But What do I Know?
Prompt: How are messages embedded in visual culture? How, in turn, are photographs, videos, illustrations, performances, graphic novels, sculptures, and technological innovations - and more - used to communicate an idea or position? And what might it mean to make something that doesn't fit into any one category as we know it?
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s piece, St. Tammany Parish, is a 5’x4’ oil painting that hung on the sixth floor of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The painting depicts two women fighting on a road filled with cracks and potholes. In the background, men and women egg on the two fighting girls while in the foreground two men stand watching from a distance. One is facing the women and has his back turned to the viewer while the other man in the foreground faces his friend and the audience at an angle. This man’s fist is clenched and his shirtlessness reveals a slew of script tattoos I’ve seen hundreds of variations of in real life.
The other male characters in the scene wear t-shirts and jeans and the women are dressed in spaghetti-strap tank tops and short shorts. The setting is reminiscent of a trailer park yet the buildings pictured are nondescript besides the edge of a yellow house peering out from the left. The color scheme features saturated reds and blues, but everything feels muted and dull. Even the greenery that frames the scene appears sickly. The gray sky mimics the gray crumbling road. The paint is watery and thin and Dupuy-Spencer’s brush strokes are awkward and jagged. The faces of the figures are recognizable as people although cartoonish and warped. They are contorted into different expressions of amusement. The smidge of naturalism in the painting is achieved by rough, conspicuous shadows that are just barely convincing enough to convey light. When I think of oil paint I think of landscapes and skilled portraits. I certainly don’t think of girl fights or working class America. I guess I really don’t think of working class America when I think of art at all. I asked my teacher if it was mocking the people within the scene. He answered me with something I don’t remember and then told me it was about the male gaze. Susanna and the Elders. I stood, frozen with internal conflict. Does anybody in this museum feel that hanging this painting here is a problem?
There is a tall fence between working class people and fine art. In 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Endowment for the Arts into place. He envisioned fostering an American reverence for the arts through the funding of programs in all cities, rural areas, and suburbs.1 This dream died along with most of the NEA budget, which to this day gets slashed ever increasingly. The places that were supposed to benefit from financial aid don’t receive enough funding, if any at all. It’s not surprising that the arts are not considered important when they are the first programs cut. The arts are now for those who can afford them—people with monetary privilege. Between 1965 and 2008, the foundation provided about five billion dollars to different art based organizations.2 In 2014 alone, the private sector, (individuals, foundations, and corporations,) contributed $17.23 billion to the arts.3 Andy Horwitz points out in an article about the NEA that, “It should come as no surprise that people in minority, disenfranchised, and rural communities don’t usually have access to millionaires and billionaires who they can cultivate as donors.”4 Programs like the NEA are necessary for keeping working class communities engaged in the arts. Expensive access to the arts and art programs also creates cultural dissonance between art and working class people. Wealth within the art sphere and “high culture” makes working-class people feel
- A) out of place because they are not affluent and
- B) uninterested, because money in the arts makes approaching and interpreting art
It’s curious that 63% of America identifies as working-class, yet there is little art made depicting working-class people. Shouldn’t the massive population of working class people be proof of their importance in American culture? So why is it they’re frequently left out of the dialogue? As Sarah Attfield points out, there are holes in the safety net for those who have an interest in art but feel that it is too financially risky to pursue as a career. Their parents push them to be doctors, lawyers, and other high paying jobs because most working-class children do not have the luxury of relying on their parents for excess income, or cannot afford to attend costly institutions for art educations.5
There may be working class people acknowledged in Dupuy-Spencer’s piece, and yes, it may be hanging in the Whitney–but with expensive ticket prices and bourgeoisie location, working class people are still excluded. Putting Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s artwork on the wall is no more than a voyeuristic look into working class America for the pleasures of the viewers at the Whitney.6 How many people from the working class will see these images? Most importantly, doesn’t it kind of suck that the people this image was made about, the people, who should theoretically understand this piece the most, don’t have access to this artwork?
1 Mark Bauerlein and Ellen Grantham, National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008
2 “National Endowment for the Arts Appropriations History” last modified 2017, https://www.arts.gov/open-government/national-endowment-arts-appropriations-history.
3 Cohen, July 10, 2015, “What’s Measured Matters…Private Giving to Arts & Culture: Way Up in 2014,” Americans for the Arts,
4 Andy Horwitz, “Who Should Pay for the Arts in America?” The Atlantic, January 31, 2016.
5 Attfield, April 25, 2016, “Art for whose Sake? Working-Class Life in Visual Art,” Working Class Perspectives, https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2016/04/25/art-for-whose-sakeworking-class-life-in-visual-art/.
6 Lamb, John B. “Turning the Inside Out: Morals, Modes of Living, and the Condition of the Working Class.” Victorian Literature and Culture 25, no. 1 (1997): 39-52.