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A Common Ground? Exploring Class, Culture and Collections

Culture has a class crisis. Working-class people are under-represented within the cultural sector and further understanding is urgently needed to build a picture of how the arts and art history represent working-class identities to ensure that the stories told through British art institutions include working-class voices.  

Working-class culture is abundant, diverse and rich in character and history; however, it is often spoken about in terms of what it is not or what it lacks, defaulting to middle-classness as the centre ground. Working-classness is often characterised by a reliance on a resilient community, without generational wealth your social circles are often key to survival. Current power structures undermine this sense of community, heavily relying on singularity and competition over models which could foster a supportive and nurturing environment offering a greater level of opportunity.  

From education, to early career opportunities, gallery representation and ‘ways in’ to public ownership, arts professionals from working-class origins have less exposure to the social currency needed to advance their careers.  

We invited papers to explore the following questions: 

What are the class barriers arts professionals face when pursuing a career in the arts and art history and how might these be mitigated?  

How can we take the language used by artists in their work to lead discussions around working-class identity and pave the way for greater inclusivity? 

What are the curatorial methodologies that can shift the conversation to define working-class culture on its own terms?  

How do institutions foster a supportive community for working-class artists creating opportunities for working-class perspectives to be historicised by our public collections? 

Session Convenors: 

Trevor Horsewood 

Beth Hughes 

Joint Leads for the Working Class British Arts Network 

Speakers: 

Dave O’Brien (presenting) 

Mark Taylor, University of Sheffield  

Orian Brook, University of Edinburgh 

The arts as downward social mobility  

Class inequalities in artistic occupations has emerged as an important academic (Laurison and Friedman 2019, Brook et al 2020) and policy (Social Mobility Commission 2021) concern. Much of the research has focused on the lack of working class origin individuals, and thus upward social mobility, in arts jobs. Yet downward mobility, and the associated dominance of those from comparatively elite starting points, whether studied quantitively or qualitatively, has not seen the same level of research. In this paper we present the first detailed study of downward social mobility into cultural occupations. Using pooled data from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey, we demonstrate the dominance of the cultural sector by those from professional and managerial (NS-SEC1) origins. We also explore specific patterns of micro-class reproduction as an additional element of the analysis. In order to explain the overrepresentation of the downwardly mobile, beyond the existing explanations found in the current literature on cultural industries, we use a novel analysis of the social status of cultural jobs. Whilst elites maybe downwardly mobile into cultural jobs, they gain in terms of social status destinations that are, in comparison to downward class mobility, either upward or stable status destinations. The paper concludes with 2 qualitative case studies of artists with differing mobility trajectories, reflecting on the roles of class and status mobility in shaping inequality in the arts.  

Beth Hughes, Freelance Curator and Researcher. 

Class Wash: Working Class Artist Voices and British Public Art Collections 

Discriminatory practices in British art collections disproportionately favour artists from middle-class backgrounds (Mason et al., 2018) while many of these institutions have diversity statements with a commitment to dismantling structures that perpetuate inequality. The purchase of new work is a manifestation of this commitment and analysis of these decisions will highlight whether arts organisations are fulfilling these promises. 

Building a picture of how our cultural institutions represent working-class identities is key to ensuring stories told through British collections include the perspectives of working-class artists, adding to complex and contested notions of national identity. Through analysis of acquisitions made by the Arts Council Collection alongside a series of recorded conversations made with working class artists this paper addresses two key questions; firstly what are the barriers that working-class artists living in Britain today face in having their work acquired by British publicly-funded art collections? And secondly how equipped are our institutions in nurturing the working-class voices contained within the art they acquire. I explore the idea of a ‘middle-class wash,’ where the potency of artwork risks sanitisation when subsumed by another class culture.  Neo-liberal discourse defines progression as moving ‘up’ the class strata. This paper posits that progression in the arts means a shift towards greater working-class presence to more closely reflect the demographic of the British public. 

Robin Baillie,The University of Lincoln and the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS)  

The Inaesthetic Art of the ‘Downed Dumb’ 

Art galleries, outreach and the polite ‘policing’ of working-class contemporary art in the Ruined exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG), 26 June 2021 – 9 January 2022. 

The Ruined exhibition, created by young unemployed Scots on an NGS outreach project, between 2016 – 2021, produced a mixed reception. It rewrote Scottish history from a contemporary perspective, by re-interpreting NGS’s Scottish art collection. Comprising a video installation with original rap soundtrack, it registered comments such as, ‘it felt angry and self-indulgent. Let’s have some balance please?’ This was a fierce defence (from one section of the audience) of the ‘status quo’ of expression, which they believed should be retained in the SNPG. 

Working-class artists from culturally marginalised communities barely make it through the art school and gallery system. If these artists are co-opted as ‘participants’ – through the outreach programmes of state funded galleries – to display their work to the public there, they are entering a contested territory, ‘politely policed’ by the normalisation of social class and the paternalist ideology of inclusion. To avoid such judgement at the hands of the current regime of cultural and aesthetic value, working class individuals rarely enter art galleries.  

Since the nineteenth century, the embodiment of bourgeois codes of civility and politeness, alongside the eschewing of ‘politics’ in the aesthetic sphere, in museums and galleries, has only recently been challenged by marginalised communities. Even so, an ideological disavowal of ‘class’ persists, to underpin the innately hierarchical codes of ‘excellence’, ‘taste’ and professionalism tacitly asserted in art institutions. 

Drawing on critical approaches by Jacques Rancière, Boris Groys, Jerome Christensen and Grant Kester, this paper will explore the structure of ‘aesthetic’ disempowerment – operated against the autonomous expression of working class ‘politics’ in the gallery environment – and its overturning. 

Ola Wlusek, John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art/Florida State University 

Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration  

Skyway exhibition, now in its second iteration, was a celebration of artistic practices in Florida’s Tampa Bay region, as it was a unique collaboration between Florida, USA’s four institutions: the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg; The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; the Tampa Museum of Art; and the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa. Working together, curators from each institution offered context for the diversity of art being made in five counties. Many of the artists represented in Skyway 20/21 work in familiar fine art media, such as painting, sculpture, or photography, but their practices incorporate interdisciplinary approaches to artmaking. Through site-specific investigations and community engagements, their work expands the artist’s studio and gallery space into the community at large, exploring and exposing issues of class and the working-class people. Each artist’s work had a significant impact in the Tampa Bay area, but also resonated far beyond the local. Their artistic practices inhabited the intersections of the personal and the political. The artists mined their unique experiences, the experiences of their communities, and the collective consciousness in order to explore the politics of visibility and agency in the 21st century on a global scale. For example, through her collaborative projects, such as NOMAD Art Bus, Justice Studio, and SPACEcraft, artist Carrie Boucher works to highlight and address disparities by facilitating creative engagements and organizing networks of artistic support in places where individuals typically lack access to the means of artistic production. Heather Rosenbach’s sculptural work serves as a critical self-reflection of identity and the social class in which she was raised. She uses craft and non-fine art materials which challenge the American middle-class aesthetic through their playful and undeniably handmade appearance. Painter Jake Troyli investigates the construction of otherness and the commodification of Black and Brown bodies, confronting and exploring labor capitalism and “sweat equity”. He makes energetic paintings with a markedly classicist approach, often featuring a self-portrait or avatar of himself embedded in engaging scenes. How can cultural institutions make working-class issues visible in order to become productive and accessible places for a genuine cultural exchange?  

Louisa Lee, Goldsmiths University  

Finding Language for Working Class Stories 

After leaving art school in 1990, artist Mark Leckey did not make any artwork for the next ten years. Coming from a working class background, Leckey felt excluded by what he considered to be the intellectual language required to become a practicing artist: ‘I felt like I was lacking knowledge, intellectual reasoning – just lacking.’ 

The idea that art should have a conceptual and intellectual underpinning and framework stems from conceptual artists in the 1960s and 1970s who denounced formal art, such as painting and sculpture, for more conceptual methods focusing on processes and ideas over execution. Ironically, many of these conceptual artists were state-school educated and from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The amalgamation of art schools into polytechnics during the 1960s resulted in a greater access to higher education and encouraged a more interdisciplinary approach to producing art, as well as leading to art and design being recognised as an academic qualification. These educational and conceptual roots have fed into a conceptualism which underlines the practice-based research taught in art schools. 

Taking recent debates of access to the arts and research based-practice as a starting point, this paper will explore three artists’ works – Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), Andrea Zimmerman’s Art Class (2020), and Simeon Barclay’s England’s Lost Camelot (2021) – in relation to the legacies of conceptual art practice on art education and production. It will explore how working class stories and histories are further complicated by the barriers to education which offer a such a vocabulary. 

Elisabetta Fabrizi, Independent Curator, Academic and Writer 

The Building Blocks of the Journey: Class in Steve McQueen’s Work 


In December 2017, Steve McQueen did a straight recording of the burnt Grenfell Tower before it was covered up. This work in progress will not be the first by McQueen to act as a tribute to working-class individuals who have been failed by the system, a recurring theme found across his art and feature films. Being the London-born child of first-generation immigrants who grew up in the White City Estate, McQueen has an embodied, experiential understanding of the working classes. Although he has since reached the highest accolades both in the art world and in the industry of cinema, he has defined his artistic path as one informed by class, race and lack of privilege. 

McQueen’s work often foregrounds working-class individuals and highlights the class distinctions that persist in our society, and yet, this element of his practice has received very little critical attention. This paper will address such a lack of existing literature by offering a consideration of the manners in which the language used by McQueen in his work allows him to lead discussions around working-class identities, while, on the other hand, in what may appear as a contradiction, taking a traditional, elitist approach to the art market. Considering pieces across gallery and cinema, I will analyse how the artist deals with class systems and oppressing structures; how, through his work, he offers a radical openness that allows contradictory forces to emerge and contribute to greater inclusivity by bringing about a ‘new insurgent universality’ (Haider 2022).  

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