Grayson Perry, in a recent interview with The Arts Society Magazine, made the bold statement that the closures suffered as a result of Covid-19 will actually help the arts sector because “some things needed to go”. He comes across as very blasé about the countless people who are losing their jobs over the pandemic, and out-of-touch in the way he fails to consider that the art exhibitions and theatre productions he is dismissing as “dead wood” are still the source of people’s livelihoods and careers. But have his words been twisted as he claims, or alternatively does he actually have a point about the role of the arts in modern society?
It is easy to become distracted by the lack of sensitivity he shows in this interview, as he gleefully anticipates the stripping back of the culture sector, but although badly expressed, his ideas do seem to have some logic. Mainly, his hope is that if some of the peripheral, unpopular or outdated shows are removed, then it will help to focus funds and energy on those which are more successful and relevant, and make way for the new, and in doing so revitalise the arts sector. While many were upset by the closure of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in July, it had been on the West End since 1986 and so could understandably be seen as due to end to make way for new shows. Unfortunately, which shows survive and which ones are forced to close is not always simply based on merit and value, as Perry seems to assume in this neat theory.
In the same interview, Perry also claimed that “too often, the audience for culture is just the people making it – theatres with whole audiences of actors”, raising the question of the relevance and accessibility of theatre. This indicates that the shows put on are not intended to attract or interest the public as a whole, but rather to satisfy the specific desires of a close circle or even an individual. This is obviously overstated, but there is the concern that many shows only reach and appeal to those already in the theatre circle.
In terms of student theatre, it is interesting to consider how many people go to see productions who aren’t friends with the cast or production team. Even if the answer is none, does this matter? Arguably is less of a consideration on a student level than on a professional one, as outreach and influence is less important, and it is more about giving experience and enjoyment to the students who are producing and acting in the productions.
However, the strength of Perry’s initial statement also suggests that he has the slightly snobbish assumption that ordinary people don’t seek out art, when this has clearly been disproved with the success and popularity of live streaming during the pandemic. For example, according to The National Theatre’s ‘NT at Home’ scheme, they attracted 15 million views over 17 productions. Indeed, this shows the way that the barrier to culture is not what is being put on, but the physical accessibility of exhibitions, shows, etc. Live streaming has meant that often the shows are free or significantly cheaper and it removes travel inconvenience and costs, knocking – down the finance barrier which prevents people with less disposable income from attending. Clearly this is not a sustainable answer in the long run, however it does prove that there is a wider audience for all kinds of theatre, from Ballet to Shakespeare to modern drama.
This seems to suggest that what we need is a growth in theatre, rather than a narrowing down. Maybe Perry’s point about the refocus on increased accessibility has validity, but his confident assumption that we will be better off after Covid closures is misplaced and tone-deaf. While the government continues to insist that the arts are replaceable, with their misguided ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’ campaign, what the pandemic has truly shown us is how irreplaceable the arts are to society, and how many more people are interested in theatre than sadly normally have access to it.
Illustration: Verity Laycock