It’s no secret that getting ahead in the art world relies heavily on who you know and what money you have behind you. That’s not a new statement or wild of me to write. In fact it’s probably the opening line of many an article, blog entry and Instagram caption. Us poor kids have been living it, fighting it and writing about it for many years now and it seems to only be getting worse. Since the raise in tuition fees for UK universities in 2012, leaving students with an average of forty to fifty thousand pounds worth of tuition fee and maintenance debt (mine is at 85k, but that’s a story for another day), the divide between the working, middle and upper class has only gotten bigger and fuelled harder by hate. We resent our peers with more money than us for more than one reason; their ability to buy better equipment, do unpaid internships whilst their parents support them, not having to work paid jobs alongside their studies, being able to attend better more expensive schools, the list is endless. Poorer students are working more and more hours alongside their studies just to cover rent whilst their richer peers seem to be having it much easier with more freedom to study and interact with the industry and in tow leads them to better opportunities. Because of this Working Class artists are clubbing together to form groups that exclude anyone that looks like they might have money, which is problematic in itself, and are trying to tear down the barriers that being broke builds for you in the industry. By excluding well-off individuals, you are putting your middle finger up to “the man” and knocking down those walls that divide the poor from the not poor, telling the system to “do one” and bringing artists of all levels together finally, right? I’d say wrong, and here’s why.
Exclusion, be it with very honourable and fair intent, is exclusion nonetheless. Exclusion is hateful and encourages prejudice. It divides people and teaches them that being different is a bad thing, that we should all stick in our lanes and only work within our means and with “our people”. This is such a backwards concept. Working Class only opportunities, much like women only opportunities, suggest that poorer artists need a different league to those artists with money and women need different competitions to men. We don’t. We need a change in the system, not individuals.Opportunities for artists need better funding, flexibility to work alongside if needed and to abolish entry fees. Residencies that the artist pays to do are only accessible to people with the money to do so and the flexibility to take a month off of work (if they have a day job). Competitions that cost thirty pound just to enter are inaccessible if that money is equal to your food shop in a week. Hiring your own gallery space to have a solo exhibition is not even a distant consideration if the space is equivalent to a month’s rent, or maybe even two. Again, this isn’t a new argument. This is a problem that Working Class artists have faced for many years, deciding whether to pay for equipment, materials, prints or to pay your phone bill that month. When you’re in that predicament and you see the people around you not worrying about living out of their overdrafts and working an extra twelve hour shift that week to pay for deadline prints, its hard not to put the blame on your wealthy friends. “Why do I have to work so hard and they just get everything given to them” is actually a question I’ve asked myself many times throughout my educational and personal career. I would find myself in tears that my rich friends were getting ahead when I wasn’t,even though I believed that I worked harder than they did, but now I have a better understanding of the industry, how it runs and who runs it I know that it isn’t their fault at all.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t had my fair share of encounters with privileged artists and students. I went to a prestigious school for my Master’s degree and will never forget the students who dumped their very expensive prints on the floor by their allocated exhibition space on deadline day and disappeared expecting the technicians to do it for them. But that doesn’t speak for everyone with money that studied on my course, just a select few. Some of my best friends at all three art schools that I attended had rich parents and they worked harder than most. By putting people into categories defined by their wealth, you are stereotyping and assuming that richer people are all entitled and that working class people should not work with them. This is classism and exactly what the industry seems to encourage.
The industry relies on the wealthy to continue to fund their own residencies and solo shows and pay the ludicrous entry fees to survive. This isn’t the fault of the young artist’s with money that are trying to get ahead, they are just lucky enough to have the money to do so. The fault lies at the doors of the organisations that run the competitions, the institutions that offer residencies for the cost of four month’s rent for a four week stay. It lies with the people that sit at the top and set the fees for each aspect that we are told we have to do to make us “proper artists”. The very people that decide whether our work is good enough to be a part of their exhibition, publication or archive are the ones that limit working class artists from getting ahead. Not our richer peers. By dividing ourselves further into groups of Working Class artists and non-working class artists we are just doing exactly what the system wants us to do. We are excluding ourselves from others and supporting further the never-ending class war.