Play this in the background while you read. You know you want to.
She studied sculpture at St. Martin’s College
That’s where I caught her eye
She told me that her dad was loaded
I said, “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca cola.”
Last Christmas, a friend got me a subscription to the London Review of Books, the purveyor of all things middlebrow to the chattering elites. It’s been a welcome salve to the indignities of the daily grind: on lunchhours I can escape from my desk and delve into a world of parlours, salons and galleries.
However, after months of reading, the reviews are starting to congeal into an overarching pattern that can be summed up in two words: class privilege. The literary and artistic worlds are full of people rich enough to have leisure time to be creative. And more importantly, they have the confidence to believe that their vision of the world is worth expressing. Here are some examples:
Born in 1844 as the eldest of nine children to a well-off Anglican family, he grew up surrounded by music and art: his father was a marine adjuster who wrote a book about shipwrecks (as well as a book of poems). Hopkins went up to Balliol to do Greats(1)
Does it help to know that she was the eldest of five children born to bourgeois parents in Gotha, Thuringia, or to learn that she left school at 15 because her insurance agent father and amateur painter mother decided she was needed at home? Perhaps not, until one discovers that it was only in 1912, at the age of 21, that she moved to Berlin to pursue her studies(2)
The simplest starting point – and also the ultimate answer – is to say what Bagehot undoubtedly was, thoroughly, professionally and ancestrally: a banker.(3)
This world is not mine. Successful artists are scions of bankers, the bourgeois and the well-off. This isn’t a judgment on the quality of their work (not yet anyways), just the circumstances that allowed them to create it.
In 1954, the sculptor Phyllis Lambert was living in Paris when her father, Samuel Bronfman, sent her pictures of the 34-storey skyscraper he planned to build on Park Avenue in New York. Bronfman, the Canadian ‘whisky king’ who owned Seagram distillers … Bronfman, [was] keen to have his strong-willed daughter back from Paris, where she had gone looking for a fresh start after a short-lived marriage to a Belgian banker, [and] gave her the job of choosing an alternative [architect].(4)
‘How did you get to Berlin?’ I asked Francis [Bacon]…. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘my father found me wearing my mother’s underclothes, and to put me right he sent me to a friend – like my father, a horse trainer…. who took me to Berlin. He was very rich and we stayed in a grand hotel. That was the first time I had sex with anyone. From there, I went to Paris. My mother sent me three pounds a week. I never really went back to Ireland.’(5)
The material of the chronicles seems like Howard’s natural and inevitable subject: the tangled but ordinary enough private lives of a fairly undistinguished upper-middle-class family, loosely based on her own, between the 1930s and 1950s.(6)
Why should anyone other than the upper-middle-class want to read about these lives? Is it a case of aspirational entertainment?
But this isn’t TV, and I doubt millions of harassed secretaries and fast food workers are rushing home to read about the drugs Christopher Isherwood took in Berlin. These quotes aren’t plucked selectively from reviews of worker-poets, either; they’re representative samples. I’m also leaving out stories of monarchs, generals and capitalist art collectors, frequent topics of LRB biography but for whom a wealthy background is to be expected. And if our cultural reference-points are made by and about rich people, how much of a leap is it to assume they’re for rich people too?
he is undoubtedly a fascinating figure in his own right; one of those English (or in his case Anglo-Irish-Scottish) upperish-class oddballs who enliven Our Island Story… His family had come down in the world, mainly because of his father’s goings-on, which is why he didn’t attend a convention public school”(7)
From the start, she was the beneficiary of her parents’ middle-class smarts. A precociously dreamy, sky-eyed teen daughter, she was wisely shepherded. Family and management were merged”(8)
Antoni Tàpies was born into a cultured Catalan family in Barcelona in 1923. His great-grandfather had been deputy mayor of the city in 1888, … Tàpies’s grandfather was one of the founders of the Lliga Regionalista, the political party that represented Catalan interests.(9)
In Mumbai, Hodgkin has a studio in his hotel. He has another studio in the grounds of his house in Normandy. Paintings are often started in one place and finished elsewhere. The ‘elsewhere’ is an important part of the painting process. Because some of them take years to complete, this is a matter of necessity; time is also a medium for Hodgkin, through the processes of deliberation and detachment.(10)
It’s impossible for the class background of these artists not to seep into the art itself:
Mr. X, a bureaucrat at the UN Secretariat, who, with his wife and child,
Lived in a collapsing Gatsby mansion in Oyster Bayt
My wife and I rented half of for that summer, depended for everything
On Shantilal, the sweet houseboy with a shy moustache
Who did everything with a smile…
I glance out the window at the apartment building across Broadway
And see someone looking at me from exactly my floor.(11)
For the record, a studio apartment on Broadway starts at $2,600/month. It makes sense that the only place you’ll see someone else earning that kind of income is from the window of the building opposite. Ever lived in a mansion or had a houseboy? You’re more likely to have been a houseboy.
If her new collection had a motto it might be the title of a characteristic piece, ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’. Here the sections bathed in white space are single short sentences, a litany of trivial complaints: ‘The cat has ringworm’, say, or ‘This pesto is hard to blend.’… it seems wrong to detect any satirical intent in the whole. These aren’t being offered as shameful examples of what are disparagingly called ‘First World problems’ but as a piecemeal portrait of a real state of mind, a place that most people visit often enough.(12)
The last sentence is the clue – not just to the poetry, the LRB, or even the class of people allowed to make art, but to the ideology their privileged lives create. To assume that lumpy pesto can stand in for all of life’s ills betrays what Bourdieu called the distance from necessity. It gives a universal voice to a lifestyle enjoyed by a tiny sliver of the world’s population.
With respect to the poet and reviewer, a state of bored frustration is not “a place that most people visit often”: that place is reserved for having to pay the rent, evade collection agencies, work meaningless jobs to pay off debt or just scramble desperately to find those jobs. If having to pry a cat’s jaw open and drop a pill down its throat (I’ve done that, it’s an art) was a mirror that accurately reflected my reality, I’d be an artist.
Where is the art that reflects this reality?
What emerges from these dozens of snapshots are thoughtful, intelligent, troubled, observant, deeply creative figures who reproduce the pleasures and blindspots of their class. This is clear by how they snap back to form when confronted with real life for the working classes. Here’s a painterly couple:
When Ben Nicholson and Winifred Roberts got married, in 1920, they had everything they wanted: time and leisure to paint in, and enough of Winifred’s family money to travel wherever they liked. … They rented – and later, with the help of Winifred’s father, a former undersecretary of state for India, bought – a house above Lake Lugano in Switzerland, near the Italian border. ‘We do absolutely nothing,’ Winifred wrote in a letter home, ‘but paint all day, eat supper and tea at 6.30 wash brushes and prepare canvases, go to bed and dream painting. Sometimes we go for a walk to look for new painty things.’
But sensing that muses need to be fed on sterner stuff, they go back to the UK and find poorer artists to associate with, including Alfred Wallis, a Cornwall fisherman:
He used boat paint, which was easily found in St Ives… Wallis himself, explaining his work, wrote: ‘What I do mosley is what use To Bee out of my own memery what we may never see again.’ Ben became Wallis’s champion … and his unofficial dealer, showing his work to all his friends in London:… For his part, Wallis went on painting as he always had, despite his new celebrity. He spent his last years in the Madron Institute, a workhouse in Penzance; Ben would occasionally visit with supplies of boat paint.(13)
So, Ben Nicholson was champion enough to sell on his works in his wealthy circles, and to keep supplying the outsider artist with paint. But a house in Switzerland is only for those who deserve it: Wallis stays in the workhouse.
Alfred Wallis’ substitute Swiss chalet in Cornwall.
The contempt for the poor occasionally surfaces:
As a child [author] Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid.(14)
But at least he was saved from dispensing groceries, the fate of the truly stupid. Self-awareness, the defensive shield of the privileged, does get hoisted occasionally. From an academic’s description that compares being a British professor in America with Edward Said’s forced exile of the migrant Palestinian:
there’s probably something a bit ridiculous in these privileged laments – oh, sing ’dem Harvard blues, white boy! But I am trying to describe some kind of loss, some kind of falling away.(15)
In what universe is “My town was the university and the cathedral: it seemed that almost everyone who lived on our street was an academic” equatable with getting shot in the back? It would be unfair to ignore the exceptions that prove the rule, so here are two.
Gazdanov was born in 1903 in St Petersburg, to an upper-middle-class family that was Ossetian in origin but Russian-speaking and Orthodox. At 16, he joined the White Army…
Gazdanov’s first job was lugging 36-pound sacks on and off the barges of the Seine; when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got work washing locomotives. He was homeless for a winter, sleeping on pavements and in Metro stations, until he was taken on at the Citroën factory; he gave that up when he was almost killed by an oncoming lorry, and realised he was going deaf. He got a desk job at Hachette, but found it too difficult to pretend to work for eight hours a day, and soon left that too. Then he settled on the profession that he would stick with for twenty years: driving a taxi at night.(16)
Willeford was born in 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the time he was eight, both his parents had died of TB and he was living in Los Angeles with his grandmother, at least on weekends. Monday to Friday, he was sent to live in a boys’ home…
At the age of 13, at the peak of the Great Depression, Willeford ran away from home, boarded a freight train and spent the next year as a hobo, riding the rails like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath…
He would be in and out of the military for the next two decades. He spent two years in the Philippines as a driver of fire engines and petrol tankers, and as a chef.(17)
Willeford, the crime author, is described as being “in a category all of his own in the annals of American crime writing. He is neither glamorous nor pulpy… He simply wrote crime fiction as though reporting real life.” I’d suggest that’s because the space needed to create art is rarely granted to those too busy living, and those poor people, who through skill or luck manage to create that space, reflect their own real lives.
But is it true that whose privilege enables them abstraction and contemplation create art, while those driving petrol tankers are reporters? I’d argue that both are reporters. The wealthy artists are ‘reporting’ the rarefied obsessions and neuroses of the leisured classes, while the worker-artists are reporting on the lives of the world’s majority. Which is the real art?
Working class artists do exist.
Not making this up
(1) Vendler, Helen. “I have not lived up to it.” Rev. of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins Vols I-II: Correspondence, edited by R. K. R. Thorton and Catherine Phillips. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 13-18. 25 May 2014.
(2) Wagner, Anne. “At the Whitechapel.” London Review of Books 36.4 (2014): 26. 25 May 2014.
(3) Mount, Ferdinand. “All the Sad Sages.” Rev. of Memoirs of Walter Bagehot, by Frank Prochaska. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 9-11. 25 May 2014.
(4) Turner, Christopher. “I am not a world improver.” Rev. of Building Seagram, by Phyllis Lambert and Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 19-20. 25 May 2014.
(5) O’Hagan, Andrew. “Kitty still pines for his dearest Dub.” Rev. of Becoming a Londoner: A Diary, by David Plante and The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, edited by Katherine Bucknell. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 21-23. 25 May 2014 .
(6) Hadley, Tessa. “Pour a stiff drink.” Rev. of All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 31-32. 25 May 2014.
(7) Porter, Bernard. “Too Glorious for Words.” Rev. of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 23-24. 25 May 2014.
(8) Penman, Ian. “Sonic Foam.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 11-12. 25 May 2014.
(9) Tóibín, Colm. “Notes from the Land of the Dead.” Rev. of A Personal Memoir: Fragments for an Autobiography, by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer and Complete Writings Volume II: Collected Essays, by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer. London Review of Books 36.6 (2014): 15-20. 25 May 2014.
(10) Stonard, John-Paul. “In the Studio.” London Review of Books 36.2 (2014): 37. 25 May 2014 .
(11) Seidel, Frederick. “Morning and Melancholia.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 16. 25 May 2014.
(12) Mars-Jones, Adam. “Reality Is Worse.” Rev. of Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis. London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 15-16. 25 May 2014.
(13) Birne, Eleanor. “At Kettle’s Yard.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 18. 25 May 2014.
(14) Rundell, Katherine. “Fashionable Gore.” Rev. of King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard and She, by H. Rider Haggard. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 33-34. 25 May 2014.
(15) Wood, James. “On Not Going Home.” London Review of Books 36.4 (2014): 3-8. 25 May 2014.
(16) Pinkham, Sophie. “Waiting for Something Unexpected.” Rev. of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, by Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk. London Review of Books 36.5 (2014): 36-37. 25 May 2014.
(17) Frears, Will. “Futzing Around.” Rev. of Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford. London Review of Books 36.6 (2014): 39-41. 25 May 2014.