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Cultural capital - who buys it?

Thu, 01/03/2012

While putting the world to rights over too much wine, a small group of us got stuck on the idea of cultural capital. What is it? Artist and activist John Jordan had mentioned it to me in passing last year when we shared a platform (actually a small sweaty room) together. Lets consider the nuance of cool, the attitude people assume because they've brushed up against other people who have it, the disdain they show for those who don't. Is it the right shade of lipstick or difficult specs that help us identify our particular tribe?

When working in the arts there is often very little money, especially for those starting out, and even for those who have been doing it a long time. With ego on the one hand, driving so many artists to share their visions with the world, and insecurity on the other; visible steps of progress are combined with invisible clues, associations, information and knowledge to help build someone's reputation and experience. These could be media coverage, awards, connection to particular people with 'influence', bookings in the right venue, invitations to the right parties, successful funding applications or sponsorship deals, etc. What people are building for themselves and often sacrificing money and other more tangible rewards for, is the elusive X factor, edge, hip, sic, safe (now I am showing my age). Whatever you call it, its about the influence you perceive to have touched, being 'good' in the eyes of those you want to be watching you. This intangible power is, I think, cultural capital. And once you have some, you don't want to let it go. You worry about all the other people who don't have it and might try to steal it from you, might climb the ladder ahead of you when your back is turned. Its a fickle business. Of course money and class have big roles to play in the trading of cultural capital and you notice quite quickly that the cool set are posh, they dress down, they are ever so nice but you don't ever quite know where you are, except you know for sure you don't quite fit. You don't have it, you never had it, you spiral out of control in a vortex of insecurity, until a call from someone important or a chance meeting, a bit of valuable information puts you back on the path of righteousness. It's OK, you tell yourself, I am OK and I'm more OK than all those other people I know aren't OK because they aren't cool. Phew.

There is another strange set of contradictions operating in the arts and they are usually about values. On the one hand artist stands for the alternative, the avante guarde. These are people who openly transgress, say what they think, make bold choices and don't conform. That is certainly the idea most arts people hang onto for dear life. However while hanging out with Mum's at the school gate I have noticed that many of the arts folk I know are deeply conservative in their desire to stick to aesthetic, form and style that define their cool. Their cultural capital is worth too much to be squandered on activities that might humiliate them and cost them dear.  

The star system mimics the class system although it is not quite as honest. At least with clas you either have it or you don't, you went to Eton or you went to the local comp, you have ten thousand pounds to donate to charity or buy all your clothes from charity shops (yes, I do). The star system is disingenuous because it promotes the idea of accessible success, that you could be the lucky one in a million and plucked from obscurity to live a life of riley. This magical life comes without strings, it is devoid of responsibility. You may have to work hard but you can do whatever you like. And with the promise that everyone can have that life, people try to live it anyway - in their own small way.

So armed with the ambition to reach the stars or at least know some stars, you are on your way to successful cool. No politics, no values (cos they come with the job description and you can't afford them anyway), no time to hang around. You got cultutal capital and you know how to flaunt it.