Book Review: Culture Is Bad For You by Brook, O’Brien and Taylor

Culture Is Bad For You: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries (2020) by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor. Published by Manchester University Press.

Orian Brook is Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh and AHRC Creative and Digital Economy Innovation Leadership Fellow 2019-2021. She is interested in the social and spatial inequalities in cultural consumption and work, and how they interact. She is also interested in the application of administrative data to social and policy research. She tweets @orianbrook.

Dave O’Brien is Chancellor’s Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries, based in the School of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. He has written extensively on the sociology of culture, including on urban regeneration, cultural consumption, cultural policy, and creative industries. He is the host of the @newbookscritthe and tweets @drdaveobrien.

Mark Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Methods (Sociology) at the Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield, and is AHRC Leadership Fellow (Creative Economy) 2019-2021. His research interests are in inequalities in culture, in both audiences and work. He’s also interested in quantitative methods, particularly data visualisation. He tweets @markrt.

Review by Timo Koren, 4th March 2021.

In the midst of the lockdown in spring that followed the outbreak of the pandemic, Mark Banks, professor of Culture and Communication, wrote: “While culture and arts may not be vital to the preservation of life, they are proving increasingly vital to preserving the sense of life being lived” (2020: 649). All to say: cultural venues may have had to shut their doors, but producing and consuming culture continues at home, in other forms. It is precisely this belief in The Good of arts and culture that is the central issue of Culture Is Bad for You, a collaboration between social scientists Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor. They show cultural workers see culture as so valuable that it is worth changing themselves for – this means accepting to work for free, accepting a career in culture is irreconcilable with childcare and accepting there is no boundary between work and life. 

Based on quantitative surveys as well as qualitative interviews with workers in creative occupations in the UK, the book shows social inequalities (in terms of class, gender and race) are reflected in production, which is still defined by the ‘somatic norm’ of white middle-class men. Inequalities are also visible in consumption. Only a small part of the population actually ‘attends’ culture: they go to theatres and opera houses, to museums and art galleries. The authors are not afraid to remind the reader that ‘not engaging is the norm’. In that sense an alternative, similarly provocative title for the book could have been Culture Is Not for Everyone. That would also reflect the central injustice Brook, O’Brien and Tayloraddress: if culture is actually good for you, it should be distributed evenly across the population.

Culture Is Bad for You is clearly intended as a contribution to public debate, not just academic discussion. The authors write in clear and concise sentences (the table of contents is testament to that) and take you by the hand. In an incredibly helpful introduction, they make sure the reader is acquainted with the basic concepts of cultural sociology. In Chapter 4 on consumption (titled Who Consumes Culture?), the authors admit that the data and analysis do not fundamentally challenge existing academic research on the topic, but for the non-academic reader the book busts some of the most persistent social myths in public debate.

First up is the idea that the cultural sector is a meritocracy. The authors remark that the best paid cultural workers are the most likely to believe that talent is the only thing that matters in the cultural industries. They show convincingly that work is precarious (project-based, for low pay or no pay at all), that cultural tastes lead to social closure (reinforcing the ‘somatic norm’), that access to culture in childhood is unevenly distributed (but a key explanation to who ends up pursuing a career in culture) and that childcare is perceived as incompatible with cultural work (which affects women in particular). The key point here is that the organisation of work makes a sustainable career in culture extremely difficult, but disproportionally so for those people from working-class backgrounds, people of colour and women. Throughout, Culture Is Bad For You consistently points out the intersections between these inequalities.

The second social myth is social mobility. The authors use the concept with hesitation, acknowledging that social mobility into creative jobs means ‘mobility’ into low pay and a lack of job security. So, rather than focusing on individuals ‘escaping’ their social starting point, our concern should be improving the conditions of people who lack socio-economic privilege. Despite this critical note, they use the concept to debunk the idea there was ever a golden age for people from a working-class background gaining access to the arts. Culture Is Bad for You posits that absolute mobility has gone down, but also that the labour market has changed: there are less ‘traditional’ working class jobs now than there were in the 1960s, which means that relative mobility has remained the same. What has changed is that currently there is less government support and rents are much higher.

The belief in these myths is partly why the cultural industries are so resistant to change. This is despite the current political discussion around equality. Chapter 10 – ‘What About the Men?’, my favourite chapter and the most novel academic contribution – shows that while senior white men acknowledge inequalities in society and in cultural occupations, they do not connect structural conditions to their own lives. Talking about their own careers, they obscure their own privileges, using the ‘gentlemanly motifs’ of luck and modesty. The emphasis on luck, individual choice, talent and mobility is precisely how inequalities in the cultural sector are normalised.

For academics, Culture is Bad For You points towards interesting discussions around autonomy, cultural consumption surveys and cultural institutions.

The book presents ‘autonomy’ as a key value for senior workers who see it as a reason to accept unpaid work. However, the relation between autonomy and capitalist cultural production deserves more attention across social backgrounds. Banks (2010) points out the contradiction between ‘rational’ capitalism that needs to adapt to ‘contingent’ autonomy to extract value from cultural labour. This tension could be explored further in relation to precarity: perhaps employers have successfully adapted by presenting autonomy and precarity as a trade-off, not only in cultural occupations anymore, but also in other sectors. I am thinking of platform economy delivery services in particular here. Perhaps autonomy does not just define ‘middle-class occupations’ (p. 16) but is central to their precarisation.

The Take Part-survey used in Culture Is Bad for You makes clear the need for better surveys to measure cultural consumption. Since defining culture is closely related to inequalities, as academics we should not reproduce these distinctions like the survey does. Cultural hierarchies are made through space: cultural consumption at a venue is ‘attendance’, cultural consumption at home is ‘leisure’. Especially in a pandemic, we should attribute more value to how culture is lived informally at home and on the streets. Similarly, the highbrow-lowbrow distinction is reinforced in the way nightclubs are grouped together with bars and pubs, in a way that would never happen to opera, theatre and classical music (all distinct categories).

The last point is to understand how the interactions between institutions and workers produce inequalities. During the pandemic many wondered why government institutions, funding bodies and even cultural workers were more concerned with keeping cultural institutions ‘alive’ than making sure all precarious, self-employed cultural workers would be guaranteed an income. Perhaps ethnographic research could do more to understand what I know anecdotally as ‘defending the institution’: in 2017 I was part of a small team of below-minimum-wage workers in a culture venue. When someone on Twitter started a debate about our employment conditions, our team leader – very committed to ‘diversity’ – was more concerned with the reputation of the institution than with our financial wellbeing. It was then that I wish I owned some copies of Culture Is Bad for You to distribute in the office the next day.

References

Banks, M. (2010). Autonomy guaranteed? Cultural work and the “art–commerce relation”. Journal for Cultural research, 14(3), 251-269.

Banks, M. (2020). The work of culture and C-19. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(4), 648-654.

Timo Koren is a PhD Candidate in Geography and Environmental and Science at the University of Southampton whose research interests are cultural industries, urban nightlife and popular culture. His PhD-thesis investigates how music genres shape socio-spatial inequalities in nightclub production in Amsterdam. He tweets @TimoKoren.

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