On 25 Feb I went to the University of Leicester for a research seminar by Professor Mark Banks. While in the past he has written and published extensively about cultural work, for this seminar his focus was on talent in the creative and cultural industries. Mark was proposing two arguments, which were:

  1. While people are certainly capable of talent, it is as much social as it is personal
  2. There is no guarantee that talent will be recognised, due to social inequalities.

 

First Mark talked about how there is a premise that artists are innately talented and are regarded as ‘special beings’, and that these individuals just need to ‘find’ their inner talent and let it flourish, with social factors known to play no particular role. There is also a discourse about the creative industries by Government, and also TV ‘talent’ shows and the media, that talent combined with hard work will pay off, and that anyone can ‘make it’ regardless of their social background. Mark mentioned Andrew Ross’s description of the Creative Economy as a ‘talent show’ “with jackpot stakes for a few winners and hard-luck swag for everyone else” (Ross, 2013:17). Despite the rhetoric of an ‘open field’ through TV talent shows, the reality is exactly as Ross describes, and entry into the creative industries through traditional routes still requires higher education (HE) qualifications.

Mark then went on to discuss higher education admissions systems for the arts. He talked about how most HE institutions are known as meritocratic and equalitarian, particularly in the arts. However selection systems by some of the elite universities look not only for academic qualifications but also particular technical or artistic skills which can only be developed through access to these music lessons/dance classes etc, which aren’t accessible to all. This wider, persistent social inequality contributes further to the unfairness inherent in formal selection systems. He then went on to talk about homophily and dispositional selection, which is the idea of a ‘love of the same’ – in this context it is selecting candidates in one’s own image. By looking for what Bourdieu describes as certain ‘social marks’ or habitus in candidates, class inequalities continue to be reproduced. Banks talked about arts schools and polytechnics which were meant to make arts education more accessible, yet some of the social traits and impressions of the person may still have influence in selection, which is again reproducing social inequalities. He then briefly raised a point about the lack of ethnic diversity among of the larger arts companies, such as the ballet. Mark finished with the comment:

“Creative talent is a social disposition, manufactured in inequality…at least partly.”

There were some interesting points raised in discussion afterwards. Doris Eikhof commented that the criticism of government rhetoric around talent was correct, and that currently there is an ‘entanglement’ between the selection and construction of talent which needs to be investigated further. Helen Wood raised a very good point about looking at this from the point of view of the working class – particularly the labour involved in self stylising, or ‘playing the game’ in order to be selected or considered. Doris added there is a danger there of reproducing social inequalities further.

The idea of self styling in order to be considered for selection into an elite arts school, or a talent contest, or a ballet company, resonated with me in particular. Because this idea of ‘working on’ the self, performance, and the labour involved in it is something I’m looking at in my own research.

Overall it was a fascinating seminar and I would like to thank Mark, Helen and their colleagues for welcoming me.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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