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Who qualifies for an ‘exhibition of working class art’?

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Agony uncle
Credit: Emma Peer

Q: I was recently approached by the curator of a group exhibition of contemporary working class art, to ask if I would be willing to submit a painting. It’s a great opportunity and is – unusually for such grassroots initiatives – properly paid. But I’m not sure I fit the bill. I work as a home carer to pay the bills, but I went to art school and my upbringing was pretty middle class: my mum is a teacher and my dad a middle-ranking local government officer. I raised this with the curator, but she was undeterred, telling me I was working class in the ‘materialist sense’. But I’m still worried I’d be taking the opportunity off someone else. Should I go ahead, or sit this one out?

Conscientious of Leeds

For the British public, of a certain age, there’s one image that is almost synonymous with the term ‘class’. I’m talking about John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett standing in a line, in descending order of height, on the BBC’s The Frost Report. Their 1966 ‘class sketch’ satirized the tripartite social structure – upper, middle, working – that was understood to organize life in postwar Britain. ‘I look up to him [John Cleese] because he is upper class,’ says Barker. ‘But I look down on him [Corbett] because he is lower class.’ The recurring punchline, repeated by Corbett: ‘I know my place.’

It’s funny, but oh so misleading. Not just for the way it suggests that the class system only involves men, but for the way it insinuates that it’s fundamentally a matter of mindset – a kind of natural order with social characteristics. The fact is, as you and your curator know, that class is ‘material’. It’s about one’s position in a concrete system that generates wealth and power. It’s about a relationship to actual things – capital, factories, properties. Though working class people do face discrimination on the basis of their accents and vocabulary, these are the symptoms and not the cause of the class system.

And it is always changing. Billionaire Alan Sugar, for instance, grew up in social housing in East London, but he then became an industrialist and member of the House of Lords. His class position changed. (And that council flat is probably going for half a million pounds.) An economically secure family in the second half of the twentieth century may have experienced a drop, or a rise, in their social position, depending on how well they did out of Thatcherism. And that’s before we even get into the stagnant 2010s: if your mum is a secondary school teacher in England then she’s getting paid 20 per cent less in real terms today than 12 years ago. An art school degree may have once signified social mobility and the acquisition of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘cultural capital’ – many world-famous British artists and designers started from humble backgrounds and went through those institutions. Today, it means being tens of thousands of pounds in debt.

This is my way of saying that you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking part in this exhibition. It sounds like a great opportunity. You depend on your wages to survive. As a carer, you have one of the most typical working class occupations in the rich world. I’d be interested to know who owns the care organization that you work for – for all I know it’s an American hedge fund. They’re the ones to whom you’re in antagonistic opposition, not your fellow artists.

Working class doesn’t mean poor – that’s just what it increasingly has come to be associated with in the world we live in. But this can change, through political action, workplace organizing and cultural activity: changing minds, circulating new ideas and experiences. So don’t ‘know your place’, as Ronnie Corbett joked – express yourself.

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