Interrogating Context: Art. Education. Social Class.

“We believe, don’t we, that art is for everyone? That just as you shouldn’t be denied good healthcare because you’ve got less money, you shouldn’t be able to experience better art because you’re rich. Art is essential for dealing with the tricky condition we call human. Access to it is not a luxury, it’s a right worth fighting for” .

Art and class have always been intrinsically linked. Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent from society and class divisions mark society. Contemporary art faces the dilemma that its audience is narrowed only to those whom are very rich and those who are privileged enough to be educated within its traditions. The realm of the arts has weak relations with the working class as private finance has unequal influence on the visual arts; therefore, increased government funding for arts institutions enables a wider participation.

With recession raging through society, millions of job losses in prospect and politicians’ expenses pored over by an increasingly angry electorate, now feels like a good time to represent the working class through artistic practices.

Some argue with the end of Thatcherism in Britain in 1992, and the leadership of John Major [who was state educated and never attended university] we became a classless society. However, class still has a credible influence over British people’s sense of identity and with 55 per cent of people surveyed by ICM in 1998 considered themselves working-class, over half of the British public at 53 per cent of respondents [of the same poll in 2007] defined themselves as part of the same social group.

The stereotypes of working class can be found in many examples of contemporary art and within British social documentary you cannot avoid the notions of class. Artist such as Billingham create photos that make for uncomfortable viewing for the middle class patrons who frequent the art galleries his work has been shown in. Showing lives of those who are not only poor and on the fringes of society, but who are often repulsive to the viewer, stereotyped with problems like obesity and alcoholism which is so prevalent in negative social stereotyping of the working class.

 ‘Richard Billingham didn’t care about how his family ought to look when he turned his gaze on them and their situation at the heart of working class life in Thatcher’s Britain’.

The key phrase I believe in the previous quote is ‘ought to look’. In society we are incredibly self-aware of the image that we present to others of ourselves. To show our families in dire circumstances, such as living on a council estate; as alcoholics , domestic abusers and obese layabouts is almost unheard of. Surely we want to paint a positive image of where we come from, or at least hide it out of view if that’s not the case?

Historically art has been a way for society to show off its greatest achievements- portraiture showed us war heroes, politicians, people of tremendous wealth and power of whom Britain will undeniably be proud of then, now and possibly forever. But Billingham’s work includes people within society of whom we’re inclined to think as of disgusting. But it isn’t shocking should you be unfortunate enough to come from such a background, which millions of people in this country do.

“My Mum will be looking at the book and if she hasn’t got full concentration on it she will say, ‘Pass me a fag, Ray.’ They relate to the work but I don’t think they recognize the media interest in it, or the importance. I don’t think that they think anything of it, really. They are not shocked by it, or anything. We’re used to living in poverty.”

But these people are ignored, we pretend they know nothing of art and only of poverty. Spending their days in the bookmakers, their evenings in the pub and their lives on the dole or working in a factory. Divided from the rich by postcodes, intellect and the way they speak. In Britain we like to pretend that you’re something special, a rare commodity if you’re born into a working class family and happen to have a high level of intellect. This intellect allows you to prosper, perhaps into university and the like and most definitely away from the home town you come from.

We are forced by society believe that these people depicted in Billingham’s work are disgusting and vile. Why would someone want to portray these kind of people in comparison to the wealthy and beautiful people which the portraiture genre is so accustomed to? In the way that portraiture was the social documentation of the middle and upper classes in the previous centuries, the work of many artists within Britain during the latter half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st have turned their focus onto the poor and disenfranchised.

Critics, once stereotyped Billingham, told him he ought to turn his focus on something else.

‘With immediate success also came immediate stereotyping as the kid from the scruffy, boozed-up family, and the recognition that he needed to find a radical new turn or be trapped’

Already bored of seeing dire poverty in their art galleries and turning a blind eye to the struggles of the common people of Great Britain. But his work unintentionally dislodged the popular belief that art was a highbrow or obscure pastime for a small wealthy elite. This kind of work became accessible to wider audiences though Billingham’s family still seemed not unduly worried by the attention, which sprang from the work.

Though not intentionally, Billingham’s work evokes a sense of a social stereotype prejudice which many patrons of the arts may fail to familiarise themselves with. Stereotypes need not necessarily be derogatory or cautionary but often they are especially within the world of Mark Billingham. Though stereotypes are –often like fables- constructed around middle class morality and they are prescriptive.

Though not portraiture, Shaw’s work is teeming with human presence and social stereotyping from his paintings it is obvious that they are of working class towns, portrayed in soap operas and programmes such as Shameless and in songs by bands such as The Smiths and more contemporarily, Arctic Monkeys. Shaw is one artist who acknowledges his roots and embraces his love of popular culture as a contextual reference.

‘‘I explore within a painterly tradition what usually gets explored through a TV drama or music. I’ve thought about this a lot and, like most things in Britain, it’s to do with class.”

Shaw often references Philip Larkin whose poem Stewing Grass is the epitome of negative attitudes of the working class from the perspective of the middle and upper classes:

“I want to see them starving,

The so-called Working Class,

Their weekly wages halving,

Their women stewing grass”

Like Billingham, Tom Hunter’s work seems to reject the idea that artists do no associate with those who are aroundthem, that they are a class above their communities and there is a distinct lack of embarrassment or shame of being‘working class’ on the part of these artists. Despite the fact that such people are often stereotyped and feared, Hunteruses the people whom he lives around in Hackney; often who are squatters or disenfranchised ’unpeople’ . His photographs make the audience feel as if the sitters should be as valued as any other members of society- but they are disenfranchised, their poverty is real.

‘He could not portray such people and such places without actively engaging the world immediately surrounding him’

Most importantly Hunter is the only contemporary artist whose work has been exhibited in the pinnacle of the upper class bourgeois- the National Gallery. Though efforts to make the Gallery free have succeeded, the building itself can be as alien to a working class person as shopping in Farm Foods may be to a Middle Class person.

Hunter’s work is involved with the community that surrounds him much like George Shaw or Richard Billingham. He uses his own environment with vigour and isn’t ashamed of the marginalised people that surround him.

“Hunter’s film is not a rant, but a moving homage to lives and memories that today are obliterated by harsh and violent caricatures of the white working class”.

He reveres them and builds them upon a pedestal and strips away any negative stereotyping- by encompassing them into photographs that are staged in an art historical way. Hunter often pictures these subjects alone which generates wider intimate understanding and a sense of individual worth.

‘Tom Hunter with the intention of reminding the Middle Class bourgeois of uncomfortable realities of life in other parts of London’.

He gives his participants a new sense of human worth and equality within his practice despite their disenfranchised state within our divided society. ’Living in Hell’ references other people’s opinions of the area he lives and polarises and announces the class division within London and Great Britain by placing his work within the context of the National Gallery. This shows we live far from a classless, egalitarian society. Hunter’s work echoes back to artists such as Hogarth’s- he puts the stories in a historical context which remind us that generations before us have suffered the same savagery for centuries at the hands of those in power.

 However, as previously discussed in relation to Billingham’s work art has always had it wealthy patrons and portraiture has historically been seen as a tool for the elite to illustrate their wealth and self-importance. Artist Emma Tooth uses the juxtaposition of the historical paradigm of art and the contemporary society of Britain in the medium in of oil painting. Unlike Hunter and Billingham, the work seems a little contrite. Not due to the fact that her work doesn’t benefit from the contextual historical background because it does. My problem with her practice is that she pulls people from the street. She doesn’t know the people- or share their plight. In a way I see it as exploitation of the poor, for the artist’s own ends. It hankers to the idea of worthlessness- she doesn’t support the vulnerable; she makes them more so by exploiting them in her portraiture. Her work is not a statement other than these people are disenfranchised- she does nothing to help them and gives the audience nothing more to think about apart from them being able to uphold their opinions about tracksuit clad youths and pregnant teenagers. The work does not hold any authenticity due to the fact she does not know these people or has to endure living within their community. Nor has she researched the background and context of the people or places she uses merely to justify her own ends.

Though indirectly linked into Billingham, Tooth and Hunter’s practice the political landscape of the UK at the present time cannot be ignored when talking about class or the disenfranchised individuals portrayed in their work. In the age of austerity where cuts to our front line services, mass unemployment and social unrest causes for concern artist’s who look the social inequality may prevail and this would not be for the first time within the art world: ‘Crash in the 1929 and the Depression, artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers became increasingly politicised and focused attention on working class subjects and themes of social inequality’. The vote to raise the tuition fees and the decrease in funding for the arts and humanities mean that university again becomes a privilege and not a right. Young people are facing the worst attacks on their jobs and living standards seen in generations. Among the most brutal attacks is the onslaught on the right to an education.

By raising tuition and scrapping EMA these measures will lead us back to an era when education was a privilege only to be enjoyed by a tiny minority of very wealthy people rather than a right to be had by all. The demonstrations by students at the end of last year showed that young people are ready to fight for their futures. Without this funding people like myself may not afford to study and may prohibit future generations from studying within the realm of the arts, leaving it open for middle and upper class students only.

 Many have said that class is a dead notion in the world we live in but I disagree. Even artists such as Jake Chapman are trying to intervene with their ‘Can’t Pay Your Fees. We’ll pay your fine’ campaign.

“I think it is at the very root of Right-wing thinking, which is to disempower social mobility. I can’t promote violence because I would be arrested, that would be self-defeating. I absolutely have empathy for the degree of aggression and anger that those students have.”

But art is often defined as a luxury commodity and access to art education is largely (and increasingly) determined by income-level and privilege; art education should be defended and made universal. Creative expression needs to be redefined: it should not be thought of as a privilege, but as a basic human right. Because creative expression is a basic human need, it should be treated as a right to which everyone is entitled. Creativity and intelligence is not akin to social class. Everyone has the right to be creative in the same way that we all have the right to the freedom of speech. To meter out education and creativity to those who can afford it means we are singlehandedly destroying our chances, as a country, to be one of the leading members of the creative global community.

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About imnotkarencarpenter

I'm artistic, creative, naive, insecure, lost in translation. Living in the wrong hemisphere. I'm not Karen Carpenter.
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