Art for whose Sake? Working-Class Life in Visual Art

A recent article on Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York focused on the huge amounts of money that contemporary art can fetch, and concluded that the monetary value of such art highlights economic inequality and demonstrates that art is a product of capitalism. Members of the public who enjoy visiting galleries displaying these over-priced products are therefore condoning economic inequality caused by capitalism, because their patronage supports the super-wealthy who purchase art as investments.

It’s true that art can fetch ridiculous prices and is treated as a commodity by dealers and some purchasers. And it does seem contradictory that art intended as a critique of society (and of the art world in some cases) could end up as a valuable asset in the vault of a billionaire collector. Regardless of the economic value of art in a capitalist system, people attend galleries and art exhibitions because they find something moving, beautiful, challenging, and thought provoking in the works displayed.

Looking around art galleries today in metropolitan cities, it seems clear though that the majority of visitors are middle/upper-class (excluding the school children who visit the galleries on excursions and some tourists). When I was a child we often visited art galleries in London. This wasn’t typical of working-class families in my neighbourhood, but because they were free, it was a cheap day out. I continued this habit after I finished high school and started a retail job in central London. I would often sit by myself in the National Gallery in front of a favourite painting. I loved art, but as a working-class high school student, I had been told that a career as an artist was unrealistic. Despite this advice, I took art at high school and learnt all I could about art history. I could wander the galleries and feel pleased with myself because I knew the artists and what their works were about. I enjoyed all sorts of art from different eras and genres.

But there was also something missing. Very rarely did I come across a work that represented me, or the people I knew. It didn’t bother me so much when it came to abstract art, because as far as I was concerned, this was about feeling or about a sensory experience. Figurative art was another story. There were the classic paintings and sculptures of rich and important people, still life scenes of opulent objects and interiors, and contemporary figurative art that showed people I didn’t know in fancy looking homes or lounging about doing nothing and looking mysterious (sometimes in the nude).

The art displayed in museums, whether classic and contemporary, rarely features working-class people. When it does, the images can be problematic, such as the European paintings of noble peasants epitomised in works such as Jean-François Millet’s nineteenth century painting Gleaners, which depicts working-class women picking up the leftovers from a harvest in rural France. The painting represents work, but the women are anonymous, and viewer can’t see their faces, so we don’t know how they might be feeling. Australian artist Tom Roberts also painted scenes that romanticized rural workers, such as sheep shearers.

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams

British artist L.S. Lowry painted urban landscapes that included scenes of workers at the factory gates, but the workers are treated the same as the other aspects of the landscape. There is no sense from the paintings that Lowry was interested in the actual lives and experiences of the working-class people in his work.

Where is the contemporary art that offers working-class self-representation? I’m not talking about street art or activist art, which does offer interesting and power self-representation. My interest here is in the art deemed as good enough to be presented in a gallery. How many successful artists have working-class backgrounds? Working-class people may visit galleries on school visits at an early age, but could the lack of working-class self-representation in the displays make them feel that art is not for them? Does this mean that young working-class people don’t take up art because they think of the visual arts as something for the middle/upper-classes?

It may be a vicious circle – working-class people see art as not for them, and so they don’t become artists. Of course, a working-class young person who wanted to study art, as I did, also faces practical barriers.  The uncertainty of an artist’s career makes it difficult for young working-class people to take on the debt of a fine art degree. It is expensive to create art. Low-income students can’t afford paint, clay, and other materials. While it’s possible to be resourceful or to salvage materials to make art, artists also need space — a studio or the equivalent, somewhere to make a mess. It seems unlikely that a young working-class person living with their family in public housing would have access to such a space.

British artist Grayson Perry has explored how class determines taste in his work. Grayson is sensitive to how class works in relation to the reception of art, and his art is informed by his working-class background. He suggests that what we might appreciate (in terms of material possessions including art) is a result of unconscious absorption of the tastes of our families and communities. So, if ‘fine’ arts are not considered important, we will follow suit. Perry’s ideas follow from those of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who demonstrated how class is the most consistent marker of taste. Bourdieu stated that middle-upper class people acquire cultural capital, which leads to an appreciation of ‘high’ culture and art. Taste is therefore not neutral and can be used against people, for example in disparaging a working-class person’s preference for a ‘tacky’ sentimental painting over a highly theoretical abstract work.

What sorts of attitudes do working-class people have to art galleries in general? Do they worry that their taste in art might be ridiculed due to lack of the ‘proper’ knowledge? I know my working-class family and friends don’t often visit galleries because they either feel that they won’t ‘get’ the art, or they are dismissive of contemporary art that they think is ‘rubbish’ and could be made by anyone (such as some contemporary abstract or installation works). My brother-in-law was particularly amused by a photo I sent to him of an artwork by German artist Charlotte Posenenske.

1930-1985 Presented 2008

Square Tubes [Series D] 1967 Charlotte Posenenske

The work  (part of her 1967 Square Tubes [Series D] displayed in the Tate Modern, London), resembled the air conditioning ducts he made in his factory. The idea of an artist having work considered ‘high art’ that was based on what he did for a trade confirmed his negative attitudes towards contemporary art.

More work needs to be done to look at the ways in which working-class life is represented in visual arts and to consider why such examples might only rarely find themselves in galleries. Art is something that all humans seem to enjoy, but working-class people are often excluded from the production of art and from the pleasures to be gained from viewing.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, Australia

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4 Responses to Art for whose Sake? Working-Class Life in Visual Art

  1. warrenwilliams75 says:

    Millet’s Gleaners painting is not about how they are feeling, nor the individual. The details are anonymous so as to not exclude anybody who looks at it from identifying with it, then or now. It’s not a portrait of individuals, but a portrait of all of us, a portrait of the whole, of the mass. Even now, when our jobs have changed, we can look at it and feel like that – which also addresses the point I mention above – we know how they feel, they felt like us, we felt like them.


  2. Barrie Cline says:

    In thinking about your family member who responded to the artwork made of duct with derision, I am reminded of the story one of my students told me at the Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies where I teach public art to construction workers. Fueled by a class discussion where I asked students to reframe aspects of their trades work as art as an exercise, he said he tried doing this with some of the highly skilled carpenters that work for Transit through some photography of their work. Rather than being flattered that he was singling out their work, they were uncomfortable with the special recognition of the visual aesthetics of what they had made and didn’t want the limelight. Mind you ,by re-telling this story I don’t aim to recreate the romanticizing of the worker that you refer to, you know, the noble, humble worker…Instead I wish to point out what I feel I have been missing when I have sought the Art (with a capital A) designation in relation to my students artisanal work and have asked the same questions seeking other working class representations as you have mentioned. The world for Art with a capital A lacks imagination in its inability to see the layered and rich nature of the artisan, of the beauty of function, and what producing collectively truly entails in the case of my students and other construction workers I have known—calling it art does it no service. Instead, I’m more interested in learning more about the under examined social and material traditions of the artisan mindset. ..
    While I realize here I’m only contending with one slice of working class experience, I think it speaks to a larger point of the limits of the current art frame. And I believe that a re-examination of the categories of graffiti –with its own working class origins- as a cultural movement of great depth and criticality might be one place to start. The kind of exploration that socially engaged art ventures into as it is gaining traction in the field, shows promise as well. Though perhaps we should be weary of art world attention anyway, for its tendency to engage in the same politics of representation that produce the world you allude to in the beginning of your article… At the risk of self- promotion (one of the aspects of the world I am proposing we all eschew) I submit an article about workers self-representation


  3. Kathy M. Newman says:

    This is a really important problem/obstacle in thinking about working class representation—what it means. Two things: I think there is a movement of international artists to represent global work processes. I’m thinking of Michael Wolf and his photographs of Chinese toy workers for starters. Also, I think gallery control is really important. One of the best places in the US to see art about and by working class people is at U of Michigan in East Lansing, where John Beck and others run the Our Daily Work Our Daily Lives program. Because of their relationship with the campus art museum, they curate and host working class art shows on a regular basis. Check out their website here:


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