Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Art Isn't Working: Vaughan Allen on How the Cultural Elite Ignore Our Industrial Origins

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Art Isn't Working: Vaughan Allen on How the Cultural Elite Ignore Our Industrial Origins

Article excerpt

Just to the north of Manchester city centre is a patch of grass. Roughly seven acres in size, it is a calm oasis in a city not known for its green spaces. But Angel Meadow is something more. It is where more than 40,000 of Manchester's poor were buried between 1788 and 1816. This is the place where the real cost of Britain's industrial revolution was marked--where the bones and blood of the working class, with their average life expectancy of 17 years, mingle with the soil. They were to be followed by tens of thousands more across the country over the following decades.

Yet it is hard to find this story reflected in our museums and galleries, and more widely in the arts-for class is the spectre absent from the cultural feast. Last year, the cultural world was united by the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Theatres, museums and publications both academic and popular explored the issues and the implications, taking care to imply a shared guilt for the white population of Britain. Failure to examine the story was condemned.

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But when we look back to the start of the 19th century, another story was evolving, a story that the arts seem to feel no moral imperative to embrace: the story of the working-class people of Britain being forced from their land, being forced into the cities, taking their places in the deadly mills of the Industrial Revolution. Leeds, celebrating 800 years since the granting of its borough status, was criticised for not including the city's involvement in the slave trade. …

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