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#Hashtags: In Defense of the Middle-Class Artist

#art #class #wealth #access #innovation #middleclass

Writing for Artnet in January, Ben Davis’s “Do You Have to Be Rich to Make It as an Artist?” raised an important question about the relationship between privilege and access to a life in the arts. Examining the upbringings of a number of artists currently or recently on view at museums in New York, Davis drew the conclusion that if not middle class, the majority of artists were more likely to come from wealth than from working/poor backgrounds. Can anyone without access to wealth afford to work the long and frequently unpaid hours demanded by the arts?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Bal du moulin de la Galette, 1876. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Art history suggests that the well-off have always had an inside line to the halls of culture, acting as artists or producers of major commissions. The middle-class artist is a more recent invention of the 19th century, occupying a social position that emerged with the Industrial Revolution and development in cities from Paris to New Delhi to Brasilia. In the Modernist cultural paradigm that emerges from this circumstance, the middle-class artist has an important role to play. His or her wealth is sufficient to ensure a liberal-arts education, but not so abundant as to be an insulator against the poetry of the street. The middle class ensures that vernacular subjects and art forms infiltrate the spaces of high art and culture. This is now something we take for granted, so much so that even the one-percenter artists that Davis lists work in common, everyday materials.

Our image of the modern artist is circumscribed by expectations of middle-class status. We imagine Manet, the son of a judge, or Picasso, the son of an art professor. As a group, the Impressionists largely shared middle-class origins. Degas and Cezanne were bankers’ sons. Prior generations of artists were artisans, working with their hands, or they were patriarchs, commanding teams of apprentices. The scale, values, and materials of Modernism originate with the middle class, which shares interests in industrialization and technology, and influences resulting from the import of large amounts of global crafts and commodities to satiate their consumer appetites.

Jeremy Deller. English Magic, 2013. 55th Venice Biennale.

Jeremy Deller. English Magic, 2013. 55th Venice Biennale.

No one in the late 20th century modeled the virtues and vices of the middle-class artist better than David Bowie, who died this month at the age of 69. A rock star, a painter, and an art writer, Bowie’s eclectic interests belied his art-school education, and his fan base reflects this orientation. The young people depicted in Whistler, Sargent, Cassat, and Renoir paintings—whether at home, gathered in groups, or at the opera or the cafe-concert—are little different from the ones shown thronging at the Hammersmith Odeon in D.A. Pennebaker’s iconic Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). The spectacles that Bowie put on as Ziggy, on his infamous Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, and as the Thin White Duke in 1976, were heavily indebted to the Modernists, drawing on Constructivism and German Expressionism, and enacting a Modernist global synthesis of Kabuki theater and African diaspora performance traditions. In his private life, Bowie confounded the press by representing as two conflicting middle-class tropes, the libertine and the family man, at once.

David Bowie, 1973. Photo by Leee Black Childers.

David Bowie, 1973. Photo by Leee Black Childers.

Born in working-class Brixton, Bowie’s middle-class identification is all the more relatable because it was attained, when his family moved to suburban Bromley, rather than born. He appropriated this strategy when, with his manager Tony DeFries, Bowie in the early 1970s more or less bluffed his way into stardom by presenting the extravagant lifestyle expected at that level without worrying much about who would pay for it. The performance of class is an essential aspect of the middle-class climb. In this he resembled his idol Andy Warhol, another artist whose work reflected on the process of constructing identity according to social expectations and class hierarchies. Both artists worked for years in relative obscurity to establish themselves, while watching their friends and peers gain recognition, before achieving global attention. There may be no more typically middle-class experience than this, of striving for greatness and achieving mixed results. The intersection of aspiration, abjection, anxiety, and privilege that class transition represents was a favorite subject in Bowie’s work, and a problematic one. Like the Modernist flâneur, Bowie romanticized the people and cultures of the street, while emulating the fashions and affectations of the upper class. He also brought an avant-garde theatricality born on society’s margins, in the queer community of New York’s Lower East Side (and with Warhol’s support), to the mainstream.

David Bowie, 1973. Photo by Leee Black Childers.

David Bowie, 1973. Photo by Leee Black Childers.

At his best, Bowie used the access that his privilege granted to promote other, less recognized artists, including Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, but also Luther Vandross, Jayne County, and Ava Cherry, and give them credit for influencing him. At his worst, he commoditized the counterculture for the benefit of the powers that be, which may have led to the midlife crisis he described to Michael Kimmelman in 1998. All the same, without him and others like him, there would be no conduit to draw the resources and support of the powerful to the vibrant cultural inventors of the street. In a cultural landscape where even emerging artists and performers now require major money behind them to even get started, that link is disconnected. Mainstream artists still appropriate from the artists of the street, but support no longer flows downstream, because blockbuster culture and its makers are socially isolated from the creators from whom they borrow.

A couple of years ago now, this column addressed “the squeezing of the middle-class gallery” as smaller professional galleries, many family-run or sole-proprietor, struggled to keep their spaces against rising rents. This trend has continued, along with the trend of institutions courting artists with connections to wealthy families. As resources are increasingly consolidated in fewer hands, the middle-class artist threatens to become a relic of the 20th century; the effect of this shift will be to snuff out innovation. Artists will continue to emerge who can remix the artistic canon in contemporary, trendy ways, but an artist with a gift for appropriation and reinvention on the order of David Bowie is unlikely to appear again.

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