In the United States, class lines are commonly drawn based on income. There are websites that will graciously calculate your class status for you, using little more than your annual salary and zip code. Nobody walks around with their net worth floating above their heads like some monetized halo, and yet we all have our own ideas about the social class identity of those around us: our friends and extended family members, our professors, the man we stood next to on the bus this morning, and the woman who held the library door for us.
Any sociology class or baseline research on the concept of archetypes will bring to light the social constructs by which each person is subconsciously trained to stratify people. Perceptions of age, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation may affect the way we place individuals into social classes, consciously or not. Another influencer, one that is highly penetrant in our perception of social class but rarely discussed, is taste.
It does not take much observation to recognize that the common approach to art consumption cultivates a system of “art classes” that parallel social classes. Name your art form; chances are, it is translatable into both highbrow and lowbrow art.
Certain styles of visual art have hung in museums for decades, while comic art and manga have fought pencil and nail to make a name for themselves in the arts community. Until the mid-twentieth century, British universities did not study the novel, as it was considered a lowbrow art form. At February’s Grammy Awards, Kendrick Lamar’s record DAMN. was passed up for Album of the Year for Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, despite its greater popularity and critical acclaim.
These instances exemplify a system of arts in which the value of an artwork is often determined without regard to the art itself. It’s a two-way relationship: the merit of an artwork is in part based upon the social class from which and for which it was created, and a consumer of art may be lumped into a social class based the artworks in which they see merit.
There is beauty in the melting pot metaphor, the image of the United States as a community where differing cultural backgrounds can be smoothly assimilated. However, in the context of art, a melting pot results in loss. The blending of different tastes leads to the masking of many, producing instead in a singular, common taste. This taste is an ideology, but one that, when stirred through complex cultural schemes of class and meaning, becomes natural. The idea of “good taste,” then, is an arm of a cultural ideology.
As certain tastes are classified as more valuable than others—art is labeled as highbrow or lowbrow, monetary value is assigned to creative works, publications compile “book lists” and the local radio station plays on a loop—individuals associated with the production and consumption of certain art forms are also categorized. This allocation of cultural capital is harmful when objects and experiences associated with the lower class become indicators of artwork that is less valuable—a judgement not based on the merit of the art itself.
We often use art to distinguish ourselves as members of a specific social class. People are prone to advertising artistic preferences that they think will identify them with a social group and establish them as different from lower classes of people. Oftentimes, the art we like and promote speaks to our own experiences and the experiences of the people we want to group ourselves in with, but art that speaks to the experience of being poor in America is widely different from that which can be related to the life of a wealthy individual. A film documenting the childhood of a boy in rural Montana does not communicate the same meaning in a New York City theater that it does in the town where it was filmed. To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Scout, not Tom Robinson, and some days I wonder if we would still read it in schools if that flipped.
And yet, artworks that speak to experiences as diverse as the entirety of the world are judged on the same scale. In many considerations, this is natural and necessary; however, it is important to consider the failures of this system of judgement. There are prejudices implicit in taste that are informed by social context rather than content, and unfair judgements may go on to inform prejudice even outside the art world.
Throughout history, art museums have held a central role in the curation of “good taste.” While recent decades suggest a blurring of the line between fine art and pop art, historically, museums have catered to limited audiences. In their failure to curate collections of art that speak to the immense variety of human experience and expression, art museums limit their audiences. It follows, then, that the demographic of the American art museum attendee is far less diverse than that of the American public. The whitewashed walls of the modern museum today too often reflect its audience. While roughly one-third of the United States population identifies as non-white, fewer than one-sixth of art museum attendees do. Even in the most diverse U.S. cities, 80-90% of museum goers are white.
While the modern arts culture is far from free of class bias, recent shifts provide hope for the future of the creative community. Art movements in the late twentieth century have pushed back against ideologies of taste. From postmodernism to pop art to the emergence of “hipsters,” the distinctions between high and lowbrow art are not as clearly defined as they once were. he ideology of “good taste” stays dynamic by continually assimilating styles of art from cultural margins, illustrating that taste does not work like trickle down economics. In this lies the danger of appropriation, but also a hope of validation for art forms that may be otherwise disregarded.
The film Lady Bird, released in November 2017 and nominated for Best Picture at last night’s Academy Awards, includes a snippet of dialogue in which Lady Bird, a seventeen-year-old living in Sacramento, is interpellated by a comment from one of the Sisters at her Catholic high school: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” When it comes to talking about art, maybe they are.
Molly Vander Werp