Austerity is now cultural as well as financial.

I have finally, after much gnashing of teeth and wailing and rending of clothes, finished my thesis. It is printed and sits awaiting its bindings, which will be put on it tomorrow. The thesis is about cultural value and capital, and how they might be reflected in the digital domain. I think the idea that digitisation democratises knowledge is somewhat disingenuous, when you think that the items chosen for digitisation are often canonical, and picked by a intellectual elite. The work also mentions the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu believed that only those from a certain echelon of society could legitimately access culture because they were the only ones who felt comfortable doing so. This ease was a result of their introduction to culture from an early age.

Yesterday I read a BBC article in which the Head of the Museums Association confirmed that York Art Gallery was about to introduce a £7.50 entrance fee, to offset a 60% reduction in its budget. I can’t imagine how miserable an experience it must have been for York Council to determine where they could save money in the face of swingeing Government cuts to the public sector. Close the community centre and save the library? Shut down the day care centre, or charge an entrance fee to the local museum? What public services should we withdraw to save the others? As Robert Peston put it, the Government wants a “reinvention of the public sector”. What this of course means is, the services and facilities that we often take for granted and are often the heart and soul of our communities, are under threat.

Jonathan Jones, the art critic for The Guardian, suggests that we should pay for access to museums. He says:

The British – and it is distinctively British, with few equivalents elsewhere – belief that all museums should be free is a remarkable piece of idealism. It means that any of us can walk into our local gallery whenever we like and look at a Turner or even a Leonardo for nothing.

This article reduced me to such a level of rage that I had to write this blog post in order to calm down. It goes without saying that I think it’s pretty big fucking talk for a rich white man who has regular access to museums and art galleries can blithely say that we should pay for the privilege of looking at cultural artefacts. I suspect Mr Jones has never had to weigh up what he should spend his last £3 on. He is also keen to say that entrance fees should “be a supplement [to public funding], and in no way is an excuse for cuts”. But what Mr Jones seems not to realise is that culture is not high on the agenda of our present Government, and where York Museum leads, others will no doubt follow – and it will particularly be smaller museums unprotected by the Government’s promise to protect national museums and galleries (the vast majority of which, of course, are in London).

I wandered into the Birmingham Museum many years ago, because it was free and I had a spare hour and, completely and utterly by chance, having not the foggiest idea they were there, chanced upon the museum’s Pre-Raphaelite Collection and saw Beata Beatrix, by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I had studied this painting when completing my Art History A-Level years before. I remember being fascinated by the story of Rossetti’s wife Lizzy Siddal, who had died very young and whose flame-red hair, it was said, had continued to grow even after death, so that when Rossetti dug up her coffin to retrieve the works of poetry he had, in his grief, buried with his wife (what a romantic!), the hair had filled the remaining space in the coffin, and spilled out. I was entirely shocked and awestruck to see this painting, which had only ever lived for me before in the pages of a textbook.

Had there been an entrance fee, I simply would not have gone in that day. I probably would have gone across the road and bought myself something from Pieminster, because I was starving and I certainly would not have been able to afford both entrance fee and lunch. And I would never had what became one of the most powerful experiences of my adult life. That sounds like bombast but it was a big deal for me to not only be in the presence of such a powerful, evocative piece of art (representing not just Dante’s grief at the death of Beatrice but also Rossetti’s despair at Siddal’s death from a laudanum overdose), but to have known and recognised the work in the first place.

I cried the night the exit polls came in and I realised we were in for a Tory government. I grew up in the South Wales Valleys in the 80s, and the effects of Thatcherism in that area are still being felt. I went to university having received a grant and a Student Loan. The amount of debt I racked up to complete my undergraduate degree is minimal in the extreme when compared to what future students might potentially face (up to £53,000 worth of debt for the poorest students). University would have been completely out of my reach were it not for those grants and loans.

I now work in Further Education (it’s hard sometimes not to feel like David Cameron is working some personal vendetta against me) and we are told that the sector is in crisis, with almost half the colleges in England being in deficit.

I don't know what I've done to piss this lot off, but they seem Hell-bent on wrecking my career.
I don’t know what I’ve done to piss this lot off, but they seem Hell-bent on my destruction. Taken from conservativehome.com

This is not exclusive to England. The college I am currently working at in Wales faces its own extreme financial challenges. Ironically, the much-maligned Liberal Democrats had kept the worst excesses of the Conservatives in check. A colleague of mine, who retired this year, put it most succinctly when he said: we were all hoping the Labour Party would charge in, like the cavalry, and save us pioneers from attack. But there is no cavalry. There is no hope of being saved. The result of this is that support for the most vulnerable students will disappear. This means no more hardship loans, or crisis grants, or help with purchasing books. The bus fares will go up. They won’t be able to afford to attend college. What happens then? Where do they go?

What happens to the children whose families can’t afford to take them to museums? Or pay for their bus to college so they can get some decent qualifications? What about the ones who manage to navigate themselves financially through the FE system, and are faced with the prospect of a huge debt in order to get a degree? With no access to culture, or to literature (my own field) how does one develop the ease and comfort required to access high culture?

Another place I would not have visited had there not been free entry. Natural History Museum, London: picture courtesy of National Geographic.
Another place I would not have visited had there not been free entry. Natural History Museum, London: picture courtesy of National Geographic.

To take this back to my academic work in some small way, I am concerned that the digital will become the supplement for high culture. Can’t afford to go to The Tate? No problem! We’ve digitised some of its collections for you. Only the ones we want you to see, of course: the canonical ones, the ones we think are the best.

I am not blind to the fact that my PhD thesis (research I would never have been able to write were it not for the series of grants and loans I received, from a variety of different sources, to complete my education) discusses cultural capital and that I am hideously biased because of my background, the sector within which I work, and my political orientations. I believe there is a cultural hierarchy, not just in the things we look at (back to my research, and the idea that canonical items somehow have more importance) but with the people who have access to those things. I feel nauseous that we are increasingly living in a society where our Government dictates the terms under which we can look at art. Of course, it was under Thatcher that we saw the concept of corporate sponsorship of the arts as opposed to public subsidy, a concept which is diametrically opposed to the notions of culture as a means of connecting us to our communities, and its intrinsic and instrumental effect.

In this diatribe I have conflated education and access to culture but they are both experiencing the extremely adverse effects of the battle lines that are currently being drawn. A siege mentality has been reawakened. The wealthy are pulling up pitch and removing themselves to higher ground. The idea of a financial and cultural elite, which never entirely went away, of course, is now brought into much sharper, painful focus. Austerity is something the poor suffer under, and now it is not simply financial austerity but cultural, too.

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