Art and Privilege
On February 23rd, music artist Finneas O’Connell tweeted a piece of advice for young creatives (1). “Shooting your shot,” he claimed was “a little overrated.” He went on to say how it was better to work in solitude, rather than trying to get attention whenever possible. Though the message seems harmless enough, his tweet immediately faced backlash. People pointed out his position of privilege, and that even the opportunity to work hard on a passion project is a luxury. Finneas has since admitted his mistake, saying his post came out of a place of “privilege and arrogance.”
The interesting thing is, his tweet is not by any means bad advice. Young artists should be able to work on their pieces in solitude until they have reached a point of creative maturity. However, not many people are privileged enough to enjoy such a luxury. Assuming that Finneas is correct, the artists who are privileged enough to operate in that way probably have an advantage over everyone else. This brings up a question: how much of a factor is privilege in the art world anyway?
The first way that privilege affects the art world is monetarily. Ideally, everyone should have access to the resources they need to take up a craft, but usually those resources have a cost. Let’s say two children with an equal passion for music want to learn how to play guitar, one from a wealthier household and one from a poorer household. Already, the wealthier child is at an advantage because he can afford a quality instrument, lessons, and has time to devote to practice. The poorer child may not be able to afford these things. A forty-five minute lesson can cost upwards of 50 dollars (2), and an electric guitar plus gear can cost upwards of 200 dollars (3). Assuming that the poorer child can get a good guitar and finds somewhere to take lessons, he still may not have time to practice because getting an afterschool job or helping around the house is a higher priority. Naturally, this isn’t limited to the music world. Almost all mediums have their costs, whether it be for lessons, tools, or putting one's work into the world (advertising, admission fees, etc). So while pure talent should be enough to make the career of an artist, the odds are more likely to be in favor of someone who can spend money at their leisure.
Even if one has money, that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll get the support to pursue their passion. Sometimes, parents are opposed to letting their kids spend time on artistic endeavors because they are deemed “frivolous”, a “waste of time and money” or “gay.” While countless movies show young people overcoming the criticism of their parents and maybe eventually winning them over (See: Billy Elliot, Rocketman, Blinded By the Light), in reality, the lack of encouragement can take a serious toll on the ambitions and minds of young creators. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are parents who work their kids too hard, perhaps stunting their kid’s creative growth in the process. This is the case with countless child stars, many of which in better cases leave stardom because of their stressful experiences, but in worse cases struggle with mental health and addiction in their adult years. While most artists, by adulthood, are well adjusted enough to not be derailed from their dreams; a toxic attitude exhibited towards a child’s interests will most likely prevent them from properly developing their talents.
While it may be possible to get support from a parent or guardian, finding support in the industry is perhaps the most challenging obstacle. Physical privilege plays a huge part in who gets recognized and who doesn’t. The fact is, if an artist does not conform to conventional beauty standards (of attractive physique, pretty, white or light skinned, without physical abnormality, etc.) they may have a more difficult time getting the attention of an agent, jobs, or other connections. Actress Raven Symone describes the constant pressure on her as a child star to stay thin and pretty (4). “I remember people would be like, “you can’t eat that, you’re getting fat!” she said while on The View; demonstrating how the high standards are not only damaging to those excluded from the industry but to those who are already in it. Fortunately, every day the art world grows in diversity, by making a priority of casting actors and actresses with different body types and races. Though it is only the first step, strides are definitely being taken in the right direction.
At the end of the day, these are only a few ways that privilege can affect the art world, and though it can be discouraging, the situation is far from hopeless. Wealthy people can give back by funding, as well as giving time and money to local art galleries and theatres. People with good parents are often well adjusted enough to offer help and support to people without it. People who are favored by the media for reasons beyond their control (such as physical appearance) may use their platform to talk about the unfairness of the media and amplify the voices of those less privileged. An example of someone using their privilege for good is Tavi Gevinson, who used the attention she gained from her fashion blogs to create an independent magazine for girls called Rookie. In the seven years it was active, Rookie mag was an outlet and a head start of the likes of Petra Collins, Minna Gilligan, Jenny Zhang, Hunter Schaffer, and Kelly Abeln. Though no longer being updated, Rookie mag has been achieved so it can help young girls for years to come. There is privilege, and there may always be privilege, but if those given privilege can continue to use it to the benefit of others, the gap won’t be so wide.
Maher Joe. “Finneas O'Connell says he and Billie Eilish succeeded without 'nepotism' after fans accused him of downplaying their privilege”. Insider. February 25, 2020.
Rovello Lisa. “How Much Do Music Lessons Cost? How Much Should I Expect to Pay?” Neighborhood Music School.
Casazza Craig. “Average Cost of Guitar”. The Cost Guys. April 3, 2019.
Olya Gabriella. “Raven Symone Was Fat-Shamed on The Cosby Show”. People Magazine. July 30, 2015.