On Privilege

So, I went to this show last night in TriBeCa. My friend Abeline curated it. Her dad owns the space—a huge space, three floors or something—and he allowed Abeline and her friends to put on an art show there. The idea is that the show separates commerce from creativity; since the space was provided for free, artists could create just to create rather than to sell. Since the space was divorced from commerce, it also allowed people who don’t generally see themselves as artists—or maybe do, but haven’t been able to represent themselves as such to society because they don’t have the money, time or connections—to gain exposure. This resulted in a diverse representation of artists’ voices, in contrast to an increasingly homogenized TriBeCa culture of corporate consumerism that surrounds the gallery (think SoulCycle, double strollers, people saying “on the marriage track” a lot).

The show’s goals were lofty and the the output was interesting. I’m no art critic so I can’t speak to specific influences at work in the show, but there were different mediums of expression—paintings, sculpture, sketches, collage, multimedia. There was a lot to consume and consider—or not. At one point I asked one artist about the intent of his piece, and he succinctly replied, “Well, I’m the graffiti king of New York City, and they asked me to do something. And this is what I did.”

Simplistic as those artistic motives may sound (if such things exist), the friend who accompanied me, G, was also impressed by the show—as much by the conviction of these young artists than the work itself. And yet, as we walked through City Hall Park afterward on our way back to Brooklyn, she was noticeably quiet. “What’s up?” I asked. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’m just thinking about the show,” she said. “And how I feel in relation to it.”

I pushed her to explain, and she said that as galvanized as she felt by the creative output, she also felt—there was no word, really; not intimidated, or jealous—I guess “boxed in” is the most appropriate term. She felt boxed in by the fact that in her dogged pursuit of a degree, in her time spent dominated by studying and finals and working, she was unable to indulge in creative expression, or creative exploration, or something.

G’s comment drew to mind a conversation we’d had on the way to the show. For some reason we were discussing her mom’s current and former jobs—she’s been an employee at a jewelry store, at the post office, and now works as a security guard at a hospital. We laughed about how perfect the job is for G’s mom, who loves to know other people’s business. I commented that the benefits must have been great at the post office. “Never a problem with health insurance in my family,” G laughed, referencing that most of the jobs her parents have held were for federal or state entities.

Later, as G and I spoke about her ambivalence toward the show, I couldn’t help but compare G’s squarely working-class roots and Abeline’s privilege. G worried that following such a structured path—school, interning, graduate school, etc.—was somehow hindering her ability to pursue more creative interests, that for too long she had separated creative instincts and professional ones as if there were not room for both.

But how much of Abeline’s ability to create the show came directly from her privilege? Her father had given her the space, after all. That had allowed her to extend the opportunity to her friends. Because she doesn’t have to work all that much, she had the time to invest in the show. Would all of this have happened without Abeline’s advantages? G rightly pointed out that yes—they could have gotten someone else to donate a space; the show could have come to fruition even without that privilege. But wouldn’t that require the exact structure that G was referring to? Wouldn’t the curators have had to go through specific channels—writing proposals, negotiating fees, or something—that they were able to bypass since a family member owned the building? That’s certainly not to say that the show wouldn’t have gotten done, but wouldn’t there have been more challenges?

This just seems like the facts of life, I told G. That people with privilege can often get stuff done more quickly—if not necessarily more easily; I’m sure Abeline faced many roadblocks in getting the show up and running—than the rest of us. That’s why many of us often have to map out our paths and carefully follow them, limiting as that may feel—that structure seems like the way to success. How do working-class or poor people allow themselves a space to deviate, to experiment? Or do they?

I can’t speak to this myself. I very much benefit from my parents’ hard work (my mom has worked in communications the last few years, and my dad moved to America when I was born and became a plumber). They gave my sister and me a deal when we were kids: go to college, and we will support you. My sister went to private school, which they paid for, and she subsequently got nearly a full scholarship to college. Within two years of graduation, she was making over $40,000 a year and is now living independently. I did not go to private school, but my parents have split my (admittedly low) tuition, living expenses and rent for the last four years. I graduated this winter, and I’ll begin teaching full-time next fall (should all go well), so I will hopefully also be financially autonomous at that point.

My sister and I would have had vastly different paths without our parents’ financial support. I probably would not be living in this city, or at least I would not have finished college on time because I would have been working as well. My sister may not have gotten a scholarship for Swarthmore without private school. But even with those privileges, neither of us have “experimented,” per say. Once I knew what I wanted to do, I followed each necessary step to get into Teach For America so that I could obtain my goal, including interning nonstop and not taking one break from school for three years straight (even during the summer). There was no room for deviation. I did not want room, but what if I had? It would not have been sustainable for me to take a year off or go off traveling or indulge some ephemeral impulse (in that my parents couldn’t have supported that financially).

That’s not to say that I think art is ephemeral, or not worthwhile. I value art and artists and I don’t think college or booksmarts are even remotely a measure of intellect or success. I guess I’m just grappling with the question of how a young person like G, a person drawn to creative output and aesthetics and so forth in sort of a vague way, goes about realizing that curiosity without seeing it as an indulgence. I interviewed Abeline for my college paper and she said of art and accessibility: “[Art], because it doesn’t seem like a realistic career goal or a way to make money, you don’t know how to approach it. It seems like some alien concept.” I have to think that lack of exposure would most afflict the poor and working-class, so speaking as a teacher, how can I empower my students—the least privileged young people in our affluent city—to trust any creative instincts they encounter? To trust that there’s space to pursue those instincts?

I think many artists are simply driven to create, that they will somehow find a way to create without regard for obstacles presented by race or socioeconomic class. But what about people who don’t know what their role would be, but are interested in exploring that? Taken from another angle, what cultural or societal messages contributed to G’s instinct to separate her pursuit of a career and her interest in the creative class for so long? G went to Fashion Industries High School; she drew a lot as a kid and teen, and that slowly tapered off. That may be because she simply adopted other interests, but it could also be because she didn’t accept that it could be a worthwhile pursuit. Maybe there’s a larger stigma against artists to be contended with as well, a large segment of society outside of the downtown Manhattan kids we encountered yesterday that doesn’t accept “artist” as a valid path. Maybe, also, a young woman of color from a middle-class background must further grapple with the legitimacy of her own point of view. I could be stretching, but it seems that it would be harder to even begin to assert your creative spirit when society, in many ways, deems your point of view unimportant (as evidenced by the lack of representations of the female perspective, or the minority perspective, or particularly the female minority perspective, in not only the media but many job sectors).

These questions are largely macro and extend beyond G’s micro experience, but I guess, unlike the graffiti king of New York, I reject the “it is what it is” approach.


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