The first of three articles exploring art, class and precarity: a range of artists, curators and writers explore how class shapes art-making today
In her maiden speech as British Prime Minister, Theresa May invoked the figure of the working-class boy to address the topic of social inequality: the young person deprived of the educational opportunities available to others. Elsewhere, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment – stoked by Donald Trump in the US and other popular right-wing parties globally – has frequently been blamed on a widening gap between the income and opportunities available to those from different economic backgrounds. Alongside this, a number of exhibitions over the last few years – including Maria Eichhorn’s ‘5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours’ at Chisenhale Gallery, London, Manifesta 11 in Zurich and the 53rd Venice Biennale – have looked at casualized labour, professionalization, and economic and social divisions. Class, once considered by theorists and politicians to be an outmoded concern, is back on the agenda.
For this issue, we have put together a themed section looking at class and precarity. What is the current class status of the artist? Do artists still shape-shift across class boundaries as Lucy Lippard described in her 1977 essay ‘The Pink Glass Swan’? Can galleries and museums meaningfully engage with issues of social class? Does the notion of precarity fully account for the cultural aspects of class: the ability to articulate discontent, for instance, or the psychological insecurity resulting from oppression? How do race, sexuality and gender identities intersect with issues of social class? Conscious of the complexity of these issues, the various class backgrounds amongst our own editorial staff, our current privileged positions within the art world and the role that art magazines play in deciding who or what has cultural value, we invited a number of artists and writers to respond to these and other questions to explore how class shapes art-making today. Providing differing responses to these issues from various global, generational and class perspectives are: Magalí Arriola, Colin Chinnery, Verena Dengler, Lynsey Hanley, Nathaniel Mellors, Adrian Piper and Chris Wiley. Their statements show how anyone who chooses to engage in art professionally is choosing to complicate the terms of their own class status.
In two further articles, we explore personal experiences of class. Associate editor Paul Clinton interviews queer theorist Didier Eribon about Retour à Reims (Return to Reims, 2009), his study of growing up working-class and gay, while in his essay, ‘Know Your Place’, co-editor Dan Fox explores the social and emotional complications of class in the art world. Alongside, a timeline of some of the most significant artworks dealing with class and precarious labour from the past 50 years, raises important questions about who has access not only to the means of production but also to those of self-definition.
is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin, Germany.
Social class has nothing to do with money. It used to in Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, when nobility was strictly defined by the accumulation of wealth and territory. But family conflicts, wars and political upheavals repeatedly altered the distribution of wealth and territory, creating titled nobility bereft of both. Those who had both and did nothing but eat, fight and have sex – and pay others to do intellectual and creative work that flattered their vanity – were ignoble. They disproved the fictive connection between title and virtue: they had high social rank but no class. In this evolution, the American aristocracy now is exactly where one would expect: at roughly the same point as the European aristocracy in 400 CE. History’s lesson of the intrinsically transitory nature of worldly possessions disconnects money from social class. Social class is a function of the social virtues. The more of them you have, the classier you are. Traditionally, the social virtues include tact, sensitivity, diplomacy, courtesy, modesty, wit, intelligence, taste, imagination, dignity, self-respect and self-control as well as moral virtues such as forthrightness, trustworthiness, kindness and integrity. Count Harry Kessler, chronicler of Berlin society in the aftermath of World War I, immediately recognized the nobility of Lance-Corporal Müller through his bearing and conduct. You can cultivate these virtues, but you can’t buy them. Historically, artists have provided the products and tools for developing the social virtues among the powerful: art that inspires belief and instructs behaviour; literature that fires the imagination and opens the intellect; music that awakens the spirit and calls forth the higher emotions. Traditionally, an artist’s job was to ennoble his or her employer to do rather more than merely eat, fight and have sex. But artists’ obligation to themselves is to express nobility rather than confer it.
is an art critic and independent curator based in Mexico City, Mexico.
The subject of race and class consciousness in Mexico, a place where those two issues have been intricately linked since colonial times, still seems to be the elephant in the room. This goes beyond the customary argument (unfortunately still grounded in truth) that those from a privileged position get greater opportunities than those who don’t, even in the supposedly liberal art world. Class and race do not always hold a significant place in Mexico’s artistic conversations. Let us, however, consider those issues not from an institutional or statistical point of view, but by using artworks themselves as a point of departure.
Jill Magid recently presented The Proposal (2016) at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen. The work consists of a diamond ring created from the ashes of architect Luis Barragán, which the artist offered to Federica Zanco, Director of the Barragán Foundation, in exchange for the return of the architect’s archive to Mexico City from its current, inaccessible location beneath the Basel headquarters of the furniture firm Vitra, owned by Zanco’s husband. To produce the diamond, Magid convinced Barragán’s heirs to give her one fourth of his mortal remains. The Proposal triggered all sorts of conservative reactions, including accusations of desecrating the architect’s grave and dismembering his corpse.
Teresa Margolles’s Lengua (Tongue, 2000) presents an interesting parallel to Magid’s work. When Margolles offered to pay the funeral costs for a murdered suburban punk in exchange for his pierced tongue, people chiefly reacted to the fact that the artist then displayed the tongue in one of Mexico City’s main exhibition venues.
While one work involves a luxury item and the other cheap body jewellery, and one transaction was completed while the other is still pending, both artists set up bartering situations in which the objects are for sale. This parallel not only makes visible the financial urgencies of a certain social class, but also draws attention to a rather obvious and sad fact: that some lives and bodies are worth less than others.
is an artist based in Vienna, Austria. She has upcoming solo and group shows at Zabriskie Point, Geneva, Switzerland; Museion, Bolzano, Italy; and Kinman, London, UK.
‘Because you’re envious and you’re mean because of class.’ – The Indelicates, ‘Class’ (2013)
My psychoanalyst is always pleased when we return to ‘class’ – a recurring theme in my sessions for years. (‘Class war again today!’) My working-class mother, who left school at 16, instilled in me a latent hatred of bigwigs and fat cats. (‘You think you’re superior because you’ve been watching too much Beverly Hills, 90210 again!’). This animosity did not exactly facilitate my entry into the art world. Before you know it, you’re sitting next to some wealthy person at dinner, like the scene in Pretty Woman (1990) where Julia Roberts’s character has to be told which fork to use for which course. I live in Vienna, which has its own bubble of privilege, even in comparison to the art world elsewhere: the director of the Albertina, for instance, has an annual salary of €270,000 – close to double the amount earned by the directors of the Louvre (€150,000) or Tate Modern (€120,000). A much-quoted study from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts revealed that roughly one third of students admitted to the art school come from a background with links to the fields of art and culture.
The psychoanalyst Mario Erdheim has described the powerful as those people who cultivate distrust toward the world – a wariness that increases the longer they remain in power. Art that uses drones and surveillance equipment is widespread today and it seems every gallery wants its own Simon Denny; Berlin’s Volksbühne even hosted a livestream event with Julian Assange. I interpret these tendencies as paranoid expressions of an ‘intellectual class’ that feels persecuted on account of its own privilege. The powerful suspect everyone of carrying a hidden dagger: that’s the truth of a paranoid world. It has to be dark and Cronenbergian: driving through World War III in a limousine with some key (information) technology, like the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003). If these practices were not coupled with Foucauldian theories of state surveillance from the 1970s – all the more popular for resembling this narcissistic paranoia – it might be mistaken for kitsch. The upper class of the art world is made up of people able to portray their own privilege as social critique. Cameras everywhere! And they’re pointing at me!
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
is an artist and curator based in Beijing, China. He is a contributing editor of frieze.
There has been a major shift in the financial demographics of the Chinese art world during the past five years or so. China’s second generation of wealthy people are changing the kind of art being collected. These are mostly internationally educated, art-world savvy individuals who increasingly conform to Western norms. On the other side of the income spectrum, things have been changing in similar ways, with mixed results. Artists born in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s came from diverse social backgrounds, often from working-class families. However, newer generations of artists are increasingly likely to come from wealthy families who can afford to send their children to study in London or New York. These well-off families have largely given up the traditional prejudice against girls in a one-child family scenario, resulting in a significant increase in the number of practicing women artists in the past few years. However, these new artists, like the collectors, are more sensitive to how the art world works. The trend uniting the tastes and attitudes of both artists and collectors will very likely result in a style of art being produced and consumed in China that is increasingly synchronized with Western art-world sensibilities, despite its utterly different context.
is an artist and contributing editor of frieze.
Fierce skirmishes rage across the line that separates the anti-intellectual from the anti-bullshit. Think back, for instance, to ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, the notorious paper that New York University physics professor Alan Sokal published in the journal Social Text in 1996. It was total bullshit, written for the express purpose of testing the academy’s tolerance for it. While hilarious, his spoof of postmodern critical theory was accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and bolstering conservative indictments of university humanities courses. Similarly, in 2012, the art world was abuzz with chatter about David Levine and Alex Rule’s article, ‘International Art English’ (IAE), a statistics-driven take-down of the ludicrous language of the art press release, which was published in the online magazine Triple Canopy. It, too, was hilarious, yet criticized for taking potshots at what is essentially advertising copy written under duress by badly paid employees: a poor representation of the true work of theory.
These debates are about language and types of intellectual inquiry. Tacitly, though, they are also about class. Plain-speech advocacy is often taken as a criticism of the complexity, subtlety and uncertainty inherent in truly ambitious thought, conflated with politically conservative demands for ‘common sense’. But attacks on the highfalutin, language of ivory-tower mandarins and art-world bloviators are also a result of class antagonism, mirrored on the flipside in the disdain that some in academia and the art world exhibit for those who desire clarity, certainty and purpose.
In the academy, this tension has only increased since Sokal’s day, owing both to the breathtaking heights to which university tuition fees have climbed and the broader spike in economic inequality. Baroque language gets instrumentalized on both sides. It’s assailed by anti-intellectuals in order to demonize the middle-class intellectual population, which deflects attention away from the real power brokers and shapers of capitalism (the MBAs and others in the academic business class), but it’s also used by an academic precariate as a way to justify the preservation of their positions and, by extension, to prove that students are getting their money’s worth. It is a debate which transcends the specifics of the work of theory and points to wider structural issues in the academy and the world at large.
Similarly, the art world’s use of baroque language is indicative of systemic problems that extend beyond laughable, pretentious writing. Artist Martha Rosler, in her 2013 critique of IAE published in e-flux journal, makes the case that filigreed press-release language is mere decoration, equivalent to the adjectival salads found on menus in mid-range Brooklyn restaurants. Undeniably, the receding power of the critic – stemming from the gravitational pull of the market and the rise of the professional curatorial class – has left the landscape barnacled with formerly meaningful terms that now exist only in the service of capital. (Work always seems to be ‘radical’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘subversive’, but I can’t recall the last Molotov cocktail I saw thrown at an art opening: the cocktails are usually the province of the drinks sponsor.) Consequently, this language functions not only to decorate but also to exclude all except the very privileged, who possess stores of actual or cultural capital. It is a smokescreen that cloaks a part of the art world which has increasingly become a roving global party for the uber-wealthy. When we write, we must keep this in mind.
is the author of Estates: An Intimate History (Granta, 2007) and Respectable: The Experience of Class (Penguin, 2016). She is a visiting research fellow in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, and an honorary researcher in sociology at Lancaster University, UK.
The novelist Zadie Smith once said that growing up on a council estate in north-west London meant she had ‘zero sense of entitlement’ in terms of what she imagined she might achieve in life, but also no sense of limit. If becoming a doctor or a lawyer seems hardly feasible, you may as well reach for the stars and aim to become a paid-up member of the leisured class. I feel much the same way. Growing up on a Birmingham council estate, I felt unburdened by the expectation that I might enter the professions because I barely knew what they were and, in a way, this made it easier to aspire to something completely ridiculous, such as becoming a full-time writer. Smith and I were born in the UK during the mid-1970s and therefore received an almost entirely free education up to the age of 21. My worry is that it now takes an even greater degree of bloody-mindedness for anyone from a working-class background to do the thing that they really want to do, and for a career in the arts or media this means risking decades of severe indebtedness while competing with people of the same age who have no debts and a wealth of connections, not to mention a sense of entitlement. Feeling as though you’re not entitled or qualified to take part in the rarefied worlds of art and literature is something people from less likely backgrounds have always had to contend with, but it’s only in the last few years that they have also had to work in the knowledge that their class disadvantage is being compounded by a steep and growing financial penalty.
is an artist living and working in Los Angeles, USA, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In 2017, Mellors, with Erkka Nissinen, will represent Finland at the 57th Venice Biennale, Italy.
Ay-up, duck. I thought I could write something about class but now I’m not too sure. It’s too big and too personal. My art checklist reads: absurdism, the grotesque, language, technologies and – even more nebulous and oppressive – ‘power’. Power: the fat-jellied air that binds us. I never foregrounded class because of its tendency to exert power – to brand, in both senses of the word. You must be formatted, compartmentalized, legible, consumable. But now I’ve been asked to reflect on class, I’m coming apart, mate. I’ve worked hard not to be properly explained. Can I tell you something without telling you anything? My film, The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview (2014) = posh man finds original not-posh-man. North ≠ South. It’s loss without gain: if you have crossed class boundaries, you never really feel a sense of belonging in either place. Dis-placement. Mis-placement. Trans-class movement. Amsterdam to Los Angeles, awake in-flight – from Spinozan refuge to dried-out skid-mark. Wind-swept, sun-baked, crackers.
I don’t even like socially motivated art, mate. Or those that make a career out of fetishizing working-class identity – and I’m not talking about Nigel Far-age. They are all from the same school: guardians of consensus. Management politics proliferate in teaching and culture. New Labour arts professionals. Petrifiying administrators. But being working class is not an archival option. Where does the anger come from, Mellors? Doncaster, Long Eton, Bilborough, Maidstone, Tonbridge? Go back 25 years: ‘Nathaniel, if you do art, you will be throwing your future away.’ Today? ‘You’re doing alright, so shut-up.’ Back in the box. Dead relatives say: ‘All these personal things should be hidden. It’s why we burnt Uncle Lionel’s war diary. Class? I ain’t got owt.’ But no history = no future, no power. Construction over deconstruction because you had nothing to begin with. Class dynamism: from one side, a diaphanous veil; from the other, the Berlin Wall. My video Neanderthal Container (2014): fart jokes, class-anxiety, paroxysm of self-loathing, a suite of aphoristic ticks. The unexpressed, unvoiced, unseen. I have to write this from inside the hole or be stuck in the polite apprehension of the thing. Not to describe but to be, to show. This subject objects. Politesse. Politics. Policing.
Everything I cared about has been eaten by the cannibal bourgeoisie. Their doughnut-shaped universe, a super-massive black hole. The flux between the custodians and the custodial class: symbiosis. Confessions of a crap artist: there is no trickle-down, apart from liquid shit. Love, of course, is the answer. Love, transformative magic and laughter. Subjectivity has been managed out of art; its return faked next year. The toad-ball of ownership again. Everything I cared about eaten, twice. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975) is not a metaphor. Do not talk about the sub-proletariat: describe the polished egg of consensus instead. Class, what? The professional class? Fuck off. The worst thing an artist can do is try and have ‘a career’. Class, duck? Don’t mind if I don’t.
First published in Issue 183