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Who Owns Art?

I have learned more through my experience with inner-city teens than I could ever hope to learn from a university. It is time for the elite minority to move out of the limits of their class privilege and share their resources.
Kim Nicolini

Issue #26, May 1996

I like to paint, and I like to write poems. I like to take materials and words and make something new out of them, to create a form outside of myself that represents myself and my view of the world. Making things has always been part of my life. I've done this since I can remember. When people find out I do this or when people come to my house and see my paintings, they ask, "Are you an artist?" I freeze. I hate answering that question. ARTIST — the very word causes me anxiety, gives me a stomach ache, makes me fidget. "No, I just like to make things," I usually reply.

Why am I so uncomfortable calling myself an artist? Because I don't feel like the word "artist" belongs to me, because the word "artist" implies membership in a social class to which I do not feel I belong or can belong. The terms "artist" and "art" do not simply describe those who make and that which is made; they are markers of cultural hierarchy, representations of class. The concepts of the artist and art do not belong to everyday people. They belong to the material and cultural elite who deny access to those who do not possess the necessary cultural and material capital to participate in the arena of art.

In socially sanctified circles, being an artist implies that you have gone through the prescribed institutional "system" of art. This is especially obvious in the case of visual artists: you've been to college and art school; you've been trained by official artists; you've worked your way into gallery shows and sold your work to collectors; and if you have the right connections, maybe some day you'll have a retrospective at a museum and be canonized. Within systems of power, being an artist means that you move with other artists, that you are part of the elite art community. The art community is rarely part of the everyday people community, and the everyday people community is rarely part of the art community. I inhabit the gray area in between. I work in the everyday world, and I also like to create things and express myself in art and writing. But, I do not call myself an artist. I make things.

I shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable calling myself an artist though. People are naturally drawn to what we call "art". We possess the powers to imagine, reflect and feel that inspire the making and appreciating of art. So why is it relegated to a limited arena owned and operated by an elite few? Because imagination and reflection are perceived as dangerous to systems of power and to a social system that divides people into classes. People are discouraged from feeling, reflecting, and questioning because doing so may lead them to question their position on the social map, to question the authority of those in power, and to cross their class boundaries. It is important for power structures as they exist today to keep art away from the majority.

I studied at UC Berkeley in the English Department for my junior and senior years of college. I transferred there on a full scholarship from a community college, never having been to high school. The reason I became an English major was corny, romantic, and certainly would be frowned upon by most members of the intellectual elite: I felt that literature spoke to me. Before I attended community college, I had never been exposed to literature. But when I did read "serious" literature for the first time, I was incredibly moved by socially conscious writing that explored and exposed the everyday tragedies that occur in our social and economic systems. Dreiser, Baldwin, Plath and loads of other writers dealing with class, race, gender, and economic issues made me realize that my situation, my family's struggles, were not just mine, but were indicative of an entire system that oppresses the many and caters to the few. But as powerful an effect as reading literature had on me, I still feel embarrassed for writing this because that's what my education at Berkeley taught me — to be embarrassed by sincere thoughts. During my entire two-year stay at Berkeley, only two professors were supportive of my personal approach to literature. Passionate and personal responses to novels and poems were not acceptable. Many professors and readers trivialized my points of view, mocked and belittled me. Why? Because my ideas were not hidden in the language of a privileged theoretical discourse. They were just too accessible.

Not only are personal and passionate responses discouraged in academic circles, they are also discouraged in everyday life. Enlightenment, understanding, and personal reflection are dangerous to systems of power. Because of those systems, these basic human elements have been displaced onto commodity objects rather than their own creative works or the appreciation of works created by others. Art has been taken away from the people and replaced with commodity culture. Ironically, these types of questions about art and class never occurred to me prior to attending UC Berkeley. My two years at Berkeley exposed me to class differences and systems of exclusion to which I had never been exposed while simultaneously providing me with the tools to critique those very systems. I had always used art and writing as a means to express myself, my history, and my reactions to the social constructs that affected me. Art gave me a concrete release for my abstract experience and feelings. Although my education at Berkeley should have discouraged me from this approach to art, when I graduated from Berkeley, I combined my initial relationship to art, my new awareness of class and elitism, and my new tools for critique, and worked to bring art to those people usually excluded from its elite circle.

I used my experience to bring the power of art to inner-city teens, to help them access the arts and use them to better understand themselves and their condition in the same way I did as a former inner-city teen who was able to move out of that environment. I have been teaching art and poetry to inner-city kids in one form or another since I graduated from Berkeley in 1988. My first job was at a 52 bed residential rehabilitation facility for teens on probation. The majority of these teens grew up in gangs. About half were from Mexican gangs in California's Central Valley. Their parents were non-native speakers, and many were dead or in prison. Other parents worked picking fruit and vegetables in the fields of the Central Valley. Many others were African American gang teens (Crips and Bloods) from San Francisco and Oakland. They had spent their entire lives in the housing projects and on the streets. Many of their parents were dead or in prison. None of these kids possessed cultural capital. None of these kids even knew anything called "theory" existed. In fact, most of these kids did not even know what "college" was. But they still produced incredible drawings and paintings and wrote intensely powerful poems. I never for a moment doubted their ability to understand, create, and learn. And they never for a moment let me down.

Beatrice was a fifteen-year-old girl who participated in my weekly poetry workshops once a week. Her father had shot her up with heroin and pimped her when she was ten. She had spent her entire childhood in the sheltered environment of Mexican gangs. When I got to know her, Beatrice's father was in prison and she was trying to learn how to function and survive in the world. Regardless of how many problems she was having the rest of the week (and they were many), she always came to poetry class and wrote. She took her writing very seriously. One day she came up to me and told me she found a poem that she really loved and wanted to read it to me. She read it:

Spanish Dancer
As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.
And all at once it is completely fire.
One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.
And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture, and watches:
it lies raging on the floor, still blazing up,
and the flames refuse to die — .
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.

She read the poem with incredible intensity and passion, slowly pronouncing each word, never looking at me, her eyes focused entirely in the place of the poem.

"Have you heard that before?" she asked me.

"No. It's beautiful. Who wrote it?"

"This person." She showed me the book. "I don't know how to say her name."

The name was Rainer Maria Rilke. She had found the book in the Bookmobile that visits the community school once a week. She did not know who Rilke was, did not know that Rilke was German, that he lived in a time before her, that he was a "he." But she did understand the poem and had a passionate and personal response to it. I cannot read this poem without thinking about Beatrice, about her "powerful small feet," her "passionate flames," of her "rattlesnake" life, without seeing the image of her father injecting her toe with heroin so her body would not be scarred. Many scholars would frown upon my relation to this poem, and they surely would place little value on Beatrice's interpretation of it. But who says that that Rilke's poem belongs any less to Beatrice than to some academic?

I use Beatrice and Rilke here to illustrate that art can have meaning without being filtered through institutionally enforced modes of analysis and that art can play a very important role in people's ability to reflect upon and understand their environment and life. But what provided Beatrice with access to Rilke, a poet who very few people know about? (Ask your average person on the street — and not on the street outside campus — if they know who Rainer Maria Rilke is and how many positive responses do you think you will get?) Beatrice was able to access this poem because of the passion and power of its vision and its connection to her cultural context — the Spanish Dancer. Most importantly, she accessed the poem through a social program — the bookmobile -a program which is now virtually extinct due to increasing budget cuts to libraries and other educational resources available to those who otherwise would not have access to art and literature. Without the bookmobile, Beatrice would not have found the Rilke poem, and without the cultural context and passion expressed in "The Spanish Dancer," she would not have made the personal connection to the poem that enabled her to understand herself in a new light.

Many intellectuals tend to argue against the importance of the social and cultural context of art. Likewise, they argue against instinctual reaction to art and claim that this human response neglects to appreciate the art in its pure form. By discounting "personal" responses to art, this type of thinking deprives art of its capacity to provoke change. Many theorists argue that art should stand alone outside historical, social, and cultural context. But subjectivity demystifies art and provides avenues for understanding. Providing a social and/or historical context creates access to the art so people can consider their own condition and reach an understanding of the forces operating in their life. And understanding provokes action and change. Depriving art of this capacity feeds right into structures of power.

In capitalism as we live in it today, people are not just discouraged from thinking about art; they are also conditioned not to "make" things or appreciate the abstract realm of their existence. They are trained to consume, not to create. Those who are trained to "make" and to "appreciate" are a very small percentage of those who live and work under present-day capitalism. One may argue: what about craftspeople, those who make things through labor? They are rapidly becoming extinct. Those who make or create things for work are also a very elite group — engineers, architects, computer designers, graphic designers. When was the last time you walked down to your local cobbler for a pair of hand-made shoes? When was the last time a house was built in your town by a single craftsperson and his team rather than a large housing developer employing non-union labor? In present-day capitalism there are those who are allowed to make and create and those who are trained to work and consume. And then there are those who have nothing: no cultural capital, no job, no resources to consume.

The cultural hierarchy imposed on art works to strip it of its ability to educate, inspire, and promote social change. But we have to remember that this hierarchy is an artificial construction. Just because art is constrained by class division does not mean that it lacks the power to effect change if given the opportunity. Art's real value is its ability to penetrate the sub-conscious, to inspire reflection, and emancipate the imagination and emotions, all things which have no monetary value. The appreciation of art does not require economic and cultural capital. Clothed in the trappings of intellectualism and class, art is deprived of its very universality and its ability to reach all people. But these trappings cannot strip art of its ability to inspire or transcend social boundaries. If people are provided with access to art, art speaks to the people.

When I worked at the rehab center for teens, I brought the kids to all the art exhibits that came to the Bay Area regardless of the content. We saw graffiti artists at the Mexican Museum and multi-media artists at the Modern Art Museum. One weekend, I brought them to see the Surrealism exhibit at the UC Berkeley Art Museum. The teens had never heard of Surrealism before. They had no idea what it was or what it meant, and they certainly had no knowledge of psychoanalytic theory or any other theory that would provide them more access to the art's meaning. When we got to the museum, they all just stared at the paintings and sculpture with curiosity. Their usual reaction when we first got to a museum or gallery was: "That's fucking weird," or they would laugh, or they would have really bizarre personal reactions to the art. But then they would always ask me what it meant. In the case of the Surrealism exhibit, I very simply told them about the rupture that occurred during World War I and World War II, when things fell apart and a great violence and hatred spread throughout Europe. They could understand that. They had been living in their own wars. That brief explanation of a historical context was all it took for the teens to become completely emerged in the art. Suddenly, they understood and felt it. Each teen was drawn to a different piece as a testimony of her or his own history, experience, and emotions: suddenly the art belonged to them.

This response to art may seem unsophisticated and base, but sophistication is not the issue here. Impact is the issue. By being able to access the art, these teens were able to access themselves, a seemingly simple thing that many people are never able to do. Institutionalized elitism plays a significant role in the devaluation of the human intuitive response to art and of art's ability to teach through catharsis and reflection. While many intellectuals and academics consciously and aggressively defend the elite status of art and argue for its high placement in the cultural hierarchy, others have adopted theory, a heavily encoded form of intellectual analysis, as a tool to look into art and analyze its implications, messages, and social significance. Academics use theory as a tool to communicate complex ideas about the abstract social, political, and cultural implications of art, literature, and film. Frequently, academic theory informs the creation of contemporary art and is seen as politically progressive and potentially revolutionary. But how can a system of thought and analysis and the art it inspires be revolutionary if its vocabulary is only accessible to a very limited and elite few? Must one possess the knowledge of institutionally sanctified "theory" to understand art's meaning? No. Theory merely puts into words the intuitive sense which most people already possess. But most people do not have the luxury or the resources to develop their own language for the abstract realm of emotion, culture, experience, and history. Theory may help produce a common language for the privileged few, but it is not a common language for the common people. It is a language created and controlled by a very small cultural elite in a closed environment.

Art has become simultaneously trapped by the theoretical dogma of intellectuals and stigmatized by the academic Left. Because it is encased by the constrictions imposed on it by the cultural and material elite who own it, it is frequently dismissed by the Left as the manifestation of the elite, as a frivolous pursuit that has no relevance for real-life dilemmas and struggles. But art actually is relevant to real-life struggles. People have a natural need to express themselves visually and to have outlets for their abstract emotions and responses to the world. But with the way things stand now, art is controlled by the elite to serve the elite. While the cultural elitists spin intellectual cartwheels in the arena of art, the material elitists fetishize and consume it. With the creation of art caught in the trappings of art schools, galleries, and museums and the understanding of art constrained by institutionalized intellectual dogma, is there a place for art outside the barriers imposed by class? My experience has taught me that there is and that that place should be a lot larger and much more accessible than it is today.

In a wave of budget cuts to social service programs, I lost my job at the rehab center four years ago. The center was closed, and those teens are now on their own with no support system. In my current job, I have worked with nearly 1,000 community service programs and have watched their budgets disappear and their resources dry up. Social programs that expose those outside of the privileged classes to the arts must be revitalized through funding and volunteer service. I know that art will not solve the world's problems, but it will provide people with an outlet to better understand their own condition and to express themselves in a new way. Awareness and understanding are the first step in provoking change. If they truly want to cultivate social change, those who have access to the arts and move in the closed circle of universities and other institutions must move out of that elite environment and share their cultural resources with those who do not have the privilege. I have learned more through my experience with inner-city teens than I could ever hope to learn from a university. It is time for the elite minority to move out of the limits of their class privilege and share their resources.

Kim Nicolini is the Executive Director of a small non-profit organization that provides arts education to disadvantaged people. In her spare time she makes a lot of things. She would love to hear from you:

Copyright © 1996 by Kim Nicolini. All rights reserved.