Who qualifies for a “working class art exhibit”?
November 15, 2022
Q: I was recently approached by the curator of a group exhibition of contemporary working class art, asking if I would be willing to submit a painting. It’s a great opportunity and it’s – unusually for such grassroots initiatives – well compensated. But I am not sure I do the trick. I work as a home helper to pay the bills, but I went to art school and was raised middle class: my mother is a teacher and my father a bourgeois.senior local government official. I spoke to the curator about it, but she was undeterred, telling me that I belonged to the working class in the “materialist sense”. But I’m always afraid of taking the opportunity away from someone else. Should I go ahead or drop this one?
conscientious of Leeds
For the British public, of a certain age, there is an image which is almost synonymous with the term ‘class’. I’m talking about John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett lined up, in descending order of height, on the BBC The Freeze Report. Their 1966 “class sketch” satirized the tripartite social structure – upper, middle, working class – supposed to organize life in post-war Britain. ‘I am watching him [John Cleese] because he’s upper class,” Barker says. ‘But I despise him [Corbett] because he is lower class. The recurring punchline, repeated by Corbett: “I know my place.”
It’s funny, but oh so misleading. Not just for the way it suggests that the class system only involves men, but for the way it insinuates that it is fundamentally a matter of mindset – a kind of natural order with characteristics social. The thing is, as you and your curator know, this class is “material.” It is about his position in a concrete system that generates wealth and power. It is a relationship with real things – capital, factories, properties. Although working class people face discrimination on the basis of their accents and vocabulary, these are the symptoms and not the cause of the class system.
And it always changes. Billionaire Alan Sugar, for example, grew up in public housing in East London, but later became an industrialist and a member of the House of Lords. His class position has changed. (And that social apartment probably costs half a million pounds). Thatcherism. And that’s before you even entered the stagnation of the 2010s: if your mother is a secondary school teacher in England, she is paid 20% less in real terms today than 12 years ago. An art school degree may once have meant social mobility and the acquisition of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital” – many of the world’s famous British artists and designers come from modest and have passed through these institutions. Today that means having tens of thousands of pounds in debt.
It’s my way of saying that you shouldn’t feel guilty about participating in this exhibition. It sounds like a great opportunity. You depend on your salary to survive. As a caregiver, you are in one of the most typical working-class professions of the rich world. I’d be interested to know who owns the care organization you work for – as far as I know it’s a US hedge fund. It is them against whom you are in antagonistic opposition, not your fellow artists.
Working class does not mean poor – it is simply what it is increasingly associated with in the world we live in. But this can change, through political action, workplace organization and cultural activity: changing mentalities, circulating new ideas and experiences. So don’t “know your place”, as Ronnie Corbett joked – express yourself.
Send your dilemmas to [email protected]
This article is excerpted from the November-December 2022 issue of New internationalist.
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