Art and political disenfranchisement: is entertainment doing enough to represent contemporary trends?

Last year saw seismic shifts in both the UK and US political landscapes. From Brexit to Trump, a whole new populist voice seemed to shake the existing establishment, which we are still feeling the reverberations from today. Perhaps most startling about the events of 2016 is quite how unexpected they were. Now, as we move towards another UK election and politics once again takes centre stage, have the arts and entertainment sectors done enough to keep up with contemporary trends?

There’s no doubt that the acting industry and the theatre sector in particular remain at the cutting edge of exploring themes of equality and identity. The highly celebrated launch of Angels in America, featuring our own Stuart Angell, which opened at the National Theatre last week, offers an insight into the historic Aids crisis as well as wider issues within US politics. Winterson’s recently spoke to The Mail about the importance of Equal Representation for Actresses campaign (ERA) and was a vocal supporter of the Women’s March that took place in opposition to the Inauguration of Donald Trump in January. The acting and entertainment sectors remain at the forefront of socio-political commentary, and in particular a voice for championing diversity and equality within that narrative.

But something happened last year that was unprecedented. Voices that had previously been unheard amidst the chatter of social commentary and online networks appeared in force, fake news began to promulgate unfamiliar opinions, and it became clearer and clearer that whole sections of society had been living in political bubbles and echo chambers. While critics praised Hamilton with dramatic acclaim, a nation voted to elect a white reality television star as its President, and the two worlds eventually collided in a spectacular breakdown of the fourth wall. What this tells us is that even the arts and entertainment industries, so long celebrated for having their finger on the pulse of the socio-political climate of the day, to an extent themselves also missed the rising tide of populism.

When Shameless was released back in 2004, it instantly became award winning, as consumers and critics alike celebrated the realness of a show so determined to unapologetically display the intricacies of British working – and non-working – class life. Fast forward 13 years to 2017 and how much of that rawness do we actually still see on our screens on a regular basis? Even in the comedy world, has there been a mainstream show of notoriety since Gavin & Stacey so eloquently portrays ‘ordinary’ UK life in such a celebratory and non-judgemental way?

A lot of this is anecdotal, and Peter Kay and his Car Share show for example provides at least one recent exception to the rule. But when you think about it even this is eclipsed by the shining, shimmering Hollywood image of James Corden and his Carpool Karaoke – internet friendly ‘as himself’ content for the digital generation. It’s perhaps indicative of a wider trend these days that even the social networks we see around us have been hijacked by celebrity names and reality stars. And just how many people have a readymade baking marquee in their back garden anyway? The setting for 2016’s most popular UK show.

It’s a train of thought that leads to something to think about. There is still some great work going on out there – we know because our actors are involved in it every single day. And certainly nobody can blame art for the social climate. But as we become more and more aware of the political disenfranchisement going on around us, this is perhaps the right point at which to ask the question: is the cutting edge of the current arts and entertainment industries as reflective of UK life today as it has been in previous years?