Widening Access to Bollocks

If the ordinary man in the street cannot understand something, and gets no benefit from it, then why should the licence fee and the lottery (a regressive tax by another name) be used to fund it? It is hard to justify the spending of money raised by taxing the hopes and dreams of the lower classes on an opera house in which they will never set foot. The financial aspect of this has dominated the debate in the papers since the Thatcher era, and has all but obscured the fact that, a few high profile examples aside, high culture has never been so cheap. Almost every arts or ideas led organisation has fully embraced the accessibility agenda, to the point that they are questioning what more they can possibly do. Most museums are free or have a free day to visit, the RSA has film screenings and lectures at no charge, The BFI archive is free to anyone at any time, free concerts abound in London and many of the most important musical events are recorded and broadcast on Radio 3.

The problem that everyone seems to be skirting around is that there is an intellectual hierarchy in the arts, not a class hierarchy. People will come to the arts from all kinds of backgrounds, but will necessarily be more able and will have had put in the time that cultivating an interest requires. To widen access any further means going beyond financial barriers to participation and trying to break down cultural barriers. Some places are doing that already- I met someone recently whose sole job it was to encourage ‘hard to reach groups,’ a term usually used by social workers when they want to avoid saying problem families, to come to the Tate (admission free).

Those who want family entertainment will be well served by commercial television and radio, as broadcasters know that an audience that wants mass consumer entertainment probably also wants mass consumer products and makes a very good bet for advertising sales. Ad men don’t generally want an audience with a high income, but one which is willing to go out on Saturday morning and spend its disposable on whatever bauble was dangled in front of them on Friday night- hence the sponsorship (ended by the Shettygate the racism row) of Big Brother by Carphone Warehouse. This is why older, more educated people rarely find anything worth watching on the commercial channels and favour radios 3 and 4. They tend to know how they want to spend their cash, and as such are a useless bet to advertisers.

The reality is that after years of very welcome spending, we have reached a barrier which it will be very hard to overcome- there are opportunities for anyone, regardless of income, to feast on the ideas and cultural capital which surround them, but there will always be a rump (from all social backgrounds) who are very happy with Kylie, Eastenders and consumerism. If they are not being barred from ideas and culture by snobbery or lack of funds, but simply chose not to participate, could we describe that as a disaster?

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