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The Artist Class: The New Millennial Rung in the Social Ladder photo

Earlier this month I was informed by a friend about a local artist meet-up they were planning on attending somewhere on the east side of Detroit. They mentioned that the intention and purpose of the meet-up was for local artists to address ways in which Detroit creatives working in all mediums could do better in supporting one another and discuss ways to be more intentional in building a more contemporary artistic community in the city based on connection and solidarity. This was typically not the type of function to catch my interest, nor one that I might be inclined to attend, primarily because I have a general hesitance in regards to how a sit-down like this might be conducted. In order to curate and orchestrate such a talk requires quite a bit of diligence, preparation, and time to make the discussion fruitful, though mainly a good facilitator armed with great thought-provoking questions, hopefully one that can steer the course when things get choppy, is definitely a good place to start. But I figured if there was going to be a discussion about local artist solidarity and ways to improve upon it, I was curious about who might show up and what these people might say; and I wanted to spectate to see if I heard anything interesting, and to potentially chime in with any of my off-the-cuff theories if necessary. So, I decided to brave the cold and bike the three miles to the address given, simply to see what I could see.

The event was being held in an art gallery which was hiding in plain sight in some industrial lumberyard district on East Davidson. Arriving early, I entered a bare-walled gallery space occupied by a small handful of folks schmoozing in corners, huddled into small groups interacting in familiar ways. In the back, by the kitchen, there were fruit and vegetable platters, as well as alcoholic seltzer water, and so I helped myself to some as I waited for something to happen. Eventually one of the organizers of the thing approached me in an attempt to socialize. He was a part of a larger artist collective cooperative. It was mostly small talk at first, and then he casually used a term I had never heard before in my entire life. He was probably talking about artists and the spaces they require in order to create, and then he said something along the lines of, “We in the artist class...”

The artist class?

I didn’t pry on what he meant by this, but I felt that I knew vaguely what he must’ve meant, because he included me, himself, everyone around us, and everyone who hadn’t arrived yet into this grouping label, but I couldn’t help but internally reject the notion that there was such a thing as the “artist class”. There was something about it that felt inherently white, and at the very least, liberal, and ultimately, relatively bougie. It sounded as if he was implying that the artist class was a struggling class, and he wanted to be a part of the change that allowed for it to thrive, I.e: bringing people of the artist class together in a more frequent fashion to network, air grievances, plot, or to establish affordable studio spaces somewhere in some warehouse in the city with his artist collective. On the surface, none of it seemed disingenuous, or insidious, but beneath the rhetoric I wondered what a guy like this, a middle-aged white man in fashion street wear, could really want out of such a vision.

Later, as he held court addressing the 50 or so artists that had shown up, he was speaking on the matter pertaining to why we were all there and as to the purpose of the gathering and his group’s mission statement when he revealed in his welcoming speech an aspect of what his intentions were in the long run. Perhaps this is reading too far between the lines but he seemed to be a man at least partially concerned with legacy, potential popularity, and a self-serving acknowledgement. He practically said that he wanted to be a part of an artistic movement that could be historical. He was a photographer by trade or practice, so naturally he saw things through a historical lens. Our present is the future’s past sort of thing. He mentioned the Warhol era and of those that would go on to become famous artists who at the time were unknown teenyboppers hanging out at the Factory, such as Debbie Harry in the background of a photograph.

The Factory; a 20th century mythical prototype for a liberated artistic haven, or utopia.

A dream. And a wet one at that.

And as I stood there listening to this man wax, I looked around the hollow gallery at the crowd encircling the room, and it dawned on me that the lowest common denominator was that we all took the process of artistic creation and pursuit somewhat seriously. I wasn’t familiar with anyone, but it was an interesting feeling because I had never really been in a room like that before. My first thought was to wonder if any of them were any good.

And so, as the opening speech concluded, we segued into the next part of the evening, with everyone going down the line and around the room to introduce themselves and to briefly speak on their medium of choice, and what it was that they did. Most were millennials, maybe Gen-Z cusps, but no matter what they did, they all considered themselves artists. And by the 30th person, I couldn’t help but ponder on the age-old question of: What exactly is an artist? Because if it can be assumed that there is something called, an artist class, then it also presumes that in order to be considered an artist you also have to consider your economic status in the caste system of stratification, making the proposition that inherently art, survival, and commerce are intertwined. This is something our culture accepts, and promotes through academia, galleries, and all the different artistic industries, and so I understand to some degree, but none of that truly has to do with art. If you’re making your work and decide to not only share it, but trade it for money to someone who actually wants it, or needs it, that isn’t the same as making art to be sold. That sort of practice is something else entirely. If you’re only making artwork for commerce, can it really be considered artwork? In the spirit of entrepreneurship, perhaps what is being made is something more like a product? Or a brand? Or is it clout commodification? Or validation of one’s self-worth from others? Maybe it’s a loophole away from the 9 to 5? Or a career path towards a gallery setting where your worth is appraised by the rich and wealthy? It could be a weak attempt at self-reflection? Maybe it's vanity incarnate, generated by charlatans, swindlers, grifters, and opportunists who are not truly in love with the poetry or the craftwork, but everything surrounding it, primarily including the lifestyle that rejects the status quo; to be different but with nothing truly to say.

To me, the liberal rhetoric of the artist class is about the same, and equally as ridiculous, as someone racially identifying as an artist. And though I believe there can be elements of tribalism that have merit in this context, the fact of the matter is: some artists are more successful financially and culturally than others. But I doubt that someone like Banksy or Drake would be considered citizens within the artist class. So, there’s this assumption that the artist class is synonymous with something like the working class, which is lower on the totem pole of economic status, with the implication being that you have to be struggling to be considered artist class. And if that is the case, then is everyone in the artist class trying to escape it and climb the social ladder?

Anyway, as the last person in the gallery was introduced to the group, I was finally ready to get into the nitty-gritty of why the Detroit artist community seemed so fragmented, and to discuss and hear points of view on the subjects adjacent to these matters. But that is not what happened. Instead, the owner of the gallery came up, plugged the gallery’s history, and their involvement in the art community in the city. And that was that.

We were then cut loose to tour the facility, get free screen-printed tote bags fresh from the press, engage in conversations with whomever seemed useful, interesting, or potentially valuable, or in my case, with whomever was closest, and what I had thought would be a conversation potentially worthwhile really started to look more like a good ole fashioned mingling and a rubbing of elbows. In fact, what I had walked into was just another networking event. I had been misled. And, sadly, it was all to their own detriment, because it was truly a wasted opportunity. Why bring all of these people together, propose all of these existential questions regarding the artist and the struggles they inhabit navigating the world and not talk openly about it together as a group? If their objective was to weave together a stronger bond of community, then holding space for a real-life collective conversation in real time away from the internet and social media seemed highly imperative to me. In fact, social media itself could have been an interesting talking point because it’s no question that its existence over the last decade or more has had a serious impact as to why things feel so fragmented, obviously having a negative effect in ways that hit on more than just the woes of a local art community, but still. Primarily interfacing with software to meet your social needs only makes it that much more obvious that a social networking application is actually lacking in most social aspects because it isn’t comprised of any real adhesive tissue. It’s actually a void. An abyss. An illusion. The interaction found is false, falls flat, and is devoid of the substance necessary to actually build substantial relationships that can be fully formed in reality. It can be a useful tool, but not a primary one, which it unfortunately seems to be. Something like social media, specifically Instagram, or Twitter, produces a serious symptom that creates a vacuum of exclusivity that generates small social pockets of cliques and scenes and truly holds the absence of inclusion once leaving the net, and entering the real world.

If the true objective of the evening was to begin addressing ways to unify local artist into a more useful networking support group, then the first rule of action would be to really carve out the time to get to know one another, understanding what people want, what people need, and to find common ground on the basis of, at the very least, being seen and heard, so as to decide how best to move forward as a local Detroit artist community who all are attempting to inhabit the same city and produce work in the same city with the goal being to move towards something resembling a mutual solidarity with your neighboring creative. But instead, it was encouraged for the individual to network on their own, thus perpetuating the loop of the old oxymoronic ouroboros.