Is (My) Culture Central?
Guest blog written by Daljinder Johal, Brum Youth Trends 2019 Contributor
Like a lot of young people, I can use #humblebrag and words like serendipitous in the space of one Whatsapp message to a friend. From talking about Love Island one moment, to environmental activist Greta Thunberg the next, like generations before us, young people have developed a language, and culture, of their own.
Yet like Thunberg, young people are patronised, ignored and marginalised by gatekeepers of institutions belonging to these older generations who seem to forget that, they too, once innovated in the same way.
Uniquely however, today’s young people are growing up with the accessibility of the internet, meaning that they can know to describe something as kawaii or haram while young people on the other side of the world know how to talk about being shook, gassed or vexed. The power of certain words has arguably got stronger, so much that they can represent an entire movement like #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo.
But arts organisations don’t seem to be realising that young people are refining this language right on their doorstep. As I’ve seen, many young people may one moment use their native language to talk to their parents before asking their friends wagwan or dropping a mashallah in casual conversation.
Arts organisations aren’t speaking in the same way as code-switching young people. It’s not that they should be filling their tweets and Insta stories with memes, but they remain static and slow-moving to a degree that can seem resistant to change, in comparison to the fluidity and reactivity of young people.
When considering why 33.2% of young people felt that there is a creative community in Birmingham, but didn’t want to be part of it, it’s not hard to imagine the grouchy grandparent at the dinner table - or as I’ve experienced, the oblivious uncle determined to give his thoughts on #NoOutsiders. You may have things in common, but they fundamentally aren’t listening to you.
Language is a way of signalling belonging and culture and young people seem to open up the former to have a knock-on effect on the latter two. The result: a more inclusive culture where all can feel they belong. With a generation who seem to more easily adopt gender-neutral pronouns, terms such as non-binary or gender non-conforming, it’s unsurprising that exhibitions like BMAG’s Coming Out exhibition was a success. Although, I’d argue that it didn’t go far enough.
It was an exhibition that you could admire for doing well, for showcasing out famous artists that have undoubtedly had a part to play in LGBT+ culture like Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and David Hockney. But, for young people, did it do enough with artists of colour in one section? Since this almost represents the same-old divide of arts and culture. The first where the ‘quality’ artists took precedence, to culture where certain artists were marked out by their heritage.
In short, the words were there but the exhibition didn’t use the same structure as young people’s shared language - or missed out some key words entirely by not spotlighting more of some of the figures representing the full LGBTQIA+ spectrum today.
Many arts organisations aren’t even getting young people through the door even though “young people experience, consume, create and curate arts & culture every day”.
They might complain about this but when evaluating why, would they consider the above exhibition critique as a marker of the snowflake generation or make miniscule alterations? Or would they recognise a generation that’s simply tired to be patient for snail-pace progress and has instead invested into DIY culture, a culture that has become huge in cities like Birmingham.
As a journalist, producer and wearer of many hats in the arts, I’ve seen, spoken to and worked with many who are doing it for themselves, in order to fully realise their dreams and not compromise their integrity and ideas to fit in with an institution’s limitations. Institutions who can’t even change something as simple as their style guide on pronouns, nevermind bigger, more ingrained issues.
After all, that’s the key to creating a new type of culture in the arts, inclusive of all. Culture isn’t something that’s decided by one person but is grown and developed together. Even when calling something “my culture”, you’re part of a bigger whole.
Therefore, we need organisations that trust young people to not just programme the studio performance or one-off exhibition due to tired motivations like “breaking stereotypes”. Instead they would avoid this exclusionary language, educate and empower young people to curate and create high-quality content that has artistic merit in its own right at any time, at any level and actually for anyone, not just other young people.