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  • Beth Johnstone

Art and Class Shame

© Collage by INJECTION - Beth Johnstone

Stop assuming we know as much about art history as you.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you just touched that,” said my classmate in disbelief, “my dad would kill you if he saw you doing that.” Fourteen year old me played it off as a rebellious act, instead of one of naivety. Having never been to an art gallery, and having absolutely no knowledge of the appropriate etiquette, I didn’t realise that running my fingertips over the lumpy surface of a 16th-century oil painting was neither correct nor acceptable. Luckily the upper floor of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove is virtually deserted midweek – my embarrassment was private.

My childhood was undoubtedly privileged – we holidayed abroad, learned instruments and regularly ordered from the Boden catalogue, but, like lots of newly affluent families, many aspects of our lives were still fiercely working class. Nowhere was this more true than in the realm of culture – art, theatre and poetry weren’t just irrelevant, but tinged with embarrassment and discomfort. Our family’s history is gritty and real; fantasy and creativity might be enjoyable in small doses, but its unfamiliarity makes us wary.

For my siblings and I, the people and environments we were surrounded by were destined to make us more middle class – in our own ways, this has made each of us more engaged in the arts. And it wasn’t just us – Mum discovered local artists she liked and covered our walls with their work. Hilly landscapes and unintimidating painted fishermen and boats. These things felt like they belonged to us, and unlike the 16th-century oils, weren’t alienating or scary.

Five years of university and many private views later, the world of exhibitions and artspeak is more familiar to me now, but not somewhere I’m completely comfortable.

The art world might pretend to celebrate working-class culture, but for people from working-class backgrounds with limited knowledge of art history compared to more affluent peers, it can be hostile and unwelcoming. For many people, being upwardly mobile and having the financial resources to make art ‘accessible’ isn’t enough – financial barriers are one thing, but in the deeply entrenched British class system, cultural barriers can feel insurmountable.

For many of us, myself included, learning about art history can feel like an act of treason against our working-class backgrounds. An injustice to the things we did enjoy and learn about. In spaces where we’re in the minority, which the art world often is, gaps in knowledge are frustrating. Frustration easily turns to apathy – to learn what to middle and upper-class children is as necessary learning as riding a bike feels like a mammoth task, and it can be hard to know where to begin. The learning process is exhausting, but what’s even more exhausting is the continued feeling of inadequacy.

Daisy Brown, an undergraduate student at CSM, says there should be ‘more opportunities for students at a cultural disadvantage to visit art institutions and meet people who make a living out of creating’. But whilst this would be a good start, helping young people overcome the feelings of foreignness and alienation that they may feel in art galleries and exhibitions poses another challenge.

So, to those that grew up learning about art history – please stop assuming that everyone’s knowledge is as comprehensive as yours. A relative once asked me, “It’s quite big, art, isn’t it?” And yes, it is. Especially from the outside. But maybe, if we weren’t all automatically assumed experts, it wouldn’t seem so scary.


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