The Suspicious Independence of the Independently Wealthy

April 28, 2015

I’ve always been suspicious of people who can afford to be bohemian.

In light of the recent spat between Chris Bryant and James Blunt about people in the arts from privileged backgrounds, I was reminded of this suspicion.

It’s not just performers where this is relevant - in all sectors, but particularly in the so-called creative industries, there’s a culture of unpaid internships - nominally the opportunities are there for everyone, but it’s only certain people who can afford to take advantage of them. You can’t do an internship if you’ve got bills to pay, and it’s difficult to be an artist if you’re exhausted from working a 15 hour day. Similarly, people who need to make money so that they and their family can eat aren’t as likely to go to university.

This isn’t anything new. Throughout the history of art, successful creators have been the people who, for whatever reason, could afford to keep plugging away at their craft for as long as they needed.

For those who weren’t wealthy themselves, they could rely on the support of wealthy patrons, like the Medici family, or a major record label. Money gives creators the freedom to experiment, to learn what works and what doesn’t.

The other archetype, of course, is those who had nothing to lose. The musicians who wrote songs all day because they were on the dole, or were getting a grant to go to art college. The disappearance of these government subsidies for creativity is something that seems to have been forgotten in the political posturing over benefits.

I should add a disclaimer: this could all be dismissed as the bitter ramblings of an unsuccessful musician, who wasn’t prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to get to the top. It’s easy to make excuses about their own lack of success, and point to ways in which other people had it easy.

The people who make it are the ones who want it enough, who are driven enough to make sacrifices to achieve their goals. Perhaps some of them were given help to get a few steps up the ladder, but even if your daddy owns a record label, creating something great takes dedication.

Why should someone’s background affect the way we view their work? I’m not a fan of James Blunt, but I don’t think that whether or not he’s a posh boy has much to do with it. Plenty of the people whose work I admire had a privileged upbringing, although it’s not unknown for them to have downplayed it, like Joe Strummer, the diplomat’s son who spoke in a proto-Estuary accent.

I can’t help feeling a certain amount of prejudice (or perhaps envy?) towards the privileged, but the important thing is to not let it cloud your judgement. It should be about the music. Don’t dislike James Blunt because he has money, dislike his work because he churns out lowest-common-denominator rom-com soundtrack fodder.