In 1983 the historian Paul Fussell penned a minor classic of social satire titled Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. In it he dissects a myriad of class signifiers – housing, decor, transportation, diet, dress, posture, physiognomy, demeanor, vocabulary, religion, career, education, recreation – and from this deduces the following:
– Nine distinct classes (top out-of-sight, upper, upper-middle, middle, high proletarian, mid proletarian, low proletarian, destitute, bottom out-of-sight)
– Gross disparities in how each class defines luxury (extensively mined for humor by the author)
– The relation between class and income (itself a function of class)
– Class anxiety (a middle affliction)
– The phenomenon of prole drift (the societal tendency for all things to undergo proletarianization)
Three decades later many of the cultural specifics have changed, yet the underlying principles remain firmly in effect. (In a 2009 essay, Sandra Tsing Loh beautifully channels Fussell in her analysis of the subsequent rise of hip and fall of the economy.)
Beside the principles, what else remains unchanged is the predominant role of the visual in class signifiers. The reasons for this are evident, especially in American society, where a putative democracy combines with a historically wide distribution of economic wealth to result in rich interactions between agents of differing class. To preserve one’s social capital in such an ecosystem, it’s obligatory for said agents to quickly and efficiently categorize any others they choose to interact with (or not). And vision as a perceptual domain offers both the richness of stimuli and the all-important operation at a distance that are prerequisite for efficient class sorting.
In the same year Class was published, Jean Lowe received her B.A. from Berkeley. She went on to receive an M.F.A. from UCSD, and her subsequent career as a visual artist is based on a body of work which works notions of class as they manifest in the visual deployment of class signifiers. Interestingly, Lowe’s signature humor perfectly echoes Fussell’s dry satirical style in Class.
This begs the question of whether class is ever explicitly invoked in the critical/curatorial description of Lowe’s work. The answer – perhaps anticipated by Fussell in his noting of class as the great unmentionable in polite discourse – appears to be “no”. Lowe is represented in Los Angeles by Rosamund Felsen Gallery. The gallery website helpfully includes a collection of twenty-two reviews and press releases covering Lowe’s work in the period spanning 2003 to 2011. A search for the term “class” in these texts yields precisely one reference: “the grandeur of French high class society”, which misses the point since the body of work in question is unspeakably clear in its ultimate referentiality to class-dependent notions of American luxury.
The rule-proving exception appears in a separate text, not on the gallery website, by former SDMA director (and fellow Berkeley alumnus) Derrick Cartwright. His brief essay on Lowe – ironically for the San Diego Art Prize – invokes “conspicuous display”, a core term in the work of Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class was a model for Fussell’s book (not to mention a must-read for any ambitious artist).
Lowe’s work through the 90′s and 00′s – which referenced McMansions, SUVs, and an endless stream of self-help books – focused on the middle classes, which (per Fussell) offer the best material both in their active striving for the next rung up, and simultaneous anxiety over slipping in the opposite direction.
Then the great recession hit, peaking in 2008 with the collapse of the housing market and failure of several major financial institutions. Among the collateral damage: the visual arts, and the American middle class.
Faced with this double blow to her practice, Lowe responded by going down-market. The first evidence emerged in 2010 at the Lux Art Institute, which launched a pop-up art store co-founded by Lowe and Kim MacConnel. The store, titled J & K Souvenir Inc., offered selected work by Lowe in the low-to-mid two figures. And the content referenced was now distinctly prole: decorative mugs, cups, plates, in sum the typical inventory of a 99-cent store.
Similar work has since appeared in shows at Rosamund Felsen and at Quint Contemporary Art in San Diego. At a recent Quint show the low-end work had edged up to a still-affordable low three figures, even while the large paintings remained firmly parked at a solid five digits.
Seeing such work in a high-end space like Quint can be dizzying. Is the aggressive insertion of prole esthetic into a rarefied upper venue a trenchant commentary on American caste? Certainly. Is it offensive to some viewers? Apparently. Or is it merely an opportunity for the 1% to amuse themselves over the bad taste of their inferiors? Apparently.
(Perhaps the only decidability proof for the latter is to wait patiently and see if Lowe ever offers a future show of, say, Lowe-fied Roman de Salvo‘s.)
Photo credits: © Jean Lowe, photo courtesy Quint Contemporary Art