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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Poor Folks and the Arts

posted by on May 21 at 12:08 PM

As everyone has gotten angrier and angrier about West Virginia and Kentucky, I’ve been thinking more and more about Joe Baegeant’s excellent book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, which I reviewed a few months back. Bageant lives in small-town red state America, and he writes compassionate pieces about what it’s like. He’s a liberal, but he really loves where he’s from, and he’s a compelling voice for the poor and why they continually vote against their own best interests. It’s not at all condescending or stupid, like so many of the liberal blogs and books have been when talking about poor conservatives. I found a lot of people I knew growing up in Bageant’s book.

Over on his blog, Bageant runs letters he gets from conservatives and liberals alike, and he got a good one today, about working class art:

I guess my fear is that the age of working class art is over. That there won’t be another Woody Guthrie comin’ down the pipe. Or Roger Miller, or Lee Hazelwood. All small town midwestern boys who went on to make some legendary American music. It’s been this way for awhile in the world of visual art. Even “folk art” is made by the well-heeled at this point. Music held out a little bit longer but it is going the same direction. If things continue at this rate, the only people making music are going to be the sons and daughters of the idle rich, squandering the family fortune. Soon enough finding a redneck who can strum a guitar will be as likely as finding one who does charcoal sketches in his spare time.

It’s something that has concerned me for a while—most of my favorite art comes from blue-collar roots—and the letter, while a little too long, is very much worth a read.

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This is a fantastic photo of Pete Seeger singing for Eleanor Roosevelt at a Federal Labor celebration in 1944. An ardent socialist and great songwriter who served in the Army in WWII in the Pacific, I think he's a perfect example of this.

Posted by V | May 21, 2008 12:29 PM

I ain't rich, and I'm an artist. In fact most of the people who show or perform at our gallery are broke...we sort of cater to that element. Check out as well for some folk art by the not so rich, many of whom are in the deep south along with locals. Poor people still do art, they just don't show it in judgemental hoity toity galleries that take 50% of your dough, forcing you to raise the prices and hence not make sales.

Posted by Gabe | May 21, 2008 12:34 PM

I see the point and the larger trend about music, but, in my rural, working class upbringing in Illinois there was quite a bit of “working class art”. We had a corn festival every year, with a photography show, huge arts & crafts show, a flea-market type event with all kinds of folk art/crafts. This may seem like a weird thing to say, but I always thought it was pretty neat how passionate the men were about woodcarving, crafts, etc. My uncle (working class, Christianist, from Iowa) makes folk art using driftwood he finds, coal, and copper wire – same thing, I think it’s pretty cool that he has something he loves as an artistic outlet (even if it’s definitely one of those things where we keep his pieces in the closet until they come to visit). Maybe this isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but, just go to any kind of flea market-type thing and you’ll see plenty of working class artistic expression….

Posted by Julie | May 21, 2008 12:35 PM

To clarify from #2, Dos Folkies isn't our place....they are friends of ours. We have a little place across the pond called the AFU Gallery in B'town...where broke artists come to show!

Posted by Gabe | May 21, 2008 1:02 PM

It's a valid concern, but it's forty years out of date. Even Seeger and Guthrie to some extent were consciously emulating a style, not coming to it organically, and they were sixty years ago. The music of the working class comes exclusively from other countries, like Brazil, and has for decades now.

Pop music since the rock era has always been the music of the spoiled middle-class art student.

Visual art? Has there EVER been a real working class visual artist? If there has, it's been someone like Norman Rockwell, not something interesting.

Posted by Fnarf | May 21, 2008 2:49 PM

get the rednecks to quit driving, turn off their TVs, & stop sucking down meth & corn syrup, and eventually they'll start making music or art again.

Posted by maxsolomon@home | May 21, 2008 4:37 PM

Redneck culture is dead, though. All they have is the completely deracinated American Idol version of modern country. Even the rootsy shit is totally fake; you have to go to Ireland or Scotland to hear honest country music now.

But culturally speaking hip West Coast liberals are just as bankrupt musically, at least in terms of the broader culture. America doesn't have a real connection to music anymore, nowhere. I mean, if you like indie rock, there's a ton of it around, and it's all to a reasonably good standard, but it doesn't MEAN anything anymore. America would not be a different place with or without it.

Posted by Fnarf | May 21, 2008 5:29 PM

I think I heard about this on the NP & R, but I found the same tale at the NYT obit:

Rauschenberg's thrifty childhood, and his stumbling into a museum while stationed in San Diego with the U.S. Navy. Never thought about art before that day.

Posted by CP | May 21, 2008 5:43 PM

@5: depends on if you mean they were born into a working class family, if they worked a job while they were artists, or you consider art-making to be a job until it starts to pay the bills. I thought of a few artists I admire who were from working-class backgrounds:
John Sloan (a few of the other ashcan guys were, too)
Jackson Pollock
Clyfford Still (Spokane, holla!)
Jacob Lawrence
Childe Hassam

Posted by bronkitis | May 21, 2008 6:02 PM

Point conceded; there are some. Those are good examples.

Posted by Fnarf | May 21, 2008 6:54 PM

Plenty of artists are poor and plenty (but perhaps not enough, I'll concede) poor people make art. The artists you've heard about, the famous ones, are disproportionately wealthy. Probably because trust funders are more likely to have the opportunity to build their careers for five to ten years starting in their early twenties without having to work a day job. They're also marginally more likely to be encouraged to study the more esoteric disciplines like ballet or opera at a young enough age to make a difference.

Posted by flamingbanjo | May 21, 2008 7:38 PM

Poor does not equal working class. Artists choose to be poor, usually. That's the bohemian way. Most of them could leave that world and move back into the middle class if they wanted to.

Posted by Fnarf | May 21, 2008 11:29 PM

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