the “arts” that a familiar niggle started to re-enter my thoughts. That old thought that has been felt harshly in the current situation…Why exactly is my own art form (I’ve been a comedian for over 20 years) not considered a vital and recognised part of the overall arts landscape? Why isn’t it eligible for government and public support?
I’m afraid we’re going to have to go around a couple of houses to get to the answers on this. I can’t claim to be an expert, but as a comedian who has spent the past four years in further education; investigating, participating in and studying the massively funded and endorsed world of theatre, I may be in a rarefied position to examine some of the reasons closer than your average Joe.
But first, let’s argue why the arts in general are important. And yes, I know the main one you’ve been hearing over the course of this pandemic is ‘How would you have survived without Netflix?’. Which is a fair argument, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. When you put the arts next to the more accepted forms of normative thinking such as economics, science, politics and history it could appear flighty and insignificant. Yet to your average human being the arts plays a significantly larger role in their lives than all of those other pillars of human endeavour put together. A big reason for that is empathy. Empathy is something that is fundamental to much of the art we enjoy. History tells us what happened. The arts consider what could have been. Science gives us the facts. The arts take that knowledge and stretch it beyond its laws into newer potentials. Modern politics seems to have become a form of wilful, weaponized ignorance…I’ll admit I’m not really sure even the arts can save us from those sociopathic bogeymen. But regardless of where the arts are coming form, they often subvert all we hold dear in those more established fields. Fields that the very government consider to be more acceptable “core subjects” in our learning. So, I want you to remember that word empathy when I finally get on to discussing exactly what comedians contribute to the arts and your lives. Oh, and subversion. Let’s definitely hold onto that.
The question that keeps coming to my own mind about comedy’s lack of recognition in the officialdom of the arts is the old, “Is it cos I is working class?” There has been a fair amount of discourse about how under represented the working classes are in the performing arts and wider. As somebody who identifies as working class, I used to think it was down to prejudice. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of some nasty forms of that as an artist from lower down the ladder. 16% of actors come from a working-class background whereas 51% have a privileged background. This stands against 33% of the population who have working class backgrounds and 29% from privileged backgrounds. But the reasons as to why the working classes are massively underrepresented and misrepresented in the arts are a bit more complex than old fashioned class bigotry.
The Arts Council of Great Britain was formed during the war to promote British culture. It was divided up into Scotland, England and Wales in 1994. It has been the subject of much political debate since inception. Within it, theatre has become considered a middle-class pursuit. There is now doubt that theatre is also white and male dominated. However, it should be noted that ethnicity and gender within the arts are recognised and protected identities whereas class is not.
Some theories I’ve read as to why theatre is so class related are down to simple economics. Where in regards to the arts someone from a middle-class background may be told, “Go for it. We’ve got your back.” The working-class artist will definitely encounter the adage, “You need to get a real job.” That instruction to recognise the practicalities of life doesn’t come from an ignorance of the arts, it comes from the basic need that there is no alternative income. Without which you can’t participate. When public money first became available to the arts and artists it was the middle classes who became dominant in seeking such support. Now and over the years much of the arts has become entrenched in class. Have those decades of class bias now maybe led to a snobbery or bigotry within the many arenas the arts occupy? I would argue that when it comes to comedy and some other art forms it sadly perhaps has.
I’m afraid I can’t say if the next argument I present is based in official policy. But if not out in the public gaze I’d be willing to bet some money it is a regularly presented argument in regards as to why stand-up comedy doesn’t get funded like other arts do. Especially when it comes up for inspection behind the Arts Councils closed doors. Stand Up comedy, Cabaret and Drag are just three art forms I can name that within the wider spectrum of the arts get bracketed as “Low Art.” That is a recognised description for all three. That’s low art, like low value, like low cultural capital and along the lines of low in class. And I’m delighted that is the beginning and the end of the arts establishment argument. Because my God how easy it is that to challenge.
Here’s how my situation as a comedian stands right now. I recently gained 1st class honours in my degree in Drama and Script writing and (fingers crossed) I think I’m going to do OK on my masters as well. With my academic standing I could potentially present a funding bid to the arts council revolving around me going into an established theatre and taking a shit on the stage. As long as my bid presented a strong artistic and philosophical resonance along with some good arguments that that shit will enrich our culture, I’d be in with a shout. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody has been). But if I apply as a comedian wishing to speak some words on that stage, I would be 99% certain of automatic rejection of the bid. We’re back to that pesky “Low art”. Telling jokes = LOW ART. Taking a shit = there might be some potential in this. The situation is that simple.
In our comedian’s community we pretty much used to think that stand up didn’t receive funding because it was self-sufficient. It made money. This is a misconception. I can point out a huge list of theatrical works that generate millions and in turn get handed millions form the public purse for being an “example of excellence”. But I want to move away here form the idea that I want public money to put on a show. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable with that, and yes this is another of those reasons why the middle and not the working classes dominate the arts.
What I would like to draw attention to is some of the work I’ve done in recent years using stand-up comedy as a form of therapy for people with acute mental health issues. Again, I have insight into the area as I have lived experience of the conditions. The people I worked with got some real benefits from stuff we created. However, some participants would struggle to peruse the art form further. But I’m guessing they could with some public/financial support. But again…it’s stand up. It’s low art. So no support for them despite the benefits it brings both long and short term and that includes their good well-being reducing the need for public money and services elsewhere. That’s just one example of how little sense such policy makes. What if you’re a youngster with a genuine talent in the area, but you can’t participate because getting started in the industry requires some money to get to gigs etc and you come from extreme poverty, or forget the extreme, you’re just skint. Nope, nothing for you and another potential voice goes unheard.
Of course, stand up comedy covers the entire class spectrum but be in no doubt it’s those with financial cushioning that will dominate the Edinburgh festival and its ilk. Without some kind of funding it will also remain a dominantly middle-class voice. That is a voice that doesn’t fully represent our culture and that the main body of stand up fans will only find access to in underground basements.
So what does stand up contribute? Did you know we have the watershed because of a comedian? George Carlin’s famous seven words you can’t say on television was broadcast on daytime radio. The broadcast featuring all the obscenities included in the routine. The powers that be decided to prosecute him. Carlin won the case and new legislation was created stating that yes, there may be a time in the day when it’s OK to use such language. And so freedom of speech and culture was directly affected. The routine itself was inspired by a Lenny Bruce routine in which he used racial language to take the power of those words away from the racist. If you want to look at more precise political acts just see comedian Mark Thomas who has influenced parliament to act on the arms industry and numerous other campaigns. When was the last time ballet got a law changed?
But it’s not just these tangible political acts that stand up does so well. It is subversive yes, but in a way deeply entrenched in empathy and the human experience. I’m a huge fan of Michael McIntyre and his slice of life observations. Comedians tell us that it’s fine to land face first in the mud. Why? Because they’ve done it as well. And then they reassure us that we’ll be just fine. Why? Because now we’re all laughing about it! That’s the healing power of it. You can do all the politics in the world but there isn’t an evil on this planet that can stand up to being laughed it. That’s how important the art form is.
So please explain to me again why me taking a shit on the stage is considered more artistically and culturally valid than me speaking on it? Comedians have been through a pretty brutal time recently. We all have. But it’s going to be us that society turns to when it is eventually OK to laugh at all this. I don’t think that can be said for any of the other HIGH ART forms.