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Education, Not Wealth or Class, Matters Most When It Comes to Making Art

A graduation ceremony (Image courtesy Flickr/John Walker)
A graduation ceremony (image via Flickr/John Walker)

Conservatives often tag art as something that mostly rich people like. The idea is so pervasive that last year, the House Budget Committee proposed slashing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, since its programs were “generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels.”

But a new study suggests how far from reality that oft-repeated line might actually be. According to findings at the University of Oxford, wealth has absolutely nothing to do with whether people pick up a paintbrush or attend a dance class. Rather, author and sociologist Aaron Reeves writes that “it is educational attainment alone, and not social status, that is shaping the probability of being an arts participant.” 

“Neither Class nor Status: Arts Participation and the Social Strata,” published in Sociology, stands out from previous studies on culture and social stratification because it smartly distinguishes between “arts participation” — drawing or painting — and “arts consumption” — going to an art opening or auction. Reeves looks at both these categories separately to see how they vary across social strata. 

The study is based on data from 78,011 participants of the Taking Part survey. Reeves crunched numbers on levels of art-making and attendance at art events. He factored in age, gender, education, and income, and also adjusted for influence of family background — whether, for instance, your mother was a painter. He was looking for correlations between social status, class, education, and arts participation and consumption.

The author found that people with a degree were four times as likely than people without one to have painted a picture or played an instrument at some point in their lives. They were five times as likely to do dance or crafts. He isn’t entirely sure why that is, but he speculates that universities might function as incubators for cultural activity and also help increase graduates’ “information-processing capacity.” In other words, all those art appreciation courses might actually matter.

Social class and status were not found to be strongly correlated with arts participation, though people who made more than £30,000 pounds a year were less likely to spend their free time creating. Those with jobs of high social standing — a CEO, for instance —were also less likely to be artists in their off-hours than people in lower-status positions.

Wealthier people, it’s no surprise, tend to be greater consumers of art. They’re the ones who can, after all, afford pricy paintings and theater tickets. Reeves admits he doesn’t know why they’re less likely to create themselves, but he suggests it may be simply because they have busier jobs and less free time. They might opt instead to enjoy the fruit of others’ creations.

To be sure, the results are based from data collected in the UK, and for all we know, British people might be entirely different from Americans when it comes to arts participation and consumption. Also, access to good education in the United States is far from equal among people of different income levels.

But the findings do echo those of another myth-busting study conducted last year in the United States, which discovered that poor people benefit just as much as wealthy people from the NEA’s art programs. The proof is stacking up: art is for everyone.

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