Why can't we talk about class and art in Canada?

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ikosmos ikosmos's picture
Why can't we talk about class and art in Canada?

Here's a very good short piece by a Canadian about the fiction of the art world as somehow immune from the effects of social class and, ultimately, class conflict. My only quibble is that for this Marxist, such claims are obvious. They still need to be said.

Feel free to argue the point, babblers.

RM Vaughan wrote:
Canadian art desperately needs to have a conversation about the role of class in art production. We will not be able to do so if the first instigators of that conversation are shut down and ostracized because they have not taken a baby-steps, academic approach. The pot won’t stir itself, but the muck inside sure does congeal.

The author makes a few preliminary and important remarks.

Vaughan wrote:
Let’s begin by disabusing ourselves of some core fantasies. The first being that Art, like Love or Nature or any generalized conceit, exists outside of the base exchange of cash. Art is not free nor has it ever set anybody free.... Enough already, nothing is free. Grow up.

Secondly, Vaughan puts the lie to the claim that Canada is somehow a meritocracy.

Quote:
The second misapprehension, and the more important to this discussion, is that Canada is a society organized by merit, especially as applied to the arts. How is it that Canadians believe this, and become furious when the lie is put to truth, but know in every other sector of society, merit is, at best, the ribbon on the gift box?

"We know in Canada, and have no end of discussions about such, that class affects everything from access to education and health care to body size and employment opportunities – and yet, when a class analysis of any kind is applied to the trade and currencies of the artworld, suddenly ours is a “merit driven” society."

So the key question the author raises is this:

Quote:
Having money or not having money divides people as rudely, categorically, and with the same dagger-like precision as does race, gender, or sexuality, to name but a few of power’s too many targets. To put it plainly, if there’s a tick box for your gender/ethnic/racial status, why is there not one for your economic status?

"And yet, we can’t talk about class in the arts without everyone freaking out and acting as if art is too holy to be about money. Nor can we state the obvious: if you are born into money, your art career will in all likelihood unfold at a very different pace than that of a contemporary not born into money, because, of course, you don’t have to work at anything but your art."

Bingo. These critical remarks also apply to many art-like activities in social life as well.

Quote:
...the arts in Canada remain (almost to the exclusion of all others) for consumption by (and, as is the nature of self-feeding circles, the production by) the very same class who built the allegedly open systems in the first place.

The great “art for everybody” project failed.

A good read even if the author only asserts some rather obvious truths. Such truths aren't, in fact, as obvious as they should be, and dis-illusioning people about class conflict is doing them, and everyone else, a favour.

Why Can’t We Talk About Class and Art in Canada?

Issues Pages: 
Slumberjack

lagatta

I'll read it, though I'm sure it has been discussed before; certainly here in Québec and doubtless elsewhere.

6079_Smith_W

Interesting, though it is from within the bubble of a false premise: an artistic ideal of "gallery-worthy" art made by well-dressed people that is ultimately fodder for high-rolling investors to make money off of. Seeing the problem as simply evening the playing field so more people are allowed into THAT art system ignores the fact that is not the only art world there is. There is plenty of art which will never be what some consider "gallery-worthy" because that is not its purpose.

 

Pondering

I agree with Smith and add that it is human nature for "classes" of people to congregate not some evil plot. To defeat income inequality that must be acknowledged not as a prejudice but as natural human behavior that occurs at every class level.

 

Timebandit

Bah and humbug.  The whole thing is rife with false premise, as anyone who has much to do with the art world would know.  I don't know who he's arguing with, but he sounds as out of touch as his straw man.

In my experience, class has been a subject of conversation in the art world for decades. The rant comes off more as sour grapes than any kind of constructive criticism and yet at the same time a sort of schadenfreude-laden comment on what he sees as a failure of our systems of funding to achieve a goal that his straw man might have wanted to achieve (I'm not certain it was ever the goal to have art for all and free of charge - certainly, public art is not all art and never has been, but not sure what his beef is, unless he's had a few too many unsuccessful Canada Council applications.)

lagatta

I found an article in the Québec review "Parti Pris" from what, 1967?, on that exact topic. The article struck me as strange, as it has been an ongoing topic for decades in many countries and cultures.

And it will never be an easy nut to crack as long as there are class, gender and racial divides an inequalities.

Luc Racine, Michel Pichette,
Narciso Pizarro et Gilles Bourque

(1967)

“Production culturelle et classes sociales au Québec.”

Un document produit en version numérique par Jean-Marie Tremblay, bénévole,

professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi

Courriel: jean-marie_tremblay@uqac.ca

Site web pédagogique : http://www.uqac.ca/jmt-sociologue/

 

Dans le cadre de: "Les classiques des sciences sociales"

Une bibliothèque numérique fondée et dirigée par Jean-Marie Tremblay,

professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi
Site web: http://classiques.uqac.ca/

 

Une collection développée en collaboration avec la Bibliothèque

Paul-Émile-Boulet de l'Université du Québec à Chicoutimi

Site web: http://bibliotheque.uqac.ca/

 

 

 

6079_Smith_W

Timebandit wrote:

In my experience, class has been a subject of conversation in the art world for decades.

When one talks and talks without doing, one generally winds up talking for a very long time.

Not to mention that it is not the only willful blind spot in the art world.

 

 

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

hmm. We have liftoff, Major Tom. Debate, I mean.

I can't say that I'm particularly knowledgeable, or, I must confess, interested, in some branches of the arts. One domain that really appeals to me is film. Film, the movies, TV, videos, etc., is the transmission belt of our particular (bourgeois) culture. It matters. And in this domain, the author's thesis is, I think, quite correct. The denial of social class and the denial of class conflict is, well, ubiquitous.

Anyway, have at it. Maybe I'm not following things all that closely, but it seems to me that in the skdadl era we had more of these sorts of debates.

Timebandit

6079_Smith_W wrote:

Timebandit wrote:

In my experience, class has been a subject of conversation in the art world for decades.

When one talks and talks without doing, one generally winds up talking for a very long time.

Not to mention that it is not the only willful blind spot in the art world.

 

 


While I don't think the issue (issues? There are intersections of race and gender here as well) are solved, I reject the idea that nothing has been done. I'd like to see faster progress, but there have been a variety of attempts to make access to funding more open.

Timebandit

ikosmos wrote:

hmm. We have liftoff, Major Tom. Debate, I mean.

I can't say that I'm particularly knowledgeable, or, I must confess, interested, in some branches of the arts. One domain that really appeals to me is film. Film, the movies, TV, videos, etc., is the transmission belt of our particular (bourgeois) culture. It matters. And in this domain, the author's thesis is, I think, quite correct. The denial of social class and the denial of class conflict is, well, ubiquitous.

Anyway, have at it. Maybe I'm not following things all that closely, but it seems to me that in the skdadl era we had more of these sorts of debates.


I'm a filmmaker, so I know quite a bit about that segment of the arts, actually. I don't think he quite has it. But at the moment, I'm too beat to reply substantively. Maybe another day.

Slumberjack

Satisifactory definitions as to what art actually is are hard to come by.  It seems problematic to discuss art without knowing what constitutes it, or without acknowleging that aesthetic productions may or may not constitute art, which largely depends on the intentions of the artist in the creation.  Does the 'artist' merely contribute to the general aesthetic of society in the Schopenhaurerian sense of constituting an already contrived world as representation being reflected back upon itself.  Or does art need to say something more than that to be worthy of the name?

6079_Smith_W

Timebandit wrote:

 While I don't think the issue (issues? There are intersections of race and gender here as well) are solved, I reject the idea that nothing has been done. I'd like to see faster progress, but there have been a variety of attempts to make access to funding more open.

I know. I was talking specifically about those who talk without action, or without bothering to notice those who are challenging or rejecting elitist systems, or the ways in which they themselves are part of those systems. That reinvention of the wheel is perennial.

And this author, as well-intentioned (and naive, since it isn't the nice good-hearted elites we need to worry about, but rather those ipeople who do hoard and exclude, and there are plenty) seems to be coming from that perspective.

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

Pondering wrote:
I agree with Smith and add that it is human nature for "classes" of people to congregate not some evil plot. To defeat income inequality that must be acknowledged not as a prejudice but as natural human behavior that occurs at every class level.

 

If you're putting scare quotes around "classes"  , noting "income inequality" like some liberal sociologist alergic to more critical thinking, and making reference to "human nature" rather than the social arrangments that generate social classes, then you don't really accept the premise of the existence or the importance of class in social life, do you?

But then why join the conversation?

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

Let's be clear. It's one thing to claim that social class explains everything - including my uncle Fred's ugly tie - but the claim that social class is still a fulcrum of social life that, while certainly not explaining everything, cannot be excluded from the essential toolkit of social understanding (and therefore social change, which should be important to "progressives") without undermining any comprehensive understanding of social life altgether is still critically important. These two should not be conflated.

Mr. Magoo

I can't help thinking of Banksy.

Didn't he become famous for making art that was accessible to anyone, and that didn't seek to reinforce inequalities and social stupidities, but rather to point them out, and lampoon them?

And didn't he do this with about five bucks worth of spray paint, and a stencil, and an idea?

This article seems to suggest (perhaps correctly) that you need to start out rich in order to become a rich artist.  I would imagine lots of artists could tell you the same.  Wanna become a millionaire artist?  Start as a billionaire.

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

Barbara Eirenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed, wrote a recent piece in which she pointed out that only rich people, mostly, are able to write about poverty. The poor are too busy surviving. Eirenreich wrote the above mentioned book about how the poor in Merrica are ripped off at every turn. She's now rich enough, with the royalties from that book, to do what she wants. Good on her for wanting to continue to write about poverty in the USA. But she also points out, articles about poverty don't look good next to ads for diamonds and cars. So they don't appear. And the well off mostly don't know shit about being poor anyway, so they get plenty just wrong.

 

Given our current barbaric society, art should probably inspire revolution. But who pays for such art? Perhaps this all connects to previous discussion here. Perhaps not.

6079_Smith_W
Maysie Maysie's picture

Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts just turned 30. Just sayin.

Quote:
 

Mayworks’ artistic vision is specifically guided by our equity policy that recognizes the systemic discrimination and injustices faced by equity-seeking groups, and designates women, First Nations people, people of colour and queer-identified people as being disadvantaged in our society.

To that end, our artistic vision actively seeks to allow for representation of these designated groups both as audiences and artists, and in the type of programming we do. We are also guided by a desire to provide programming that will engage new, non-arts audiences, and that will challenge euro-centric notions of art.

Furthermore, Mayworks' artistic vision is to showcase high caliber art and artists that are politically and socially engaged and that would otherwise not have a venue for their work.

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

claps approvingly.

Slumberjack

Locating Claire Fontaine

Quote:
While Claire Fontaine’s texts and interviews tell us that for her, the largest grievances lie in the conditions of late capitalism, she struggles to assert art’s ability to cause revolution. She states, “from the moment that consumption became an unavoidable aspect of the constitution of our life forms, we lost the hope the avant-gardes had of using art as a means of liberating life.” This state of resignation can be compared with the German born, Jewish artist Charlotte Posenenske who grew up during World War II. Posenenske stopped making work in 1968 when she was no longer able to justify art’s capacity to create social change or draw attention to human injustices and social inequalities. Instead, she became a social worker until her death in 1985 and had no interest in art during that time. Claire Fontaine takes this a step further. Not only has she surrendered to believing in art’s capacity for political change, but the collective is resigned to live in accordance with their beliefs and claims: “it’s not easy to designate the enemy because that’s also part of who we are, due to our complicity in the system that produces us as subjects.” In fact, if their own beliefs weren’t first compromised, they may have followed in Posenenske’s footsteps, claiming, “if we could get down to changing this state of things we wouldn’t make art”.  Again, why then, are Claire Fontaine’s assistants still making work, still showing in galleries, museums, and biennials? While she reacts from a place “of political impotency” she began making art from “a space of immediacy, where (she) stopped pondering the pros and cons… (she) created a field of formal intervention…an immaterial space of communism.” In other words, only through her complete surrender to reality, was a space for a political voice created.

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

By making judgements on life, [the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the ridiculous, as well as judgements about what is the good life - social activity or consumerist couch potato-ism, etc.] art teaches us how to live and is perfectly suitable for motivating people, giving them hope, providing models to emulate, and energizing them into action. That it gets turned into a commodity, just like everything else under the domain of capital, is not a valid criticism of art but an implicit condemnation of capital's spiritual impoverishment.

I'm not buying the argument that art is pointless under the sway of capital. Some 20th century poets said the same thing; after Auschwtiz and the Holocaust, how can there be poetry? etc.Yet there are still good poets - including ones plenty partisan and inspiring for social change, eg, Canadian Lillian Allen, and plenty of others.

We have to use all the weapons at our disposal. The other side sure as shit does, and ugly ones too.

6079_Smith_W

I think the magic circle of communism is a cute idea, if that is what it takes to get her up and working.

On the other hand, if it is a choice between this:

and this:

I am definitely with Andy's approach

And I don't know if it is any more accurate, or any better, to reduce art to a tool or weapon than a commodity.

At least as a commodity, there is some recognition that artists do real work that deserves to be paid for; I wouldn't be too concerned about the question of whether art has a purpose in making people think or feel. There are enough people trying to destroy it and kill artists that the answer should be obvious.

 

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

Well, that's one way to address meaning in art. Simply abandon the effort.

How is this any different from the odious bourgeois doctrine of "art for art's sake" that functions as an antidote to socially invested and concerned art? Contempt for weapons is also contempt for struggle that sometimes comes down to weapons of one kind or another. Even if those weapons are only pen and ink, or the human voice, or ...

Mr. Magoo

This is such a funny discussion.  As though all of art must be either:

a) dogs playing poker, painted on black velvet, for the banal adornment of rec-rooms

b) a common brick, which sells at auction for $100M because some "famous artist" chipped a corner off

c) a tool in service of the state, or of some political idea

6079_Smith_W

Except Warhol didn't say make art that has no meaning.

He said don't get all meta analytical, or get distracted by what people are going to think about it. Focus on the work.

If you aren't fighting for the freedom for people to also make art which isn't one of your tools or weapons, then what are you fighting for? Though if you think I believe all art is for art's sake (which is a valid concept, and not as bourgeois as you think it is) you might want to re-read my last sentence.

But as often as not it isn't propagandist art that challenges those in power; many of the important art battles have concerned dirty words, dirty pictures, or people just having fun or being free.

Those who demand others fall in line with their ideas are just as threatened by those who express that freedom as they are by those who openly attack them.

 

Slumberjack

ikosmos wrote:

By making judgements on life, [the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the ridiculous, as well as judgements about what is the good life - social activity or consumerist couch potato-ism, etc.] art teaches us how to live and is perfectly suitable for motivating people, giving them hope, providing models to emulate, and energizing them into action. That it gets turned into a commodity, just like everything else under the domain of capital, is not a valid criticism of art but an implicit condemnation of capital's spiritual impoverishment.

I'm not buying the argument that art is pointless under the sway of capital. Some 20th century poets said the same thing; after Auschwtiz and the Holocaust, how can there be poetry? etc.Yet there are still good poets - including ones plenty partisan and inspiring for social change, eg, Canadian Lillian Allen, and plenty of others.

We have to use all the weapons at our disposal. The other side sure as shit does, and ugly ones too.

I don't know if Art 'teaches.' Maybe the artist teaches and we might derive something from the work.  That art isn't ultimately pointless is what the Claire Fontaine piece attempted to argue.

Slumberjack

Mr. Magoo wrote:

This is such a funny discussion.  As though all of art must be either:

a) dogs playing poker, painted on black velvet, for the banal adornment of rec-rooms

b) a common brick, which sells at auction for $100M because some "famous artist" chipped a corner off

c) a tool in service of the state, or of some political idea

Because people generally have nothing close to an original concept of what art is, art becomes whatever the commodity designates as art, which is often a whole lot of meaninglessness, ie; no meaning beyond the aesthetic effect of the object in question.  When you provide for the subjective view in the representation of art it ultimately means nothing specific.  A complete idiot can spash paint on a wall and sell it in a gallery.  To attempt an assessment of what the artistic practice consists of is more of a gleaning as it were.  Plenty of things are held out as being art, but if we'd like to see for ourselves that seems reasonable to me.

6079_Smith_W

Slumberjack wrote:

A complete idiot can spash paint on a wall and sell it in a gallery. 

Well.... that "my grandkid could paint that" only goes so far, and more often than not comes down to an artist making something look easy which actually is not.

Anyone can paint a wall too; not everyone is Mark Rothko. And far from associating non-standard art with commodity, he was far more hard line about NOT doing that.

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/dec/07/artsfeatures

The other thing is if we want to talk about artists cranking out cookie cutter art, it wasn't someone like Jackson Pollock who was the poster boy for that, it was Pablo Picasso.

Not to say Picasso was a greater artist; but we assume so because his style is, relatively speaking, less out there than Pollock. And we assume splashing paint is easy because, well, anyone can do it.

 

 

Mr. Magoo

To be fair, any idiot can splash paint on a wall and have a small chance of selling it in a gallery.

As I recall, people have tried various social experiments using paintings done by primates (and even elephants, IIRC) that suggest as much.

But I don't see that as proof that all art is a scam or a sham.  I think it just points to the fluidity of what we collectively and individually consider art.  And I'd rather it be that way than invent some sort of infallible "Art-o-meter" which, when pointed at something, will tell us all definitively whether that something is or is not art.

Timebandit

A rebuttal to "To be fair, any idiot can splash paint on a wall and have a small chance of selling it in a gallery."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67EKAIY43kg

I've always thought variations on the above were facile and arrogant claims.

Timebandit

Art can be a variety of different things. The only thing art does pretty much across the board is communicate. Whether it teaches or not, whether the communication is sublime or banal, whether it's just pretty or philosophical or political comes as much from the person/audience experiencing the art as it does from the artist.

You begin with an intention, but at some point must release the work - at this point it is no longer yours, and people will read into it a fraction of your intention with the rest of the interpretation their own.

Mr. Magoo

Quote:
I've always thought variations on the above were facile and arrogant claims.

I'll stand behind mine, simply because a gallery doesn't own an Art-o-meter, and a potential buyer doesn't own an Art-o-meter.  I'm not saying it happens all the time or anything, but I'm not sure what could otherwise prevent it with certainty either.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.

And for what it's worth, as a photography student and a person, there's a lot that I've always found very fascinating about art, and how we relate to it (including, but not limited to, what gets defined as art, what gives art a financial value, what gives art a cultural value, and of course the precise location of the boundary between "high brow" and "low brow" art).

Here's a few "art" things that have always fascinated me.

1.  many art forgeries go undetected for years, even by art experts.  While the forgery is still assumed to be an authentic Picasso, it's worth millions.  If it's shown to be the work of a copycat, it's worth thousands.  The work itself remains the same.  Simlarly, if a work is assumed to be an "undiscovered" Van Gogh, it's priceless.  If it's determined to be the work of someone else, well, it's definitely not priceless.  Again, the actual work itself remains unchanged.

2.  when photography was first invented, painters decried it as a populist hobby, not art.  It took photographers many years to establish the black-and-white photo as legitimate art.  But when colour print film became popular in the 60's and 70's, black-and-white art photographers promptly decried it as a populist hobby.  After many more years, colour photography is considered art, but photographers who use analog film are currently pulling the same thing with digital photography.

3.  as I alluded to above, various animals have been shown how to paint, and been given canvases.  And if I recall correctly, some of their works have been successfully passed off as human work of some modest merit.  Is this because elephants have the souls of artists, or is it because there's no Art-o-meter?  Similar to #1 above, do their works become meaningless crap if it's revealed that they were painted by an animal?

4.  why does art made by people who are famous (or infamous) for something other than art have a special value?  Why is some casual doodle by John Lennon worthy, while a casual doodle by John Nobody is just a doodle?  My favourite -- though admittedly morbid -- example of this is the trite-but-proficient clown paintings made by serial killer John Wayne Gacy.  Or else maybe the tiny grey mouse that Winston Churchill is purported to have painted into the bottom corner of one of the Old Masters paintings hanging in his official residence.

FWIW, my personal favourite genres of art are Conceptual Art, and Naive Art.  :)

6079_Smith_W

Or Picasso's doodles (and some of them really were).

I agree, Magoo, but I think those examples speak more to art being assessed based on popularity and commercial value. Though yes, there is some high-priced art which is crap in my opinion.

The "I could do that" thing (which I know you were qualifying) is something else again. Or another version of it, to touch on your photo example: "You must have a great camera".

(though there is some backwards truth in it, when you consider that some artists, like Stanley Kubrick, invented the tools that allowed them to do that magical stuff)

Great video, TB. And even in the case of art that people are less likely to turn their noses up at, knowing the real backstory makes it that much greater: