Saturday 27 June 2009

How class matters: taking the long view

Does class matter? The newspapers like to say 'no' - can't we all just move on from this outdated anachronism. (Janet Daley last weekend felt the MPs' expenses scandal was a chance to end the 'poison', which is one response to Moatgate anyway).

Yet the public (89% of us anyway) persistently and disappointingly insist that class does matter. Nor are we, to the perennial surprise of the media classes, all middle class now.

Meanwhile, politicians aren't quite sure whether they can mention it or not, or how to do so. The modest proposals in the Equality Bill created absurd, lurid headlines about 'class war'. There are genuine dilemmas too: it is hardly possible to make progress towards a classless society without acknowledging how much social class can still determine opportunities and outcomes, yet breaking down entrenched disadvantage requires a cross-class public coalition of support in a relatively affluent society.

Cutting through and perhaps illuminating these public dilemmas and debates is a fascinating exhibition 'Rank: picturing the social order 1516-2009', currently at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sunderland until 11th July, before moving to the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool from 24th July until September 12th.

Going back to the 16th century, it addresses how class, rank and status have always mattered, and in complex ways.

The book is tremendous for those who can't get to the exhibition.

And you can get a sense of it too from some very interesting pieces and reviews, including Linda Colley's essay in The Guardian, Laura Cumming's Observer review, Tom Lubbock in the Independent and a Radio 4 Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor.

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