A ballerina with the Royal Ballet being interviewed on the radio the other day described the manner in which so many people outside her profession seem to assume her job is closer to a hobby. The common assumption was that her working day consisted solely of the performance given onstage in the evening and beyond that her time was her own. Not so. She explained that she effectively works a fourteen-hour-day, Monday-Saturday; when not performing, she is rehearsing. When a ballet is undergoing a long and successful run, the persistent fear of being usurped by the understudy precludes outside interests; birthdays, anniversaries, and all the other social occasions that clog the calendar of the many are sacrificed on the altar of one of the most physically demanding careers imaginable, one that takes years and years of exhausting practice and determined dedication to reach the top of. As with that of footballers, the career of a ballerina is relatively short, although those who play the beautiful game earn the kind of crust most ballerinas can only dream of. Yes, the ones that transcended the profession and entered pop culture, such as Fonteyn, Guillem and Bussell, were able to command handsome fees; but they are the exception to the rule.
The notion that anyone could think being a ballerina is somehow not ‘a proper job’ perhaps speaks volumes as to how any career in the Arts remains viewed with suspicion. Perhaps it’s jealousy? After all, how can the sight of a ballerina pushing her body to limits the human body ordinarily appears ill-equipped to get anywhere near not impress – unless the viewer is unwilling to admit to their own mediocrity and this subconscious awareness manifests itself as the bitter belittling and envious dismissing of anyone who can scale heights that are permanently barred to the mediocre? If that’s the case, there’s always a career as a critic.
Ironic, then, that according to a recent report from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, ‘Britain’s creative industries are booming’, worth upwards of £8 million to the economy and employing 1.8 million of the workforce, even if the sting in the tail suggests a strain of nepotism runs through the higher echelons that make it increasingly harder for those with no family connections or the advantages of an expensive education to break through. Another irony is that the global success of many of these industries was founded not by the middle or upper classes, but by snotty oiks from the streets.
Unlike the education reforms of the 1997 Labour Government (which seem to have reversed opportunities for the under-privileged), the education reforms of the wartime coalition administration opened doors for those emanating from working-class backgrounds to progress into higher education – particularly art school – where previously they would have had to beg for a scholarship. A trouble-maker with a chip on his shoulder like John Lennon would never have made it into academia before the war. The benefits for popular culture when this generation came of age in the 60s have been evident ever since.
The notion that art is a luxury reserved for those who can afford it has been reflected by the Education Secretary, who this week claimed students who make the choice of art subjects over practical and functional ones are limiting their career options. Apparently, in her oh-so wise opinion, doing so will hold them back for the rest of their lives. Imagination is, of course, not a prerequisite for politics. What someone such as Nicky Morgan fails to grasp is that her values are not necessarily ones that appeal to someone possessed by an incurable artistic bent.
On one hand, Nicky Morgan may be aware that the Arts are becoming dominated by the products of privilege, and she could be issuing this statement to the children of the Proles to prevent them from trying and failing to find a way-in. But that not only smacks of unlikely compassion; it also implies an even unlikelier appreciation of the artist, for whom the totems of success Nicky Morgan no doubt regards as a sign of achievement are utterly irrelevant. Sure, if he or she can make a reasonable living from their art, that’s a desirable bonus. But a mortgage or pension plan or car or kids don’t figure too highly in their list of priorities. As long as the art keeps coming, that can be enough. A draughty rented garret will suffice, and this is something Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove or any other Education Secretary of the last half-century will never understand. Their attitude reminds me of a manic salesman from Virgin who once tried to offer me a mobile contract over the phone; when I repeatedly stressed I didn’t want or need a mobile, he completely malfunctioned, incapable of computing what I was saying as the script he’d recited in his sleep poured forth at a rapid rate; the more I emphasised I wasn’t interested, the more desperately he tried to big up what I was being offered. How could I not want what he had been trained to believe everyone wants?
To momentarily return to Lennon, the famous opinion of his Aunt Mimi – ‘The guitar’s alright for a hobby, but you’ll never make a living out of it’ – is one that has shown remarkable resilience down the years. The gut reaction of any parent when their child drifts in the direction of the Arts is to react with panic and to discourage, knowing the Arts won’t guarantee the steady stability and material cocoon that they themselves believe to be the hallmarks of achievement. They cannot comprehend either the wilfull rejection of status symbols or the unstoppable urge to produce art which is akin to releasing bodily fluid; an incontinent imagination is no different from an incontinent bowel or bladder; the art simply has to be released.
Nicky Morgan claims ‘Pupils who study maths to A-Level will earn 10% more in their lifetime’. Does she honestly think such a vacuous statement will mean Jack Shit to a kid who is hunched over a canvas, guitar or keyboard in the wee small hours? ‘Oh, I’d better pack this in because I can earn 10% more if I switch to maths.’ They’re not doing it because they can envisage earnings; they’re doing it because they can’t stop themselves creating. And, should what they do attract the eye of someone in a position to open the door to earnings, the possibilities are far more abundant than those available to the white-collar fodder Ms Morgan presumably regards as being engaged in ‘proper work’ (as long as she doesn’t have to sully her hands with it, naturally). More than Morgan’s trumpeted Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, the Arts stimulate both the intellect and the imagination – a bad combination when a working-class drone is something to be. Just because a prominent member of the Cabinet has a Bachelor of Arts degree doesn’t make one worthless; it depends what you do with it. Just ask the holder in question – Nicky Morgan.