Exploring Art's Class Problem

A recent arts industry report posed the question: where are all the working class people in the visual arts? Reflecting on Glasgow's biggest festival for contemporary art, Hailey Maxwell concludes that, if anything, exploitation and inequality in the world art itself reflect British society as a whole...

Kicking off in mid-April and finishing this week, the Glasgow International biennale of contemporary art spread its numerous offerings across 78 venues in Glasgow. Interesting and dynamic, the festival has long been regarded as an important event on the calendar of the international art world and one which nourishes Glasgow’s reputation as the UK’s “second city” for culture and visual art.

The festival continues to construct its success around the play between local and global and by balancing award-winners and emerging talent, all the while emphasising collaboration, co-operation and audience involvement with a lively programme of group exhibitions, public sculptures, workshops, happenings, screenings, talks, and performances.

In a recent interview with The Skinny, festival Director Richard Parry recognised the politicised tone of the event this year, insisting that “there has not been a more important time to listen to artists,” noting “for many artists making work now, there's the sense that you have to take a position and make it explicit in the work.” Indeed – the GI programme included a number of events that reflected the democratic and communitarian ideal, with artists and collectives incorporating issues of inclusion, diversity, identity and community into events which demand audience participation.

Many of these were extremely exciting: Najma Abukar, Layla-Roxanne Hill, Sekai Machache, and Adebusola Debora Ramsay came together as Yon Afro, a Black-led collective of women of colour in Scotland. They explored identity as resistance within their group show “(Re)imagining Self and Raising Consciousness of Existence" at the Govanhill Baths.

Elsewhere, Deniz Uster prompted a conversation around Community Right to Buy, and the sharply named collective Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable’s (BUT) WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? challenged viewers with a series of screenings, discussions and workshops.

Parry is correct in highlighting the increased expectation that artists take a political stance with their work, but the broader question of who artists are talking to, and who should be listening to them demands consideration. Beyond inviting locals and visitors to explore and discover experimental and interdisciplinary art and artists in some of the city’s most interesting places and spaces, the eighth edition of Glasgow International magnified the quiet but unsightly truth that culture is not innocent.

This year, the festival as an institution has been confronted by some ugly truths about the industry and the unsustainable nature of large, global events like Glasgow International. The content and form that made up Glasgow International and the political and social context of the festival this year reveals a number of long-standing structural problems of power, exploitation and discrimination at the core of the cultural sector and the production of contemporary art.

Earlier this month, partners from Edinburgh College of Art, University of Sheffield and London-based consultancy Create published Panic! Its An Arts Emergency: Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, a report exploring social mobility in the cultural industries - the first sociological study of its kind.

The paper revealed that not only is the cultural sector overwhelmingly male, pale and stale, but confirmed what many frustrated and demoralised cultural workers know from experience: class inequality is a defining characteristic of the creative industries.

Despite having arguably most left wing, liberal and pro-welfare views of any other profession, this monolithic workforce has very little insight into how bad things are for working class people attempting to break in to the sector. Levels of ignorance are particularly high among those more senior individuals most capable of enacting change. Cultural workers are unlikely to know many people (including friends, family and colleagues) from outside the creative industry. In short, the arts is indeed largely a bourgeoisie bubble.

The report found that levels of working class exclusion in the sector are the same as almost forty years ago, with women and BME individuals most badly affected. While the media cliché which universalises working-class experience as exclusively belonging to angry, White men occasionally allows representatives of that group entry – usually portrayed as a kind of 'noble savage' (e.g. Irvine Welsh, Darren McGarvey) – women and people of colour are more often than not excluded completely.

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This exclusion was addressed by the iQhiya collective, a South-African based network of young, Black female artists currently undertaking a residency at Transmission. Within their show Plenary, the remains of a dinner party have been left on a large dining table. We see cups, plates, hot sauce, wine. Atop the table is a small sign reading: “ONLY INVITED GUESTS HAVE A SEAT AT THE TABLE.”

A sound piece fills the room with the noise of women talking, but no dinner guests are in sight. The far left gallery wall is painted blue and bears the markings of a discussion which did take place. There are mind maps describing activist principles and strategies, quotes by the likes of Black feminists such as Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, and the eulogy for Winnie Mandela by her daughter is read in full.

The viewer is left with the understanding that exciting, innovative and radically informed discussions and activity are taking place to address Black women’s place in the art world and the world more broadly – but that these voices are largely invisible and unheard within institutional spaces. The recent decision made by arts funding body Creative Scotland to withdraw funding from Transmission, in the first year that the gallery committee was lead by people of colour, creates even greater urgency within the work.

The kinds of expectations and mechanisms that contribute to the over-representation of middle class White men within the creative industries was also at the core of In Kind, a research project by artists Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford, one of the stand-out projects within the festival programme.

The artists developed an online tool where people involved in the festival could log the hours that they worked for free. Revealingly, it emerged that many professional artists worked for weeks or even months for free in order to prepare, put on and staff their exhibitions throughout the festival. The project reveals the scale and depths of a highly discriminatory economy of free labour within the arts – one which the industry depends on to fulfil its funding outcomes.

According to the Panic! Report, there's a striking mismatch between the democratic values of those who shape the industry and the kind of structural barriers they – consciously or unconsciously – maintain through self-selective recruitment. Working-class people experience the blight of unpaid internships – described in the report as “endemic” – overwhelmingly as exploitation, while their more affluent classmates and colleagues are more likely to work for free by choice or as a favour.

Unlike Arts Council England, who have recently developed policies cracking down on unpaid internships, Creative Scotland has not followed suit and continued to host advertisements for exploitative, long-term unpaid ‘opportunities’ that so badly impact the arts industry. In Kind discussed the relationship between lack of diversity and inequality within the arts with these practices of free labour at the event At What Cost? at the Centre for Contemporary Arts. The follow up, Who Can Afford to Be an Artist? took place at Platform in Easterhouse.

The expression of democratic, social values within contemporary art practice is not a new phenomenon. The 1990s saw the emergence of what Nicholas Bourriaud developed within the Centre Pompidou as “relational aesthetics”, art works which involve the viewer in some way. This might be through a participatory event or workshop taking place in the gallery space.

While these artworks express values of inclusion and diversity – values shared by their makers and patrons – the exclusionary institutional framework which produces and disseminates them reduces often quality work, to an aesthetics as ethics with limited social impact. More often than not, these artists are preaching to the converted.

While the Glasgow International programme included a degree of self-reflexivity this year, there remain pressing questions which need to be asked. And so there's one burning question that has long preoccupied art historians and critics, certainly since the conception of activist art describing itself as socially engaged, participatory, dialogical, collectivist, relational: who's socially engaged art actually for?

While discussions about race and gender are important: if its artists and audiences are largely from the same social strata, how can these institutional critiques work effectively when the creative industries are so myopic? Many critics have accused the art world of failing to reflect society, however practices of exclusion, exploitation and inequality within the arts ironically do reflect, quite accurately, the conditions of British society today. While Richard Parry suggested that society listen to artists, it's really the art world itself that needs to sit up and take notice.

@_acephale