Why London's most vital art is far from the cultural elites

Jul 9, 2023 - 3 minute read

I have a lot of mixed feels about London’s arts scene and its relation to the obscene wealth it happens in the shadow of. A lot of the most significant art from London comes from migrant and w/c communities with deep familial links within the city. They have done so for decades with very little of the city’s wealth trickling down to them.

A lot of this art is invisible until a Kae Tempest, George the Poet or Stormzy breaks through and makes it more visible. In the meantime there’s lots of discourse about how rich and privileged London is and when arts funding is cut to London bodies to fill the coffers of a leveling up fund that pits dying regional towns against each other in a developmental lottery battle royale.

When these communities are displaced it tends to be a hop over from Peckham to Catford and the alpha wave of gentrification that displaced them tends to come from middle class artists who find an earpiece from the Guardian for them to speak about the difficulties they’re facing. I remember one displaced artist a few years back speaking unironically about how they had to find a new “frontier”.

Being that a lot of these artists came from outside London they tend to find it easier to relocate to the places where studios are cheaper and funding is made more available. Again, a lot of this isn’t an option for those trapped in the slow, decades long push from Dalston to Leyton then to Romford or Notting Hill to Shepherd’s Bush to Greenford then to Slough.

I really don’t want to come across as too provocative cos I’m too old for all that these days. I would just advise against casually promoting the idea of London arts as an elite megapolis for bankers and culture vultures. The elites won’t even register the arts cuts and relocations but the embedded communities will be affected and won’t have as clear a route to where the arts money gets diverted to.

And I do empathise with the artists who are now being displaced or are having to give up on their dreams. Those that were part of that early phase of gentrification weren’t necessarily aware of the part that they played and were similarly cast aside when the neighbourhoods they communed within became more desirable, partly because of their presence.

I also should add that those embedded London communities will probably keep creating art whichever direction the public purses divert to for as long as their council estate homes aren’t sold off (or “regenerated”) or when the houses their great grandparents bought through community coops (because banks wouldn’t lend to their kind) are beyond affordable repair.

Ground level communities and culture will always find a way to flourish within big, exclusionary and elitist cities. They always have so much to speak about.

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