Notes on Art, Social Inequality and Meritocracy by Mike Watson and Dorian Batycka

On December 10th-11th, a two day event will take place on the theme of social inequality and meritocracy in the art world, at the Royal College of Art (RCA), and Open School East (OSE), London. Over the course of the event, the planned talks, film screenings and performances, aim to focus the art worlds attention on the elephant in the roomwithin the cultural field: social exclusion. Here two of its organizers, Mike Watson and Dorian Batycka, consider issues relevant to social inequality and the art world.

In addressing issues of social class in relation to the contemporary art world there are arguably two issues which come to the foreground: To what extent are artists bound to issues stemming from social class, inequality, consumerism, sexism and racism? And how can the conceptual apparatus of art respond to economic disenfranchisement? The first concerns the social composition of the art world and the exclusionary practices which are institutionally and culturally ingrained in it. The second seems to ask to what extent the resources of the art world can be used to help foster a new symbolic order conducive to the creation of what Marx termed a “Universal Class”– a class that, by acting in its own interests would thereby act in the interest of all of society. What are the conditions and symbols necessary to creating such a class? How can we unify a fragmented workforce and the varied discontents of class, gender, race and sexuality? Above all, before the art world can use its wealth of human and material resources to challenge the inequality of the social whole it needs first to address the former concern: social and political art cannot function to intervene concretely before the discontents of the art world have been addressed.

In his book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis describes a letter sent from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to artist and filmmaker Hollis Frampton, in which the institution expected he would exhibit his work for free.[1] The crassness of this—the biggest art institution in the world expecting an artist to exhibit his work unpaid—has become the standard for artists practicing today. In response, Frampton described the death of Maya Daren, an experimental filmmaker active in the post-war period, who died of an aneurism as a result of extreme malnutrition.

In her article Culture Class: Art, Creativity and Urbanism (Part I), artist Martha Rosler describes the shifting economic and spatial divisions of art: “for a long time now, art and commerce have not simply taken place side by side, but have actively set the terms for one another, creating and securing worlds and spaces in turn.”[2] Succumbing to the demands and constraints of industrialization, Rosler reasons, the “professionalisation of art also doomed it to be a highly restrictive discourse.” She argues that while many artists over the course of the twentieth century have become drawn to radical politics, citing the Situationists, among others, we “should recognize in this group not just the expression of the counterculture, now grown up and college educated, but also of the gold mine that had just begun to be intensively lobbied by niche marketers, the ‘creative class.’”

In fact, artists have for decades been drawn to radical politics because of their tenuous status and often precarious economic position within society and their ability to improve that position by entering the art market. As such, the relation of higher to lower class or exploiter to exploited is not straightforward. The divisive politics of ‘Us and Them’ – dealt a near death blow by new Labour and recently revived by Jeremy Corbyn – seems in many respects inadequate to the complex nature of power relations in the art world.

Clearly social class is by no means reducible to the old tripartite system of categorization, whereby people are deemed to be upper class (aristocrats and monarchs), middle class (the bourgeoisie, professionals and business owners) and working class (the proletariat). Whilst it is true that these three categories still exist, they are by no means exhaustive and fail to account for the variations caused by other key disadvantaged groups. It also fails to account for the nouveaux riches, who will not often feel themselves to be of a higher class status due to certain doors remaining closed to them, but who exercise economic power. As Pablo Escobar once said, ‘I am not a rich man, but a poor man with money.’ Additionally, the tripartite class system is unable to account for the existence of rich people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or from poor people who enjoy privilege as a result of being included in a dominant race.

However, it is crucial that the subtleties of class stratification and the complexities of power relations in a wider society where race and gender are crucial factors in career opportunity are not seen as reasons to jettison the call for class equality. Rather, we need to conceive of a class politics equal to the challenges of class mobility as well as of complexities of race, gender and sexuality, issues which all convene to create a wide ‘class’ of the disenfranchised.

In the art world individual are often alienated through: their inability to financially support themselves through periods of unpaid or low paid training or internships; exclusion from education at a tertiary level due to tuition fees; exclusion from the cultural discourse due to the use of an elite codified language, dress codes and the social networks which employ these codes; discrimination based on gender, race and sexuality; sexual harassment.

Often people do not associate these factors with low social status, leaving them further alienated. Within such a culture, membership of a particular class and the expression of social status begins to unravel, increasingly leaving artists alone in their relative oppression. As a result they may feel their grievances to be a result of their own inability achieve to success or to just plain bad luck.

By talking about class, we can start to raise the possibility of a consolidated group of people being formed which can act in the best interest of society whilst challenging capital. At the heart of orthodox Marxism, history is conceivable only by way of materialist analyses. Coinciding with the needs of humanity as a whole Marx, borrowing from Hegel, saw the “Universal Class” as the class that, through acting for itself, would act for all of humanity. With no notion of class, accordingly, no Universal Class can ever be formed, so we are left to the mechanizations of the financial machine that protects the interests of capital whilst leaving all those to perish in its wake. Let us call this the Maya Daren effect: unfed and malnourished, we all perish.

Now, if the art world is to use its resources to bring forward some kind of heterogeneous Universal Class, composed of people who feel exasperated by their lack of privilege, it is absolutely fundamental that it first acknowledges the existence of social inequality within the art field, and then acts to address that inequality through workplace practices that award people based on their skill.

Let us know consider the basic economics of labour in the art world: internships. Internships, if well managed, provide a valuable means for gaining experience whilst making contacts and developing confidence. As such, ways should be developed for providing internships for people across all economic backgrounds. Similarly, tuition fees, which are all too often prohibitive for students of lower social backgrounds, make studying art a near impossibility (or financial suicide) for economically disenfranchised students. This is not to include the further disadvantages incurred by women or people of colour. Additionally, similar to the general economy, women are still paid on average much less than men, even when performing the exact same work, which only becomes further exacerbated for those representing ethnic minorities.

If art is to challenge the pernicious logic of neoliberal capital, the relationship between social stratification and cultural ‘taste’ and consumption must be laid bare, foregrounded by a discussion of class (and its discontents). This is what we hope to achieve in light of “the Elephant in the Room?”

– Mike Watson and Dorian Batycka


[1] Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. (Haymarket Books, 2013).

[2] Martha Rosler, Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Part I. (e-flux journal, #21, 2010).


For more details on the event follow this link