“Most people want to fit in with their tribe in some way or another” observed Grayson Perry when making his series ‘Who are you? Back in 2014. “They give off signals, whether it’s with their clothes, their behaviour, their car, their whatever, and gain status . . . and the signals are an unconscious display of who you are and where you want to be.”
I recognise this in myself, and you probably do too. Let’s be honest, a lot of our consumption of ‘culture’ in today’s society is about status as much as it is delight in creativity. We all participate in and consume culture and we hope that our accumulation of knowledge, behaviours and skills will demonstrate our cultural competence and so our standing in society. It’s subtle and hilariously, it can cause great anxiety amongst the white middle classes.
You may have read a few weeks back that Felicity Huffman, a highly successful American actress, pleaded guilty to taking part in a bribery scheme to get her daughter into a prestigious US university. Her efforts to increase her own status and her daughter’s social and cultural capital led her to break the law. Being smart, getting the grades, it isn’t enough when your tribe membership is at stake.
In Britain, the value placed on culture, as a society, is still heavily steeped in the white Western tradition. Though we celebrate our multi-cultural society, our value system is still playing catch-up. If it were a game, you’d score more points for going to see an exhibition or opera in London than you would an outdoor film screening in a park near your home. But what if you were in that film? What if the film celebrated your recognised talent as a kathak dancer, and your skills had been passed down through generations in your family?
Over the least five years I have been working in Bedford making art with artists and people of the town. I have spent a lot of time listening and observing. In one project, I have been working on two streets for over three years. Working with people from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds and asking, how can we come together through making and creating? It was through this work, being there every week, that I saw first hand, the cost of the deeply embedded inequalities of the cultural system.
It has left me asking how can we build social and cultural capital that is more reflective of Britain today? I want to believe it is not an impossible task but currently the social and cultural value system is built on white, western, middle class traditions and I think it is out of touch with contemporary British society.
At the Venice Biennale this year, the world’s most celebrated international art event, Ghana has burst onto the scene with its own national pavilion, designed by David Adjaye. He commented “that Ghana’s cultural capital in the world is not being celebrated.” How true. And what of Britain’s cultural capital? What are we presenting to the world at this moment in time? It could be very different to the increasingly fractured state we find ourselves in.