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January 09, 2006

Art & The Middle Class

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards—

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and social class. It all started when I went to a rather fancy movie house, the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood.

The Arclight Cinema makes movie-going a surprisingly upscale experience. They have the highest ticket prices I’ve ever laid eyes on. The Arclight people sell assigned-seat tickets like a legitimate theater—there’s no hand-to-hand combat trying to get two seats together at this joint. There’s a restaurant in the lobby that is actually worth patronizing. The concession stand even features gourmet sausages and chocolates. I hope you get the picture.

While the Arclight shows all the big commercial films, the bulk of its offerings are on the arty side. This approach seemed mirrored by the theater’s customers. On my way to the john I plowed through polite crowds of obviously monied adult cineastes…not a screaming kid or horny teenager in sight. Just outside the bathroom I casually glanced over and spotted the only discordant note in the whole complex: an old-fashioned, pulpy-lurid movie poster from the 1930s. I don’t think it actually featured a monster carrying off a scantily dressed maiden, but the poster had that brash, pop-y feeling to it.

And suddenly it hit me what I was finding so surreal about the whole Arclight scene. It was the sight of all these middle-class people looking for an aristocratic high art experience from the movies, traditionally a working class entertainment medium.

Pondering this paradox, I sat down and waited for the movie to start, only to overhear a girl in the row behind me talking about her recent decision to begin serious voice training in a conservatory. Apparently she had been conflicted about pursuing an arts career during an earlier bout of higher education, but now, in her mid-twenties: “I know that this is really what I want to do with my life.” Meanwhile I’m sitting there thinking: How many paying jobs are there in opera in this country? A couple hundred? And aren’t you a little long in the tooth to be beginning such a difficult and problematic career path? Is the necessity of ever earning a living not a consideration here?

But as I continued to shamelessly eavesdrop, the girl was working hard to make her decision sound “professional.” She was talking as if she was going to spend her parent’s money on law school or she was on the verge of a lucrative career in medicine or accountancy or civil engineering or something. With my mental receiver tuned to the issue of social class, what I was hearing was a weird jumble of conflicting signals: (1) an aristocratic sense of entitlement about pursuing a “noble goal,” with an aristocrat’s indifference to the highly uncertain financial payoff, (2) a middle-class sense of values that needed to justify such a decision by making it seem as if she was taking up a respectable “profession,” when in fact (3) the shoot for the stars life strategy she was describing seemed more appropriate to a working-class youth dreaming of making it in the NBA—because for him “professional” options don’t exist.

For all the contradictions—indeed, perhaps because of its contradictions—her attitude struck me as peculiarly middle class, although I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. Despite being middle class, I’d never really considered what were the specifically middle class elements in the mix of art consumption and art production that I’ve swimming around in my whole life. The oddities of the middle-class approach to art had been invisible to me, like water to a fish swimming in it. And yet here at least some of them seemed to be on display.

In my usual fashion, I turned to history to try to clarify my thoughts on all this. I decided to start by doing some Internet research into the social class background of major figures in the high arts tradition, and to see how those may have evolved as the middle class has come to dominate society and the arts over the past few centuries. In honor of this middle class young lady and her interest in classical music, I decided to start with composers.

The composers on whom I could find some family background seemed to naturally divide into three groups: (1) poor boys from peasant or working class backgrounds; (2) boys whose fathers were artisans—i.e., skilled workers of an artistic nature; and (3) boys from middle-class backgrounds.

I researched 17 composers who were born before the French Revolution. Nine were the sons of artisan fathers, in all cases professional musicians: H. Purcell, F. Couperin, G.B. Bononcini, A. Vivaldi, J.P. Rameau, G.D. Scarlatti, J.S. Bach, W. Mozart, and L. Beethoven. Five were poor boys: Palestrina, J.B. Lully, J. J. Fux, C. Gluck and F. J. Haydn. Only three were of middle class extraction: T. G. Albinoni, G. P. Telemann and G.F. Handel.

I researched 20 composers in my study who were born between 1790 and 1899. Four were sons of artisan fathers, again professional musicians: J. Brahms, G. Bizet, R. Strauss, and I. Stravinsky. Three had peasant backgrounds: F. Liszt, G. Verdi and A. Dvorak. Thirteen were middle class: F. Schubert, F. Mendelssohn, F. Chopin, R. Wagner, H. Berlioz, A. Bruckner, P. Tchaikovski, G. Mahler, C. Debussy, M. Ravel, B. Bartok, S. Prokofiev, and A. Berg.

I researched 5 composers in my study born in 1900 or after. All were of middle class backgrounds: A. Copland, J. Cage, L. Bernstein, P. Boulez, G. Crumb. I’ll grant that this is a pretty arbitrary list of 20th century composers, but I think the examples could be multiplied many times without changing the class pattern.

I make no scientific claims for my survey (which is not doubt biased by all sorts of factors, and may have been misled in many cases by the fairly scant biographical information available from my web sources) but I think the results are at least suggestive. The way I read this, working class artisans catering to aristocratic or clerical tastes set the dominant tone for high art music prior to the French Revolution. High art music since the French Revolution has become progressively (and since the 20th century, virtually without exception) a matter of middle-class artists producing music for middle class audiences. Well, heck, that’s a pretty significant shift (and one that may prove that my overheard neighbor in the movie theater has a more reasonable career plan than I thought.)

Turning to visual artists, I noticed a similar pattern. Here I decided to confine my research to painters who were either French or who had done significant work in France. Of the 15 high art painters I researched who were born prior to the French Revolution, 11 were sons or daughters of artisan fathers: A. Pesne, A. Watteau, J.B.S. Chardin, F. Boucher, J.B. Greuze, J.H. Fragonard, L.E. Vigee-Lebrun, P.P. Prud’hon, A. Gros, F.M. Granet, J.A.D. Ingres, and H. Vernet. During this period, I found only four of middle class origins: J.F.P. Peyron, J.L. David, A.L. Girodet, and F. Gerard.

Of the 31 painters who were born after the Revolution and before 1870, 6 were sons of artisan fathers: J.B.C. Corot, J.L. Gerome, H. Fantin-Latour, H. Regnault, P. Signac, E. Vuillard. Three were poor boys: H. Daumier, E. L. Boudin, and P.A. Renoir. But a staggering 22 were from middle- or even upper-class backgrounds: T. Gericault, E. Delacroix, G. Courbet, W. Bouguereau, G. Dore, E. Manet, E. Degas, A. Sisley, P. Cezanne, C. Manet, O. Redon, F. Bazille, B. Morisot, M. Cassatt, P. Gauguin, V. Van Gogh, G. Seurat, H. Toulouse-Lautrec, H. Bonnard, W. Kandinsky and H. Matisse.

Because I know painting a heck of a lot better than I know music, I could see more subtle patterns emerge as well. Sons and daughters of artisan fathers had produced Rococco art: A. Watteau, F. Boucher, J. H. Fragonard, L. E. Vigee-Lebrun. Neoclassical art, supported by a fairly elaborate intellectual infrastructure that was bitterly contemptuous of Rococco aesthetics, became dominant in French artistic life under the leadership of two sons of the middle-class: J.L. David and J.F.P. Peyron. It makes me wonder if this “artistic” dispute was far more grounded in social class distinctions than they tell you in your art-history textbooks.

Moving closer to the present, I noticed that more radical art of the 19th century tended to be the work of artists of middle class (and often upper-middle class) origins, while artists from either artisan backgrounds or less well-to-do backgrounds tended to champion more conservative trends. The battle between the “classical” Ingres and the “Romantic” Delacroix was also the battle between the son of a poor sculptor and miniature painter (Ingres) and the son of a senior government diplomat (Delacroix).

It may not have been an accident that two close contemporaries, the social realist Edouard Manet (b. 1832) and salon-painter and Orientalist Jean-Leon Gerome (b. 1834) produced such different art; after all, Manet was the son of a wealthy government bureaucrat, while Gerome was the son of a goldsmith.

A similar comparison (or perhaps contrast) could be drawn between the the socialist “realist” Gustave Courbet, born in 1819 to a wealthy wine-growing family and the conservative “realist” William Bouguereau, born in 1825 to the pettiest of petty-bourgeois families, one that could barely make ends meet.

So it may be reasonable to assume that during the centuries when the foundations of today’s high art tradition were laid down (that is, roughly from the Renaissance to the end of the Ancien Regime) that, in class terms, art production was chiefly a matter of artisans producing for aristocrats and the church. Likewise it may be reasonable to assume that high art during the post-French Revolution era has been predominantly the work of middle-class artists and consumers. If both of these assumptions are granted, it would seem that by looking at the high arts of the past two centuries, and by seeing how they differ from the art of the preceding era, we can learn something about the middle classes in their artistic dimension.

I can only venture some impossibly broad generalizations, but, what the heck, here goes:

(1) Looking at Romanticisim, Symbolism, Art-Nouveau, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—and how such art-movements differed from the art of earlier centuries dominated by aristocracies—one would have to conclude that middle class people are particularly fascinated by their own inner mental world. Possibly as a result of their highly disciplined economic lives, they seem endlessly intrigued by irrationality, or what Victor Hugo termed “the grotesque.”

(2) Looking at the many varieties of “social realism” that have been hardy perennials of middle-class art, middle-class people are avid students of, and apparently rather insecure about their position in, the social order.

(3) Middle-class art seems far less interested in grace and finesse (i.e., in “workmanship”) than art produced by working-class artisans. It also put much less emphasis on being ingratiating or charming. Indeed, middle-class artists seem to be actively suspicious of charm.

This is obviously an absurdly inadequate response to a huge topic, but it’s a fun idea to noodle over. Do you have any observations about the middle-class and its unique approach to art, either high or low?



P.S. I must admit that I spent some time looking into literature, and did not find it to have a similar pattern. Literature seems to have been predominantly a middle-class activity long before the French Revolution. Perhaps that means that in the past couple of centuries, music and art have become, well, more like literature?

posted by Friedrich at January 9, 2006


Consider the possibility that the young lady you overheard may *not* be basing her entire future upon making it as an opera singer. She may well have an ordinary day job which she'll continue while taking voice lessons (unless the conservatory's course of study is full-time, which I doubt), giving it up only if she strikes it lucky and can make a career in opera. She probably does not realistically expect to be a full-time opera singer, but is giving it her best shot while she still has the chance.

Posted by: Peter on January 9, 2006 2:04 PM

A piece of the puzzle could be changing patterns in IQ. Greater nutrition, better medicine & hygiene, greater availability of education & mental stimulation -- these would produce more geniuses than previously (although still a tiny handful). Also, regression to the mean happens: the children of noteworthy parents will in general be above-avg but not as high as their parents. Usually the genius is born to above-avg parents but represents one of the uncommon freak deviations. This attn to IQ is important in more abstract fields like visual art and music, whereas literature might not require as heavy a demand for abstractness, given that our natural mode of expression is linguistic.

Also, during the time prd you mention, the societies are becoming more meritocratic. So, smarty children from the middling classes can pursue their talents. Compare the offspring of poorish Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the 20th C vs the offspring of "people of good blood." Not just in art but abstract science as well -- another area where IQ really counts and where regression to the mean is a bitch.

As for the relative apathy or antipathy toward charm & craftsmanship, and greater emphasis on shock & introspection -- perhaps due to their awareness that they're smarter than upper class pedestrians who couldn't think their way out of a paper bag. Realizing that you're smarter than your superiors often has that effect, as when smart kids rebel in secondary school to rub it in the principal's face how mediocre his intellect is. This is good in some ways, as it encourages the genius to give it their all, but bad b/c the incentive is to reward nana-nana-boo-boo behavior.

Also, geniuses tend to be more eccentric, open to new thoughts regardless of their consequences, and less able to socially relate w/ others -- thus what may seem like a disregard for social grace.

Posted by: Agnostic on January 9, 2006 3:11 PM

Friedrich, my case-base is even smaller than yours, being the deceased artist to whom was married and the Western artists with whom I am familiar through him. Maybe a little incident will be a good hook. A couple of years ago I was approached by a fortyish woman of movie star appearance (tall, thin, blonde, well-dressed, many large diamonds -- a local hardware store clerk) who asked me if I would give her daughter art lessons. The high-school-aged girl had a teacher, but the mother thought this teacher was not preparing her properly to make money. She thought that since she understood that Bob Scriver had become a millionaire (though eccentric since he showed no signs of wealth) and I had been with him for ten years, I would know the important things. I am not an artist. I’ve never pretended to be -- I write. Later this girl, who looked like her mother, made a good marriage and the whole art-career thing was a moot point. It was a very Jane Austen sort of incident, starring a Paltrow mother/daughter.

Usually around here it’s cowboys who hope to either become high-money artists or star rodeo hands in order to save the ranch. I suppose ranches can vary across the social class spectrum. Both Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington (the only names that register on Eastern ears) came from solid upper middle class families. Bob Scriver’s father ran a mercantile store, his grandfathers ran farms in Quebec, and his mother was proud of her MacFie blood, which aspired to being Scots gentry.

Regardless of what statistical reviews show about what class artists came from, I think it is almost as important to show where art customers come from. Many of the customers of Western art in the early days were lower-class-rising, either to middle or even upper status. There is a tradition of the very wealthy “keeping artists” through patronage as companions, trophy guests, and confidantes. Teddy Roosevelt did a lot of this.

There’s one very interesting case of class impinging on Western art: the Vanderbilts. Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney, the sculptress whose New York studio gradually became the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, left money to her children that was earmarked for art museums. The daughters, naturally, turned their assets and energies to developing the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, very elite and rather cutting edge. But Cornelius turned rebellious and endowed the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming, where his mother’s portrait of Buffalo Bill was emplaced. This institution became enormously powerful in Western art and Harold McCracken, the first curator, claimed it MADE Bob Scriver. Cody is a community where many very upper class people have ranches that allow them to pretend to be “ordinary.” Also, it attracts many middle-class tourists to the Buffalo Bill Western Center, which now includes the Whitney Gallery. (The Buff Bill is called "the Smithsonian of the West.")

MOST earlier Western artists (including R & R) entered the field through illustrating middle-class magazines. Some have become millionaires and proud of it. Several female upper-class female sculptors, like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (whose money came from one of the archetypal robber barons) or like Malvina Hoffman, Bob Scriver’s ideal, made their lives bearable by developing careers out of something their families considered to be hobbies.

It’s certainly an interesting dynamic.

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 9, 2006 3:22 PM

Too much good stuff to think about!

Plus -- and just to muddy the waters a bit -- there's the whole series of "what's art?" and "what's lit?" questions. "Literary history" such as we think of it didn't get started (if I remember right) until the mid-19th century. "Music history" (as in the Western-classical tradition) didn't get started until the Romantic era, if I recall right. Prior to those times, people just kinda read or listened to what was around. The whole idea of a linear progression of finite works that together made up "the canon" just didn't play a role in people's minds. I think the creation of the various canons is kind of a great thing, but at the same time a limiting and blinkering thing too. But who created 'em? I mean -- so as not to get too off-topic -- in a class sense? And with what purpose in mind? Was it an act of rebellion? Of aspiring-to-greater-things?

My only (and highly-informal) research about class and art suggests that "radical" art is basically an upper-middle and rich-class creation. That's my only real contribution here. Pissing off the middle-classes, defying sensible good taste, all that stuff -- er, trust-fund behavior, anyone? It's so easy to throw caution to the winds when you've got a big chunk of change to fall back on ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2006 4:15 PM

Keep in mind that the "middle class" or "bougeoisie" (the 19th C. European analog) expanded greatly in tandem with the Industrial Revolution. This means there was a proportionally smaller pool of bourgeois families available in the 18th C. to furnish composers, artists, etc. than in the 19th & 20th Cs.

I wonder if a 18th C. goldsmith father might in many respects be equivalent to a 19th C. bourgeois if one can visualize the social spectrum as (probably skewed) distributions at different measuring points rather than as discrete categories observed in semi-isolation. (Let me know if I'm being too concise to make sense here.)

Literacy is another consideration. There weren't any social surveys (and not that many censuses asking social questions) during the time-frame you deal with, which means hard data are scarce. But literate parents might a proxy for 18th C. status if you had the info. (This might be related to your finding regarding writers.)

Your post was full of yummy ideas and I greatly enjoyed reading it. These top-of-the-head remarks of mine aren't criticism, being intended to stimulate further thought.

Speaking of which, one thing I've noticed is that artsy kids tend to be 2nd or 3rd generation middle-class types. First generation m/c (professional, actually) folks tend to be in "practical" fields such as engineering, pharmacy, etc. rather than the arts. Their kids take the jump to m/c for granted and therefore have a different (possibly less-realistic) view of the world. This might confirm the over-representation of m/c French artists in the late 19th C.

And given the fact that the USA has been predominately middle-class for many decades, this means that nearly all current & future artists, etc. will be from m/c & upper-class families.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 9, 2006 4:34 PM

Everything in the modern world goes back to Hegel at Jena...

Posted by: Toby on January 9, 2006 8:12 PM

Ah, the Insider Tribe vs. the Outsider Tribe. The children of privelege against the children of striving.

It's natural the outsiders would take up causes that contrast with the causes the insiders espouse. If the insiders supported radical art, then the outsiders would support more conservative forms. And nice versa. Each doing its best to distinguish themselves from the other.

With, of course, the highly touted exception adopted by either of the tribes to show how much better they are than the enemy. Thus you get the rare middle class prodigy in upper class circles.

To paraphrase Edgar Rice Burroughs; they are merely apes, and status proud apes into the bargain.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 9, 2006 9:29 PM

Ahhh...class struggle and social status! The oh so useful Marxist lens through which to consider, well, EVERYTHING! I have this funny idea. I think the human world is struggle between good and evil. And in this world, evil has no power to act on its own--it must somehow corrupt and suppress the good through willing human action. A wonderful way to do this is to convince people to take their eye off the ball, to mistake one thing for another. In this case, it would be to lose or ignore what art is really about-the communication of something about our human condition from one person to another, and to put in its place something as irrelevant as the economic class of the artist's parents, or whether or not the artist is ambitious for fame. Other extraneous considerations can also be brought forward. Yet what does this have to do with the work itself? I guarantee you that a Manet or Degas wasn't thinking at all about class or whatnot when they chose a subject, painted a beautiful woman, or a beautiful landscape. For every painter you can find who was upper middle class and a rebel, I can name one that was upper middle class and conservative. Same for the painters from more humble circumstances. Also, the overwhelming majority of the work of these artists was made with aesthetic considerations in mind rather than economic ones. Great work is done with passion, and while getting paid is a motivation, IT IS NOT THE FUNDAMENTAL CONSIDERATION IN CRAEATING SOMETHING OF ARTISTIC WORTH. I don't care whether some painter or author was under the gun to make some money or not. That just means great work was done quickly or the subject was chosen by the buyer. What makes something a great work of art MAY be about WHAT is done, yet it is ALWAYS about HOW it is done (passion and skill). Sociology is an almost completely useless endeavor if you truly believe in free will. Waste your time (and life) in these dead ends if you want to. I would recommend that you resist the temptation and keep your eye on the ball (the HUMANITY) of the work. I also don't care who the buyers are. Nobody really cares or remembers the buyers in the long run. Money is anonymous. Great art is not. And a great artist, trained and dedicated, will create great work even in the absence of a buyer. See Vermeer, Van Gogh, etc.

A more useful line of research, with regard to class and art, is how will the artists of tomorrow, who will most certainly come from the vast middle class rather than the rich (just a numbers game-vastly more middle class, most artists will come from that group), will FIND and AFFORD their training. No one is self-taught; we all learn from others and imitate. I bet that young woman who wanted to sing opera will not be told truly about her real talents and chances until the conservatory has collected all the tuition they can from her. This seems to be a disturbing trend in education in the arts at the university or academy/conservatory level, even in the trade schools. The idea is, let's bankrupt the students and lie to them about their chances for a career in the arts. The schools found out that people would borrow large amounts of money for a college "education", becacuse the parents have an almost religious view of college as a ticket to a good job. So even if junior is a poor student and reprobate, well, he seems like he likes the non-structured art classes in high school, so we (and junior himself) will borrow a lot of money and send him to school so he can get a "degree" in the arts. Problem is, nobody needs (nor does anyone care) if you have a degree in the arts. They only care about whether or not you can paint, sing, write, dance, or play music well. Its all about performance, not certification. So most kids graduate in 4 years with a HUGE debt burden, and NO CHANCE of getting even a modestly paying job in the arts. And the talented graduate with just the debt burden and the usually long struggle to make a living in their field. Ridiculous.

What all of these prospective young students need desperately is what used to exist-modestly priced ateliers, music schools, dance schools, etc. who saw it as their job to weed out the talented from the untalented, and focus on the best students by working them very hard and teaching them about the commercial side of art through apprenticeships. Even then, only some of the best would succeed. What we have now is a bunch of business people who want to get rich off of the students and who have abondoned whatever responsibility they had to the society at large to carry on the cultural traditions. The arts are declining from the top and the bottom through ignorance and greed. Although, to be honest, more moolah is changing hands in the arts than ever before. This country, which is the richest the world has ever seen, has overseen the greatest DECLINE in the arts in the last 50 years the world has ever seen (I except from this movies). Where is the great art of our empire? Is literature, music, painting, etc. any better now than 50, 80, or 100 years ago? We seem to throw everything from the past away, like we don't respect it. I think this is shortsighted. The great work will survive. It always has. But we as people, living today won't. We are materially rich, but getting spiritually poorer. I wonder what Marx would think about that.

I feel sorry for the young woman, but happy too. Sad that she will spend so much money in a losing pursuit. But also happy that she will deeply learn about one area of the arts which she will probably cherish the rest of her life, and hopefully pass on to others. Beats buying another BMW.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 9, 2006 11:58 PM

Why "except the movies"? I see no reason to.

Posted by: Reg Cćsar on January 10, 2006 4:08 AM

Friedrich: Fascinating stuff on the Arclight Cinemas. Of course, I remember during the 60s and 70s, the twin movie houses in the Century City Towers catered to the arts crowd as well as to pure movie lovers with comfortable highback seats, upscale concessions and a wide range of movies (the theaters also used to be the main venue for the wonderfully eclectic international film series, Filmex). And the Cineram Dome, now part of the Arclight Complex saw the premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the first Star Trek movie and a host of films which appealed as much to kids, horny teenagers and movie buffs.

RE: High art music since the French Revolution has become progressively (and since the 20th century, virtually without exception) a matter of middle-class artists producing music for middle class audiences.

Well, yes. Artists produce art for those who will pay for it. Vivaldi wrote for a church which subsidized him. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven sought commissions and sometimes the equivalent of pensions from aristocrats because that’s where the money was. But of course, you rarely find that aristocrats became artists themselves, since the idea of a “profession” and being an aristocrat were contradictions to European aristocracy.

Even so, a major flaw of your essay is that it omits singers and musicians.

RE: Indeed, middle-class artists seem to be actively suspicious of charm.

This is interesting, but probably almost totally wrong. Consider the arts tradition in Britain, where wit and charm have often been hallmarks of middle class art. Check out, for example, the numerous BBC shows available via broadband and podcasts. I am not sure that your distinctions between “working class” and “middle class” art hold up.

Still, this was a very provocative post, and I think that you are really on to something with your musings about the overheard conversation. There is something about some middle class (or maybe upper middle class) folk that views art (and subsidiary professions such as editing and marketing) the way that the English nobility used to view certain designated “gentlemanly” occupations as being superior to actually doing any kind of meaningful work. Of course, aristocrats ultimately had to have someone below them doing the actual work, while I suppose for some middle class people the ideal is to have a grant or subsidy (government or foundation) which allows them to pursue a dream without actually having to earn a living.

By the way, one of the themes of EM Forster’s wonderful novel Howards End is how the rise of Industrialism created a new mercantile class which was largely independent of (but sometimes still envious of) the old aristocracy – note here that money and power were not the same thing as being aristocratic – and how the mercantilists’ tastes were viewed as being less elevated than that of the old nobility.

Agnostic: RE: - Greater nutrition, better medicine & hygiene, greater availability of education & mental stimulation -- these would produce more geniuses than previously (although still a tiny handful)

I think it’s more the case that modern society has produced a larger number of people who think that they are geniuses, or that they should be geniuses, but who are in fact just a higher order of educated mediocrities.

Lastly, during my Ivy League college days, one could note certain well-heeled women who were History of Arts majors. They were, in effect, in training to be museum docents and benefactors, and of course the wives of lawyers, doctors and other monied professions. But rarely did any of these women ever seek to be artists themselves.

Posted by: Alec on January 10, 2006 6:02 AM

Great post. I believe Mendelssohn came from a priviliged background, though. His parents were quite well-off.

Posted by: jult52 on January 10, 2006 9:18 AM

Actually, Toulouse-Lautrec was a member of the nobility, his father being a count. (And a fairly well-off one at that. Between the efforts of Louis XIV and the Revolution, not to mention aristrocratic disdain for commerce, a number of French nobles ended up with bourgeois incomes by the 20th C. -- consider Antoine de Saint-Exupery.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 10, 2006 11:08 AM

Haydn in his early career was essentially a house-servant. Mozart was sort of a vaudeville performer. By Beethoven's time musicians were given a prophetic status and made real money. A lot of social change in less than a century (e.g., the French Revolution).

I've done quite a bit of reading in the French avant-garde recently (including the musician Satie) and they mostly came from respectable but not wealthy or aristocratic families, very often from the provinces. Most of them made enormous sacrifices in order to become artists.

The French avant-gardists were not really effete cafe-society types. I have some details at my URL.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 10, 2006 2:07 PM

"Middle class" has increasingly become an almost-meaningless term. The aristocracy of blood is irrelevant, and very few people can maintain a respectable lifestyle on their inheritance alone. (And by aristocratic standards, even the Kennedys, Bushes, and Rockefellers -- rich enough not to work -- are "new money", more or less).

Likewise, a lot of people who are working class by many definitions actually have an OK income. So I'd say, 1% aristocracy, 50% middle class, 44% working class, and 5% non-working poor. These numbers can obviously be tweaked a lot.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 10, 2006 2:16 PM

The beginnings of a great post. I hope you will carry it forward. In particular an examination of the hideous affect that Yale University and similar programs have had in the last generation. I am with you 100% in your quest to know, but I think the 20th century poses far greater and more complicated questions and answers. All very worthy and I'll look forward to reading your continued ruminations. Best -J

Posted by: James on January 10, 2006 3:24 PM

Hey, and what about that great genius who was raised a stone's throw (well, more like a decent bullet's firing) from me? You know, the Painter of Light (TM). I can't seem to find out what his folks did, but I'm betting they weren't professors.

Posted by: J. Goard on January 11, 2006 5:27 AM

Mozart was only a vaudeville performer in his youth. In his 30s, he was a successful artist who made an income that put him firmly among the high-earners of his day. His death coincided with an economic recession that curtailed his income and incorrectly led to myths about his economic penury.

Posted by: jult52 on January 11, 2006 9:12 AM

Grandly conceived, but Old Nick is hiding in the details. A definшtion of the middle class would help but we can agree on it later. I wouldn't call the creator of "Olympia" and "Luncheon on the Grass" a social realist. But the real problem I see with your approach is intragroup variance.

Let's take the 19th century. Brahms was a son of a double bass player but biographers pay more attention to his seamstress mother who supported the young man in his aspirations. We also know Brahms the teenager played at seedy dives to pay for his music lessons -- an experience that by his admission was later a factor in his bachelorship. That Brahms came from the working poor or the lower-middle class may be more important for your purposes than his father's trade. Stravinsky's father was a famous, admired and respected bass singer at the Mariinsky. The boy grew up in St. Petersburg, studied law at the University and later took composition lessons with none other than Rimsky-Korsakov. All that points to a rather different, capital-city upper-middle class status. Technically, both were children of artisan fathers though.

Liszt was not a peasant -- his father served the Esterhazy family as a steward, which means the boy grew up in a mansion, not at a farm or in a log cabin. Bruckner was a son of a hereditary rural schoolteacher and probably the closest of them all to a farmer. Wagner's stepfather was artistically inclined, so he might fit the "artisan father" pattern. Though you place Bruckner and Wagner under one rubric, there must have been a lot of difference in background between the former, whom Vienna snobs mocked for his peasant accent and manners, and the latter, who tried to write a Shakespearian tragedy in English at twelve.

Tchaikovsky, indeed, belongs in the middle class group, for though he was technically a nobleman, his father supported the family through professional income (he was a mining engineer). The son would become a professional, too, earning his living as a full-time composer. A good complementary figure would be Mussorgsky -- a landowner's son, a cadet, an officer, a petty civil servant who couldn't cash on his music and eventually succumbed to depression and alcoholism.

Posted by: Alexei on January 11, 2006 9:22 AM

Is it possible that there is a connection between "difficult" art, and artists whose economic circumstances make it possible for them to escape the dictates of the market (at least for a little while)? I.E. the higher percentage of artists from the upper middle class, the high the likelihood of in-your-face art

Posted by: ricpic on January 11, 2006 2:47 PM

jult52: I have trouble believing your version. It would only make sense if Mozart were absolutely improvident. I've read letters from his later years and he couldn't afford heat in the winter.

Calling Mozart a "high earner" is pretty ahistorical. He probably was at the high end of the labor scale, but labor in those days was wretchedly poor, and he apparently didn't succeed in making it into the middle class, which in those days was tiny and not really comparable to today's middle class. One of his problems was that he tried to go from dependency on the largesse of aristocrats to producing for the market, and it didn't quite work.

Mozart performed for the bigtime aristocracy, but he wasn't one of them and my guess is that he and the other musicians entered through the side door.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 11, 2006 3:50 PM

Erik Satie had a small inheritance which he went through quickly, becoming very poor. The family money came from his grandfather (involved in shipping) and his parents were amateur musicians who dabbled in music publishing.

I think that Mussorgski's alcoholism was as much a cause as a result of his lack of success. However, I think that he's a much greater composer than he's given credit for being. Boris Gudunov is an incredible work, and you can hear Mussorgskian echoes in classical music well into the twentieth century, and even today.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 11, 2006 3:56 PM

Emerson: My information is from Volkmar Braunbehrens's Mozart in Vienna (see link). Monetary translations across eras are difficult but he estimated that Mozart's income in the mid 1780s was about $80k (this book was written maybe 15 years ago). Mozart spent a lot on clothes and his family always had servants. You're characterization of him as vaudeville performer was so inaccurate that I just had to correct it.

Posted by: jult52 on January 11, 2006 6:07 PM

Recently saw a film about Rachel, the great actress of the Comedie Francaise (also mistress to Napoleon Bonaparte). She came from a family of Jewish peddlers.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 11, 2006 8:23 PM

One of these days I'll have to read that book. I still have a few reservations -- debunking books sometimes do overdo it.

I've seen attempts to estimate Darcy's income (in Jane Austen), for example, and the estimates diverged enormously. Having servants in those days didn't put you high on the totem pole -- just like present-day India, where you can hire a servant for $100/ mo. or so. Buying lots of clothes is a business expense for entertainers.

Based on what I've seen, Mozart never attained financial security of any kind. It's possible that he really was the type to blow all his money.

Vaudeville entertainers often make lots too, but they don't usually enter polite society, and they often die broke.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 11, 2006 8:35 PM

Reference made to Friedrich’s generalization and comparing it against the Malaysian’s context:

I really envy the coherent and consistent art development of the west. In my opinion, the art development of the east has much been interrupted by political instability and social up heaves. Maybe the learning from the west could be used as a tool for reconnection.

(1) I do not think the middle class of Malaysian are fascinated by their inner mental world. Instead mindless economic ( material) pursuit of the middle class at large is contributing to the grotesqueness.

(2) The insecurity is both self created by the artists and also due to general lack of appreciation of art by the society . What art can a society talk about when the emphasis of life hinges only on economic gain, and success is measured by how much money is in your pocket ?

(3) Its always easier to please with grace and finesse . That’s what the Malaysian “ high society” love best for now. Some artists work on that… but I am glad there are still some artists that choose to question the society and trying to make things visible for others through their works. I guess it’s easier to make graceful art work for religion (and my wife and daughter).


look from

Posted by: look on February 1, 2006 2:48 PM

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