REVIEW: Class Ceiling

By Press Room Contributor Bri Lee

Saturday 2pm-3pm, The Press Book House

The session started 10 minutes late, unfortunately, and it was halfway gone by the time Royce Kurmelovs, Jessica O’Neill, Laurie May, and James Maher) finished introducing themselves. That might not be a terrible thing if this was a light-hearted session where it was just nice to hear people make jokes and chat, but the audience were there to learn about how “different types of capital control access to the arts”, and we were ready for an in-depth discussion.

That’s not to say the people involved weren’t prepared or well-placed to speak about the topic. In their email discussions prior to the weekend Laurie had written: “You can be the best at what you do… and work your arse off… then an old rich white lady says she doesn’t want to pay to see your work… and it takes you right back to being a kid being ‘put in their place’”.

Laurie and James introduced themselves as having grown up below the poverty line (they gave meaningful accounts of their young lives that I couldn’t possibly do justice to by just listing a few quotes here) whereas Royce and Jessica described middle-class backgrounds with parental splits and migrant origins.  Unfortunately the time restriction pushed them on, and it would have been great to see them go a lot deeper into how their individual upbringings dictated their perspectives

Everyone spoke well about broader issues of classism in Australia, but it wasn’t until much later that they really started digging into how class effects access to the arts.

James spoke about the interesting contradiction between what he grew up with and the classical music scene he now occupies. Music composition is the most elitist, classist area, but he loves it. “Why did I do that? I fell into university music study by accident. I don’t want to speak on behalf of people in the underclass, but there’s a lot of hopelessness. Last time I checked only 3-5% of people from the underclass make it to university. Most go to trades.” Laurie spoke passionately about how social Darwinism doesn’t work and gave an anecdote about the ridiculousness of rich people paying big money for mud crabs that she had always just gone out and found for free for herself to eat.

Jess is doing her PhD, lives with her mother and says they “work together financially” to make ends meet. She mentioned she had watched her siblings “struggle through university after being forced to go”, which was very different to James and Laurie’s experiences. Royce said about growing up in Northern Adelaide, “you have an area experiencing what Newcastle has been experiencing for the last 20 years. The region where I grew up was violent.” The thing that made him want to be a journalist was living five minutes away from where an asylum seeker lived and was brutally assaulted. “I’m the first person in my immediate family to go to university.”

Laurie said, “Australians have been trained to remain silent on social disparity… because it’s not polite,” and that “It’s difficult to write about without people thinking you’re trying to throw yourself a pity party. If you’re not from the right world the entrance to the arts does look like a bubble and that you’re not allowed in that club.” Royce said, “Really I should be a concreter right now. In my family and community identities were structured around jobs and kids. My mother is the person I thank. She is the one who taught me to read and who pushed me to go to uni.” Jess spoke about pressure to go to uni in a negative way, but Royce appreciated it.

The final fifteen minutes built momentum as the panellists spoke about the challenges that stood in their way. Laurie said, “I’m way too forward and have many times been told off for being to forward with the higher powers and people. The way I talk pisses people off.” She says it’s frustrating people tell her to be “proper” all the time. “I’m really good at rubbing people the wrong way.”

Similarly, James spoke of a conflict between this colloquial nature of himself, and the expectation in the arts to be “eloquent or flowery in language or dress and have a certain set of knowledge. People would make fun of your language and syntax. I thought I had to train myself academically to enter this world because I didn’t think I had the cultural capital. I thought I had to read the canon and embody the language. I did it all and it still didn’t work!?” It was really affecting to hear him say that for a while he thought, “Maybe people can sense it?” – t

Things finished on a low not with someone saying that “the art world presents itself as being diverse experiences, but it can be very limited and there’s a lack of social mobility in the arts.” This was a really important conversation with brilliant panellists that unfortunately only truly began as the time was running out.