in Opinion | 09 FEB 08
Featured in
Issue 113


Lower, middle or upper? Working, bourgeois or ruling? Dare we speak its name?

in Opinion | 09 FEB 08

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in 'The Class Sketch', The Frost Report (1967)

When it comes to elephants in the room, in some cases I welcome them. Consider, for example, Iraq. In a conversation, you might at first wish someone would mention it – don’t you know there’s a war on? – but when they do, you just cringe and pray they’ll go back to shop talk. My pet paradigm for the elephant in the room experience is class: a particularly rank and leathery creature, primly concealed by a screen of gender, queer, ethnic and nationality issues. Ignoring the thing is probably the best you can do; you only stand to lose. The rare occasions class is mentioned in the arts – the yBa as metonym of the rough and tumble, or Roger M. Bürgel’s use of ‘petty bourgeois’ as meaning low and tasteless – you rarely get beyond condescension of one form or another, either as nostalgie de la boue, or as smug meritocratics.

And as a subject of conversation, it’s a true icemaker. Class does not offer a rhetorical escape hatch of abstraction. If you’re middle class, as I am, you’re dull; if you’re upper class, you’re a nepotist; and if you’re working class, you’ll embarrass anyone who isn’t. It’s not one of those faux-confrontational terms like ‘exclusion’, or, indeed, ‘Iraq’, which allow you to bond in a flutter of platitudes and concerned, furrowed brows. The reason exclusion and military invasion are more popular is because they seem to offer win–win conflict resolutions without structural overhaul, while the sociological ambience that class introduces to the room is more dicey. Sometimes, class is eclipsed to even further enhance the true extent of ‘exclusion’ at hand. Artists’ projects are peddled as adventures in ethnic ghettos, and meetings with international culturati are marketed as amazing encounters with the Other.

The obviousness of class terminology is also at issue here. As an analytical tool, class is closer to a sledgehammer than a surgical laser. Just like ‘bourgeois’, ‘cultural capital’ or ‘false consciousness’, the term ‘class’ has wildly varying denotations and connotations in different historical settings, but the question is whether those meanings are malleable enough to escape political orthodoxy, without disintegrating into wafty generalization. For instance, can class be used as a way to talk about the fact that some people in the art world make more money out of your labours than you do yourself?

In essence, class is still, in my experience, a fitting rhetorical response to questions of the division of labour, patronage, status scenographies or the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ as defined by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in their eponymous 2006 work. If Pierre Bourdieu offered a bulky discursive armature that seems almost timeless in relation to this discussion – social and cultural capital, habitus, etc. – then Boltanski and Chiapello offered a timely ideological critique that sheds light on contemporary conditions of production in the art world. The superflexible working hours, the hypermobility, the internationalist pathos, the ‘creative imperative’, the eager self-exploitation, the dreams of autonomy, the celebration of the erratic flow of cognitive processes, all of which ultimately render uncertainty bearable, even charming, to the point that, as Liam Gillick once remarked, ‘you’re never sure how much leisure you are having’. These shifts are less interesting in terms of self-awareness and stress management than of structural societal overhaul, of the manner in which cultural industry mentalities gradually bleed into society at large.

To be sure, the discussion needn’t be as speculative or sweeping as this. On a more fundamental level, socio-economic background still defines many a cultural career: the art world’s dependency on cheap labour – and on the ability of middle-class families to subsidize their children through internships and at the outset of their careers as artists – is still Dickensian in proportion. Nevertheless the ideological, long-term significance of the aforementioned societal overhaul is rendered quite apparent by the fact that it’s repeatedly colonized and re-colonized by conservative free-market apologists, such as the illustrious Richard Florida, author of the seminal Rise of the Creative Class (2002), for whom the post-industrial merging of work and leisure is simply a blessing. Florida insists that a third of the workforce are engaged in creative occupations, if you include consultants and other service-sector workers, and that they effectively constitute a class. This, he suggests, is a class in need of a mission: the bourgeoisie overthrew the aristocracy, the proletariat unionized to raise living standards, what should we do? Well, we ‘creatives’, Florida declares, should make our historical mark by joining in the race to turn our neighbourhoods, companies, institutions and cities into successful leading lights on the global map. With the definition of success, of course, remaining thoroughly ambiguous in this context. Florida readily admits that cities with ‘high creative density’ also have the highest number of stress disorders and the highest income inequality, since creative labour feeds off poorly paid service work to an exceptional extent. It would seem there are ever-more elephants in the room.