Art & Social Class

For a class field trip, we went to the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Museum. To be perfectly honest, I did not spend all of the allotted museum time in the actual museum. I love cities, and had never been to Cincinnati, so I spent about 45 minutes walking around the vicinity of the museum. I learned more from that walk than the rest of the time spent in the museum. The main reason is because, I was more open to it.

I’ve never been a fan of museums, particularly ones you have to pay for. It’s a class thing. Just as “contemporary” art is. It’s amazing to me, how “liberal” such museums are, and yet the language (by language I don’t necessarily mean verbal/spoken) is so incredibly bourgeois, to the point of alienating anyone who isn’t.

I feel I can say this with a certain amount of authority. With my mostly-lower-class background, I came to Antioch and was propelled so quickly to the middle class I’m still reeling from the transition (and probably always will be, to some degree or another). That said, socially/culturally I straddle the line between the classes. I identify with both and also get infinitely frustrated with my alienation- often self-induced- from both. My level of tolerance of the bourgeoisie is cyclical; currently, I am in a very intolerant phase.

In one of our recent readings for the class, a comparison of museums and their visitors by social class was studied. It was said that many lower-class participants equated museums with churches. For myself, I extend this equation to include really nice (read: middle- and upper-class) houses. How I feel in really nice houses is the same as I feel in museums (and churches). I get extremely uncomfortable and spend all of my time trying to figure out how to avoid touching anything or messing up the floor with my dirty shoes (or socks, if they make me take off the former). I just want to stand (not sit! god forbid) perfectly still and not offend anyone with my class status, which is always so much more salient to myself and others in such situations.

It’s not just a personal thing. My leftist and often class-oriented political beliefs complement this. One of my favorite pet peeves is education/access privilege and how much its very existence ignored, even by the most- yes- educated of people. Even if every museum was free, it’s not just economics that defines the classes (which shocks the hell out of a lot of people). It’s about culture, it’s about that value things are given, it’s about luxury. It is about where people personally feel comfortable. It’s about the level education to understand art- the assumption that one will be able to interpret abstract art (or be able to take the time to, or want to take the time to, or think it’s worth their time). It’s about feeling inferior when one doesn’t understand said abstract art.

That’s how I feel in museums, when faced with abstract art- or even theatre, which at this point in my education I feel I should understand better. I can talk the rhetoric much more than I actually understand it. And particularly during times of low tolerance, my defense mechanism turns on quickly and completely by itself. I don’t like feeling like an idiot. I don’t like feeling uneducated. I don’t like feeling “less than”.

And I know, rationally, that that’s not what it’s about. Especially with the education that I have gained in the past two years at Antioch, I know exactly where all this is coming from. I know that society is structured in a way to make the lower classes feel inferior to the middle and upper classes, and to blame themselves for their class status. I know that, because I’ve lived it. Now that I “know better”, most of the time I can handle it better. But- again- low tolerance- I get defensive: old habits die hard, and I know that my knowledge of all this is a direct result of my newly-acquired education/access privilege. And so, therefore, I have a lot of catching up to do. And, no matter how educated I become, I will (hopefully) never lose sight of my background, how much I struggled and struggle to get to where I am and where I’m going, how much my self-worth (or lack thereof) was defined by society and annoying bourgeois people I came across.

This all does have a point, in direct relation to the class. After the trip to the museum, I am that much more determined to create art- in whatever form I choose- FOR THE PEOPLE. And by FOR THE PEOPLE, I actually mean FOR THE PEOPLE. Not some middle-class liberal (Bourgeois Bohemian) version of FOR THE PEOPLE, which means for middle-class liberals. I would like to teach- or at least share- with my creativity, but in a way that doesn’t make people feel like shit because they don’t get it. As wretchedly bourgeois as I continue to become, I never want to lose sight of that. I never want to lose sight of my roots.

One idea for this is to change the commonly accepted notion of what art is, and of who can make it. The paradox of “art can be done by everyone” and yet “skill is required to communicate effectively” needs to be wiped out. It shouldn’t be about that. It should be personalized to the point of it being politicized. It should be about communicating one’s worldview in a way that people not from that worldview can understand and identify with it in some basic, base, human way. And that doesn’t have to require a college education and other such bourgeois training and experience. It requires little more than people from different worldviews talking with each other enough to be able to express across worldviews. Across class boundaries. Across socially constructed boundaries.

What might this look like? Why, a carnival, of course.

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