As creativity month is coming to a close, we would like to take a moment to discuss creative privilege. Celebrating creativity is wonderful in every sense, but we must remember that not everyone has equal opportunities and avenues for creative expression and exploration. Check out our deeper look into creative privilege and suggestions for flipping the script.
From the time we are children we hear phrases like, “shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” But following one’s dreams simply isn’t viable for a lot of people, which is where this advice can leave a foul taste in our mouths as adults. Furthermore, hearing celebrities and people who have already “made it” tell us commoners to follow our dreams can be really maddening. Not that pursuing your goals is a bad thing, but it takes more than hard work and perseverance and even genuine talent to make it to the top (or the middle in some cases). Anybody who does not understand the role that privilege plays in creative industries should probably not be doling out advice to the masses.
Comedian Bo Burnham put it really well in an interview,
Don’t take advice from [celebrities] that have gotten very lucky. Taylor Swift telling you to follow your dreams is like a lottery winner saying ‘liquidate your assets, buy Powerball tickets, it works.’
This is to say that creative success is subject to the same oppressive systems as any other industry, which allows some voices to be heard and amplified, while others fall on deaf ears.
What Defines Privilege?
Creativity is psychologically linked to openness, but unfortunately, that open-mindedness does not equate to an even playing field. We are all unique as individuals, coming from different backgrounds and upbringings, and creativity can be a great way to connect through expression. However, personal creativity tends to thrive with opportunity, and opportunity can be shrouded in exclusivity whether we realize or not. It’s easy to take for granted in so-called cultural epicenters, that we have access to a diversity of cultural programs and initiatives- we can go to a variety of galleries and museums, many of which are free public institutions. Plenty of areas have their own annual festivals celebrating regional culture, not to mention music festivals and event venues where local and touring creatives alike can mingle and participate in the creative exchange and be inspired by one another. Simply by merit of having access to cultural institutions and events, we possess an opportunity to consume a creative culture, a privilege that does not exist everywhere in the world. But beyond participation through consumption, there exist structures of privilege that dictate which voices are presented.
The earliest way that most people engage with arts and culture is through arts programs in schools. Depending on what the education and arts policies are like where you live, you may already be in a privileged position, especially if you live in a city that boasts arts and culture initiatives, and has a variety of museums and art galleries. These public cultural institutions play an important role in curating stories through art and objects to educate and inspire a diverse public. Furthermore, these institutions are highly trusted among the general public and have a responsibility to not only be engaging but searching for ways to present collections that are truthful to their diverse audiences.This is where issues of privilege start to become apparent in public cultural institutions.
A 2014 study showed that the majority of upper-level director roles in high-budget American galleries are held by Caucasian men, a lack of diversity that is mirrored among the artists exhibited. This bias affects the ability of those excluded (marginalized individual artists) to book solo shows, group exhibits, and generate sales and press. Furthermore, it means that the general public is repeatedly being delivered homogenous curatorial and creative voices.
We see a similar pattern of privilege with creative programs in post-secondary institutions. Formal education offers a great opportunity to bring like-minded creatives together to learn and collaborate alongside one another. Creative programs in universities and colleges offer students all sorts of advantages beyond training and education; workshops, mentoring, resources, a creative bubble while in school, and a social network that often continues after graduation. While a degree in a creative program might not guarantee a job in the same way as some more traditional programs, a degree itself can only help your chances of finding work after graduation. While the institutionalization of creativity has evolved through educational institutions and helps build stronger creative communities, it is inherently exclusive.
There are many socioeconomic variables that influence access to postsecondary education. Distinct links have been found between generations of families: students whose parents attended university or college are much more likely to enroll themselves. For many families, especially those whose children will be the first generation to attend post-secondary school, this education is regarded as an investment in their future. Enrolling in a creative post-secondary program is far from a guaranteed path to a secure and well-paying job. This is a risk that not all families have the privilege of investing in. For parents who have worked their whole lives to provide the next generation with opportunities, they themselves were never afforded, pursuing a creative dream is simply not a viable option.
The Privilege of Following Creative Dreams
To break into a creative industry people are often expected to be satisfied with non-traditional or non-existent methods of payment in exchange for experience in their desired field. Internships can be a great way to gain professional experience, but unpaid internships only serve to widen the class gap among creatives, where only people who can afford to work without being paid are able to get their foot in the door. Nobody should be expected to work for free, and in failing to pay creative workers fairly it creates an even greater disparity between who is given the opportunity to succeed in the creative world.
Evening the Playing Field
The upside to the current creative climate is that the advent of social media and online platforms give artists and other creatives a way to showcase their work to online audiences and try to build a following independently. This still doesn’t make it an even playing field, but it’s an opportunity that has certainly changed the way people market their talent and gain exposure.
As consumers of arts and culture, we play an important role in building diverse creative communities. If you consider yourself an active member of an arts scene, ask yourself if there are a variety of voices being heard and if your groups are truly inclusive and diverse. It is up to us to seek out and support creative perspectives that do not have the resources of those that are more popular or “relevant.”
Perhaps the most important way we can help even the creative playing field is to recognize the different ways in which we ourselves may be privileged. It hurts our creative communities to perpetuate the notion that creativity is a great societal equalizer. By trying to neutralize the cliques that form of institutional creativity, and actively diversifying our immediate creative communities we can at least attempt to provide an alternate way to participate and gain experience.
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Choy, S. (2001). Students Whose Parents Did Not go to College: Postsecondary Access, Persistence, and Attainment. Findings from the Condition of Education. National Centre for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED460660.pdf
Curiale, Jessica. (2010). America’s New Glass Ceiling: Unpaid Internships, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Urgent Need for Change. Hastings L.J., Vol. 61,. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1473618
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