Real Talk

How Are Artists Implicated in the Class Divide?

Steven Earl Weber, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

We are squirming under the thumb of an economically and racially oppressive system headed by a horrible orange monster. Anyone who cares about their fellow human being is devastated. Chances are you already know about or are starting to be aware of the massive inequalities all around us in this country. Perhaps you’re living it every day. Race, gender, economic, you name it. They are all connected to the class divide. The city of Philadelphia is still segregated. According to census data, many of us still live in neighborhoods where a single racial group represents 75 percent or more of the population. In our country, 1% of the population holds 90% of the wealth. Our healthcare is in constant jeopardy. We have always lived in a system that punishes the poor, rewards the rich, and blames “the other” for society’s ills.

What is the artist’s role in inequality in America? Because we in the art world are responsible for noticing, learning, reflecting, and presenting the world through visual language, we play a key role in cultivating important conversations like these. The time period in American history that best illustrates the artist’s relationship with inequity and the uber wealthy is the Gilded Age. This was a time when a small quantity of wealthy families (the Rockefellers and Carnegies, for example) made large sums of money by exploiting the labor of African American and new immigrant laborers. The wealth disparity would have been visually striking at this time, with workers living in tenements and the elite living in the enormous mansions on the horizon. Artists and craftspeople made those mansions the iconic monuments to the broken ideology of the American dream. We gilded their foyers, painted their silk wallpaper, carved their cornices, and painted their portraits. The artists and the robber barons of yesteryear are intertwined because without artistry, no one would want to visit mansions (today, they’re all museums).

This is not to say that those artists were wrong for making a living wage. In fact, it’s a testament to our power as creators. From unassuming materials, we can make history. We have historically worked for the wealthy, giving them the trophies they need to display their social class. These American mansions represent a longer history of systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property to further the social standing of a few. They also represent the time period when Americans started worshiping the lifestyles of the rich, a symptom of a deeply flawed value system we are still saddled with today (*cough* Trump *cough*).

Art’s relationship with the wealthy elite during the Gilded Age also directly relates to the classist stigma in the arts. Jessie Clark and I started Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) because we saw a need for exhibitions that are relevant and accessible to all people (outside the echo chamber). We saw this need because too many people feel that art galleries and museums feel sterile and uninviting (terms like highbrow and lowbrow refer directly to class). If you come from a working class family and are an artist, you know this stigma. We need heady, conceptual, art historically-self referential and philosophically geared exhibitions. We also need cookouts that double as a video art and independent film screening (Dinner and a Movie) and everything in between. You shouldn’t need a college degree to be invited to view artwork, but often, that’s how it feels.

An integral element of the solution to this classist stigma is to provide more opportunities to connect artists, curators, and art institutions with geographic communities without contributing to gentrification. Art spaces have the ability to connect communitie with art and artists. Unfortunately, permanent art spaces and institutions are often used by developers to spark real-estate investment and then gentrification by enticing a demographic of higher income people into neighborhoods to increase property value and thereby initiating the gentrification process, evicting the people of lower income, artists included! According to an Artnews article on the top 200 art collectors in the world, nearly 60% of the list consists of mostly white heterosexual couples or white males a vast majority of whom work in either the investment or consumer industry and likely are purchasing art just as they would purchase stock for trade or sales.

This is who drives the art market and this is the kind of demographic developers are shooting for when they gentrify. They may decide the monetary value of art, but they don’t get to decide its actual value: what art is for and who gets to be impacted by it.

More Stately Mansions, an exhibition and zine I’ve curated which opens at Kitchen Table Gallery on August 6th, provides the opportunity for discussion among artists and art viewers regarding these issues and stigmas that affect us all. Discussion, visual and verbal, inches us toward common ground through the most effective tool for communication and culture building, the arts.

My intention with CHER and the More Stately Mansions is to simply provide an avenue of discourse outside of the existing institutions and among a larger variety of people. I do not pretend to know any clear solution to the long-standing, complex, and deeply rooted problems we face with inequality in American society. I simply wish to take my small set of skills and do what I can with them. I am an artist and a teacher, I am always going to look to engaging in open communication in troubled times as a means of forming vital connections and empathising with what other people feel and think. This is the overarching purpose of the More Stately Mansions exhibition.

The title of this exhibition is an intentional homage to two famous works. The first is the Aaron Douglas painting, Building More Stately Mansions, which links the labor history of African American men and women with the foundation of great civilizations. The painting celebrates their artistic and intellectual contributions to society despite the perpetual imbalance of power throughout history. The second is The Chambered Nautilus, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. that uses the imagery of the mansion to represent the “self” and the nautilus as a noble creature that symbolizes continual growth and therefore continual re-building of the “self.” The final stanza reads:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,

As the swift seasons roll!

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

Till thou at length art free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

(Holmes, Sr. 5. 1-7)

These two works are a jumping off point for two ideas. First, The United States owes their iconic structures, infrastructure, and heritage to the contributions of people who had little to no power in an imbalanced power structure just as many of the wealthy elite, particularly of the Gilded Age, owe their station in life to this same power structure. Second, those of us who create have an uncanny ability to create “something from nothing”. Since the nature of art making requires constant self examination and evolution of skill and concept, we are in many respects, a symbol for perpetual grown just as the nautilus is for Holmes.

In response to the discussion of the class divide that has been at the forefront of political debate, More Stately Mansions will harken back to a historical symbol of wealth inequality, the gilded age of the 1800s and 1900s. This was a time when great American mansions were built, largely on the backs of slave, non unionized, and/or new immigrant laborers. These mansions have continued to be glorified and highly valued in today’s society as beacons of the American Dream. Visitors pay admission to view their lavish interiors with guided tours that glaze over the subservient work and slave labor it took to create said building. The American mansion represents a systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property. Asking artists to transform the gallery space into a rendition of these iconic structures is a way of investigating the artist’s role in the class divide, the role of the class divide in the exclusionary stigma in the arts, and the unspoken elements of the value system in the American dream as represented by these places.

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