From Athens to Vanderbilt to KickStarter

Inequality and art


“Who gets to create art?” asked The Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott in an essay on the controversy over the 2012 release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. “For the most part,” he says, “it’s born of privilege.” In large part, the right to create art, at least on a national level, seems to be reserved for those who can afford it as well as those who have historically been permitted to do so. This idea goes back to Athens at least, if not further. Elliott says, “I have a vague memory of a history class talking about the role of leisure and abundance in the creation of much of the work stocking our museums.” To be part of the elite, or the hegemony at least, is to have leisure time, resources, and inspirational encouragement—all the necessary tools to provide society’s artwork. Again, this can be traced back to Athens and continues in the present day. This form of stratification appears in the way that schools’ arts programs are funded disparately by class, in the way the power structure reproduces itself in culture, and in the way that opportunity and motivation to create art are unequally distributed.

Daniela Pimental / Kitsch Artist
Daniela Pimental / Kitsch Artist

The process starts in elementary school, when certain kids are able to go to public schools that are well-funded by local property tax dollars; these are the few schools with a surplus of money that can be allocated to arts programs. Additionally, a completely separate group of students are able to go to private performing arts schools that give them incredible advantages in terms of accessing and creating art. The discrepancy compounds further when wealthier students go to college. Of course, it’s mostly the more wealthy who will get the B.A.’s and M.F.A’s, whereas the majority of the remaining student population are going to be encouraged to look for something with immediate post-grad financial benefits. After college, creative types still have to decide between devoting time to their art and earning a living wage. Elliott says, “More importantly, is there a net beneath you if you fall, because nobody accomplishes anything if they only get to fail one time.” Someone who had their parents pay for an M.F.A. at Parson’s has an advantage over the person who had to student-loan their way through a mediocre program at Alfred State. It takes just the slightest bit of critical thinking to realize that “if you were raised to believe your voice matters it’s more likely that you’ll believe you have something important to say,” in Elliot’s words.

There’s no way to ask the question of “who gets to create art?” without a historical framework. According to sociologist Peter Blau, from the medieval era up until about the 19th century in Europe, artists were dependent upon the patrons who would determine all of the aesthetic trends—members of the nobility and the church who had the funds to support art and the leisure time to enjoy it. In a more stable, late 18th century Europe, after class became even more firmly established based on wealth and lineage, the restrictions of art loosened up a little. In the early 17th century, Shakespeare wrote about sex and murder and oodles of irony: the common people liked it, and the Queen liked it too. In fact, there wasn’t much difference culturally between the elite and the masses during this time, continuing through the time of the vaudeville and the early opera in the 19th century, because elite status was sufficiently entrenched as to let the cultural stuff slide.

Once the industrial revolution began, and “access to elite status became less limited through family ties and more open to new wealth,” according to Shamus Khan of The New York Times, there emerged an “exclusive culture distinct from the common American.” The industrial revolution was the era in which the American bourgeoisie was consolidated. Khan explains this consolidation with an anecdote about William Vanderbilt. When Vanderbilt tried to buy a private box in the New York Academy of Music in 1880, and was turned down, he joined forces with other new-money families like the Goulds, Rockefellers, and Whitneys to found the Metropolitan Opera House. “Modern temples of power were built on the foundations of the old,” says Khan, and these new elites “built moats and fences not just around neighborhoods but also around cultural artifacts.” It was around the time of the Rockefellers that the opera houses dropped their vaudeville performances, that Verdi upped his ticket prices, and that the Metropolitan Museum of Art started turning people away if they exuded “offensive odors.” In this way, the art world belonged to the elite once again.

It is even more unlikely today that the underprivileged will be able to express their talents through art because, as Khan notes, we have created a deeply-ingrained culture of “individual self-cultivation.” The rhetoric of the new elite “emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to make it,” while at the same time reiterating that, “talents are costly to develop and we refuse to socialize these costs.” This notion is most obvious and noted in the allocation of funds in our public school system.

The National Center for Education Statistics released a report in early 2012 that illustrated the changes in arts funding for public schools as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act; the report showed a 20% reduction in arts funding for economically disadvantaged school districts. According to a study by the National Art Education Association in 2010, this is mainly due to the fact that the No Child Left Behind Act creates stringent testing and funding standards. In poorly-funded schools, this means cutting all programs not directly related to standardized test scores or graduation rates. The Rand Corporation released a report in 2005 which argued that art “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing,” and more empirically, that art programs in schools have been correlated with increased abilities in math, reading, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Eric Cooper of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education asserts that arts involvement is especially important for the economically disadvantaged, saying, “Arts education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children who have had those enrichment experiences.” But, ironically, the kids who could benefit most from an arts education are the kids who aren’t getting one.

Dr. Maya Cummings of Global Policy Solutions wrote an article for The Huffington Post about an annual art competition in Baltimore. Cummings interacted with a middle school teacher at the event who expressed her surprise that any art made by inner-city students was considered at all. According to the teacher, “there were no art supplies except some old spoiled tempera paint and paper” at her school, and she had to pay “out-of-pocket for some supplies and [scavenge] for the rest.” Cummings then talked to the mother of a student from the Howard County Public School System, who stated, “You wouldn’t believe the resources they have to support the arts in my daughter’s school,” referring to the affluent school district located in the suburbs of Baltimore.

In 2011, Grantmakers in the Arts published a more empirical representation of this information. This study from 2011 showed there was a total investment of $3.58 per student by the federal government for arts programs. Government funding dropped by $169.5 million (20%) between 2008 and 2011, and state arts agencies lost $174 million (39%) of their federally-appropriated funds between 2001 and 2011. Between 1992 and 2011, Congressional funding for the National Endowment for the Arts decreased by 44%, state funding by 18%, and local funding by 27%.

In 2012, Thomas Espenshade of Princeton University wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “elite higher education helps maintain social inequality in America and the economic recession is magnifying that problem, especially in public institutions.” He notes that this trend is evident from start to finish in the college process—more than half of the applicants to America’s elite universities are from upper-middle-class or upper-class families, and by graduation the rate is 60%. Stereotypes of liberal arts educations going to the children of the affluent aren’t stereotypes at all—while 79% of students in the top income quartile receive Bachelor’s degrees, the figure for the bottom quartile is a mere 11%. Artsiest of the liberal arts schools, institutions such as Hamilton College and Bard College boast in their admissions materials that their alumni are some of the wealthiest individuals in the country—neglecting to mention that this is a status that these alumni mostly enter with. And this problem only increases with how selective the school is. Prof. Richard Sander of UCLA points out that for Yale and Harvard, 60% of incoming students come from economic backgrounds in the top 10%, where only 5% come from the bottom half.

Judith and Peter Blau conducted a quantitative study of America’s 125 largest metropolitan areas asking the question, “How do social and economic conditions influence the prevalence of artistic pursuits?” What they found was numerous reiterations of what we already knew. Sociologists echo each other across generations, with Thorstein Veblen writing in 1899, “the development of American art depends on the contributions of the wealthy, the capitalist elite,” with Pierre Bourdieu, in 1973, noting how cultural capital forms symbolic boundaries between classes that are recreated generation after generation, and with Steven Feld, in 1983, collecting the numbers and noticing that audiences for art events are disproportionately from wealthier households, even for popular music and movies.

This was all still true by the time sociologists Blau & Blau conducted their study, and they explained this phenomenon as an off-shoot of a capitalist democracy. “The nouveaux riches help legitimize their elite status beyond the purely economic realm by becoming patrons of the arts, both because they assume a function traditionally associated with elite status and because patronizing the arts enables them to guide cultural standards.” Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of their findings is that this economic inequality actually promotes artistic creation in a metropolis, and not for good reasons. Inequality increases the notable cultural distance between classes and therefore requires the creation of more art to satisfy the various subcultures that arise around these lines. The wealthy subculture, of course, receives the most statistically significant portion of this increased production.

This all relates back to the discussion of the “New Elite.” Andrew Stille for The New York Times explains “The Paradox of the New Elite” as a combination of two distinct trends: one towards “democratic inclusion” and the other towards “a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” Even as our society becomes more inclusive, he argues, we allow for increasing stratification. Stille cites the fact that more than half of America’s presidents from the past century graduated from one of the nation’s three most-elite universities (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) and that “with educational attainment going increasingly to the children of the affluent and educated, we appear to be developing a self-perpetuating elite that reaps a greater and greater share of the financial rewards.” There are few perceptions of American society that are more deeply embedded than that of our alleged meritocracy. There are also few that are more difficult to defend. “The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience,” says Khan.

He’s right, but a “narrative of openness” wasn’t a part of the term “meritocracy” originally. The term “meritocracy,” was meant as a pejorative term when it was coined in 1958 by British Labor Party leader Michael Young in the satirical dystopian novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The narrative was a didactic warning against creating a new elite based on early aptitude in the industrial economy, as their “privileges [would become] more crushing and fiercely defended because they appeared to be entirely merited.”

Pierre Bourdieu’s noted 1973 work, “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction,” explains that “the educational system reproduces all the more perfectly the structure of the distribution of cultural capital among classes.” He asserted that art, literature, and culture almost always directed undue attention to the creators and diverted attention from the social situations and advantages that formed the creators themselves. In other words, people refused to acknowledge that artistic representations were recreations of inequality. Recent discussions show that the art world thrives on inequality. Adam Davidson points out that “because each piece of fine art is unique and can’t be owned by anybody else, it does a more powerful and subtle job of signaling wealth than virtually any other luxury good.” The fine art market seems to be completely separate from the overall economy, as it grew faster than subprime housing in the years 2003-2007. In fact, Davidson emphasizes, “Fine art is not really part of the global economy. Instead, it’s part of the economy of a small subset of the super-superrich.” Therefore, the rich not only own the ability to make art, they own the ability to possess it as well. Ticket prices for high culture goods and events have excluded the middle class for years, but the cost of things like popular movies and musical shows are now rising in excess of inflation, too.

The easiest way to think about the situation is to look at it anecdotally. Marginal groups fall short in the art world, time after time. If you look at the VIDA stats for this year, art inequalities by gender are obvious—The New Yorker reviewed 583 books by men and only 218 by women in 2012; that’s 27% for the ladies, which makes them the median amongst comparable publications like Harper’s, New York Review of Books, and New York Times Book Review. Look back at Django Unchained and it seems like you would have a near-impossible time defending the idea that a black filmmaker could have made that same movie in the same way and garnered the same attention. To an even greater extent, economic inequalities in art production seem like they should go without saying. When you talk about the success of Lena Dunham—who made her first movie on a high-end camera given as a Christmas present by her parents and with a $25,000 loan from two of her parents’ art-world friends, it’s hard to pretend that economic advantage doesn’t equal artistic advantage.

People are lauding the accomplishments of online organizations such as Tumblr, a free blogging and art-promoting site, that claims to grant the ability to “follow the world’s creators,” and KickStarter, a website that allows people to remotely donate money to small arts projects based on brief pitches and video clips. The 2011 documentary Press/Pause/Play argued that art is becoming a more democratic process as independent publishers and moviemakers break away from the constraints of “the industry.” Technological advances may well change the conversation when it comes to the acquisition of the supplies to make certain types of art—but it hardly addresses the issues of time, aspirations, aesthetic training, educational background, or industry know-how. Even the “independent” art world is an industry after all, and if you can save a sliver of your paycheck each week to eventually acquire some recording equipment on-the-cheap, does that really equate being on the same playing field as someone who received a pricey, formal musical education at Julliard? ◊



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