Songs for the Struggling Artist

Class Questions

We were in the kitchen of our small house out in the country. The wood stove might have been kicking out its dangerous warmth. The buckets of drinking water from the ice from the creek may have been melting nearby. That’s if it was winter – but I don’t remember the season. We were at the kitchen table, though, I remember that. And I asked my mother what class we were.

I was in elementary school and somehow the subject of class had come up. Almost all of my friends identified as middle class. But I was confused because middle class seemed to mean you had some money and we didn’t really seem to have much. We didn’t have plumbing in this house, for one thing. At the time, my mom worked as a secretary and my dad drove the Bookmobile. So at the dinner table that day, my mother eventually answered my question with “lower middle class” which reasonably settled my confusion around the lack of money we had compared to my friends.

Many years later, I find I am newly confused about this class question. Here in America, the myth of our classless society remains – even as income disparity becomes more extreme. The only class Americans are meant to have is the middle class. This is the only class we’re allowed to discuss. The working class, which in other cultures can be a point of pride, is an aspiring Middle class and the Upper Class is either the Elite or Upper Middle Class.

It seems to me that there is another class in operation that we don’t talk about and that is an Artist class or the Cultural middle class. Financially, I am not even close to middle class. I have been eligible for food stamps at many times in my life (though I’ve only used them that time the application came along with my contract at the theatre where I was working full time for $50 a week.) But I’m culturally middle class. I have a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree.

One of the things that’s awkward about this artist class confusion is that we operate in a world that is completely in line with us culturally but out of line with us financially. When our friends from college go out for a birthday dinner, they throw down $40-a-person like it’s no big deal. So usually we don’t go out to our friend’s birthday dinner because that $40 is our grocery money. We get farther away from our cultural peers as their lots in life improve and ours remain hand to mouth.

If you choose to make a life as an artist, it’s very likely that you will find yourself in this awkward middle space – with all the indicators that would suggest upward mobility but the reality of a downward mobility. Should we identify more with the working class then? At my first meeting with the League of Independent Theater, John Clancy proposed the idea that we’re not getting anywhere until we acknowledge that we’re actually working class.

I’m interested in this idea. As Planet Money recently pointed out, most artists have extreme downward mobility. Daughters and sons of doctors and lawyers become artists and their salaries never rise to meet their parents. But because these artists grew up middle class or upper middle class, perhaps identifying with the working class is loaded somehow. It may create a kind of cultural cognitive dissonance.

We don’t have a metric for people who are culturally rich but financially poor. But there are tons of us. And we spend a lot of time and effort pretending we’re doing better than we are. We go into debt to buy clothing that will help us fit in with our cultural peers. We go to those dinners with our friends. We go see the Broadway show even when we really can’t afford to. I mostly don’t do these things anymore myself but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And I’m not saying you have to be poor to be an artist. It’s just that it often turns out that way. Most artists I know who’ve stayed out of poverty consistently have managed it by finding well-paid day jobs.

People talk a lot about the Starving Artist trope but when’s the last time you met an artist over 25 who actually acknowledged that they were starving? People say it’s romanticized – but the romance is almost always in the past. It’s Paris in a Garret in the 1800s. It’s Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith when the Chelsea Hotel accepted art in lieu of rent. But I’m sure, even then, starving wasn’t so romantic. Last year’s troubles and all that. Poverty sucks. It sucked before and it sucks now. But pretending we’re not poor because we are culturally rich means that not only are we denying our own experience but also the opportunity to band together with the working class, to use our cultural capital for good.

We have a class society, whether we acknowledge it or not, and maybe we need a designation for the artists. There was that movement towards the Creative Class a while ago but it didn’t really catch on, not among actual creatives. Maybe that’s part of the reason it turned out to be ineffective. Meanwhile, the middle class that we might have aspired to is vanishing.

I wonder if it’s all just a distraction from the real stuff at the heart of it all. That is, a living wage for everyone, artists included. It seems that while our primary value as humans is money, all of us, the poor, the working class, the artists, the cultural rebels, the back-to-the-landers, the non-profits, will all be left out of the benefits of a money-driven society.

If someone asked me at my kitchen table today what class I am, I couldn’t give them an easy answer. That question would probably yield more than the asker was bargaining for. The answer would be as long as a blog post.


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