Pashmina Power

Class structure in international arts funding

Photo by Ketuta Alexi-Mekshishvili


There is just something about the working class receiving money and creative freedom that makes the flesh of the middle class crawl. Why is this? Is it because the middle class considers creative and aesthetic production to require education and cultural savvy, which they believe the working class do not possess? Or is it because the middle class believes itself to be the entity that somehow survives in an informed, and taste-led existence, and subsequently it frowns at those that don’t? I am speaking in decidedly general terms about existence in the West, but in either case several sweeping assumptions are made by this particular class demographic around knowledge distribution in society that may or may not be true. Especially when discussing class in the West, or from a predominantly Western European outlook, class cannot strictly be considered a financial condition. It also has to do with taste. (Very often those in the middle class do not have a lot of money, while those in the working class do.) Some governments claim that they oversee classless societies —such as the New-Labour government in Britain — but even this is a class-orientated perspective (the vote of a particular class demographic has been gained). Within the visual arts, simply looking at the networks of creative decision-makers within its prevalent mainstream structures in the West — from funders through to museum and gallery directors and curators — it is also evident that it is predominantly, though not exclusively, a middle class arrangement. When it comes to the selection, presentation, promotion and dissemination of artistic practices, do the middle classes persist with their own strategies for accumulating knowledge capital in order to culturally inform the whole of the class structure, including those deemed as being above and below them? Is it nepotistic even or is it less consciously conceived than this?


Whether public or private, funding structures, such as the ones that promote (“promote” being an operative word here) national culture overseas, predominantly exist in countries that have some form of welfare state, and are at a key stage in their development in terms of their focus for this promotion in the field of visual arts. Increasingly, such funding structures load sets of conditions that promote ideological agendas tied to economic and neoliberalist concerns, which can be specifically in terms of presenting idealized views of national identity around the globe, or perhaps for bringing to the West the identities of certain regions to counter the ones presented of them in the media. This does not just go for the support of “culturally diverse” institutions such as Berlin’s House of World Cultures, but for the majority of mainstream institutions, passing round such exhibitions as ‘Africa Remix’ (Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Moderna Museet, Stockholm). These funding structures are becoming increasingly the purveyors of taste and the decision-makers of what others should be seeing. They make decisions on contemporary ideas of “what is critical” and “what is international,” which very often have repercussions on class structure in countries around the world. Take, for example, the Middle East, which is a vast region that is currently an area of focus, both politically and in subsequent terms of cultural consumption. Here funding bodies attempt to make visible the culture of these countries that are deemed underprivileged. The number of western curators, or “pashmina cardigans” as they have come to be affectionately known, being herded around the Middle East on “cultural safaris” in order to absorb and disseminate the practices of this region is particularly striking at present, and sets precedents for the future of internationalist funding, that may or may not be handled sensitively.


Take, for example, the (to some, unfortunately titled) Bush Global Initiative, which began at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1999 and was funded by the Bush Foundation. It culminated in an institutional reevaluation to reposition the institution on the global stage. It also led to the exhibition ‘How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age,’ which considered artistic production in numerous cultural capitals from around the world, forming, in some respects, a truly internationalist exhibition. Though the Walker should be applauded for looking beyond the age-old trans-Atlantic dialogue, the jury is still out on whether the initiative was in real terms a cultural safari of the highest order, thinking less about the regions that they are dealing with than about themselves. The class divide in a country such as Pakistan is vast, and, without wishing to overgeneralize, artists are predominantly of the upper classes. It is often a similar story around the world, from Mexico City to Mumbai, yet many of these places are scoured for artists because they are considered economically and even culturally underdeveloped places. Also, their diasporic communities in the West are underrepresented in the visual arts and mainly working class citizens. Artists who position themselves as being from many of these countries, such as Shirin Neshat or Yinka Shonibare, are also championed primarily to tick off the institutional boxes that represent a more inclusive and diverse outlook for western society, and also for educating the Caucasian masses about international cultures. Simple, but again inordinately generalized facts: most Pakistani people in a western country like Britain are working class, whereas the vast majority of Pakistani artists in Pakistan are upper class. The difference is never acknowledged.


This is by no means a new thesis, yet western funding bodies continue to utilize arts institutions to promote international art practices without consciousness of the fact that they are dealing with the upper and even ruling classes. This form of ideological patronage, often leading to national and regional representations that attempt to help those they deem underprivileged, can ultimately end up fueling class hierarchies around the world, and within western culture can even form a complex racialized envy in a multi-ethnic society. Class structure is a latent operative within visual art and is undoubtedly one of the major factors for broad focus on creative practice. But is often used to perpetuate itself by imposing a set of acceptable aesthetics for local and world viewing, and is far from class-reflexive in terms of promoting production. Study after study indicates that social mobility is at a standstill like never before, and due to this lack of class-reflexivity in the field of visual arts in the West, the middle classes continue to fortify their position as the cultural voice of the masses. So the questions arise as to how culture, at all its levels — funding, production, presentation and consumption — can become more class-reflexive? And how can the current ideas of internationalist working break from the ideological patronage that is guided by a certain class demographic?