Art · Politics

Do Artists Need to be Poor to be Relevant?


On our way to Liverpool on Friday, Husband and I were having a bit of a music sesh in the car, playing lots of CDs and going through some albums that we haven’t listened to in a while. We’re both massive fans of The Streets and one of the albums that got a play was Mike Skinner’s first, Original Pirate Material. I said to Husband that it would be on my all-time top ten albums list and he agreed, but we went on to discuss how Mike’s later projects didn’t have nearly as much of an impact as his first.

We decided it was because, when Mr. Skinner made his first album, he was young and ‘real’ – he didn’t have a lot of money, he was just an average lad making his way in the world and writing about his experiences. When you listen to his music is has a reality to it, a grittiness that makes it so unique. Our hypothesis about the subsequent albums is that as his success spiralled, he took a step away from the normality of his life and it made his writing less relevant to normal people and the audience with whom his previous work had resonated so deeply.

It reminded me of a conversation that I had with two of Husband’s cousins a couple of Christmasses ago. The conversation had got onto Banksy, the infamous yet anonymous street artist and political commentator who has taken the world by storm in the last few years. At the time, another ‘outing’ had happened where someone had claimed to the press that Banksy was not, in fact, a normal bloke from Bath who’d worked his way up in the street-art subculture, but was actually privately educated and from a wealthy background.

Both of Husband’s cousins were disgusted that he was potentially middle class and almost seemed to feel betrayed by his apparent class status. I asked them both at the time if artists needed to be poor to be subversive, especially given that a lot of Banksy’s art is so political, but they couldn’t quite come to a conclusion as to why it was unsuitable for someone of means to be commenting on politics in such an ‘urban’ way. And if Banksy was a rich boy, was his social commentary less authentic, because he lacked first-hand experience?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m by NO means advocating the middle and upper classes, I’m a working class girl from a background of union members and hard-grafters, but I do find it interesting that there seems to be a correlation between how people view certain artists and the class that those artists would most identify with. I looked back through the ages too, and it’s not just a recent phenomena – Picasso is one of the most divisive artists in history, but I’ve heard many an anecdote about him having to burn some of his early canvasses just to stay warm, during times of abject poverty when he couldn’t afford wood for his fire. Van Gogh died without a penny to his namem having never found fame during his life, only to be one of the most celebrated impressionists of modern times.

It’s not just artists either – Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley all came from poverty and I can’t help but wonder if their individual impacts on the music world would have been so great had they been born middle or upper class? If they’d have had the edge and drive that they needed to become superstars? Sure, there are plenty of actors, artists, comedians and musician (especially in The UK) who were afforded the privilege of money and good education,  but I find it interesting how much more respect people are given when they appear to have ‘come from nothing’, and how the relevance of their music is increased by it.

So, how about you? Would you be disappointed to find out that Banksy was from a rich family? Would it make you think less of his art, or is the message the same regardless of what he came from? Does a person’s origins give them more of a right to comment on society, and does poverty make that opinion more authentic?

Let me know, I’m really interested in your opinion!

8 thoughts on “Do Artists Need to be Poor to be Relevant?

  1. Interesting debate! I wonder if as all art is created by passion and emotion, whether those feelings are less intense if you are warm and fed! However, equally could be that Mike Skinners sound was better suited to a lower quality recording, and once he was successful, the polish afforded by expensive studios ruined the beauty of what was underneath.
    You don’t have to be poor to be an underdog though, I should imagine if you are a boarding school product from a very wealthy family, becoming a street artist is not what your parents had in mind, so perhaps it is the subversive quality that counts, not just the financial status.

  2. To be honest, I’d always just assumed Bansky was posh! I spent quite a few years in Bristol, and his being subversive, but also middle-class, seemed to fit with the whole artistic scene there. Really interesting post. Have you listened to any of this year’s Reith lectures, with Grayson Perry? He’s had a load to say abou this sort of thing.

  3. I trained as a classical musician – there were people on my course from every ‘class’ who made their music to the most phenomenally high standard. I suspect working class bassoonists or french horn players are hard to find as the cost of purchasing such instruments can be prohibitive whereas singing is a artistic medium that doesn’t judge your income.

    Whether you are an artist, musician or other creative being, or indeed someone who prefers the more factual/scientific way of working, I think the most important thing is how you are as a person.

  4. I think it also depends what they do when they get there (if they start from working class) – how they treat people, and do they still try and tell the same story (through their art) or do they tell of a new one. I think it is quite interesting to see the different ways people can go with how they then decide to treat people.

  5. I don’t think rich \ poor is relevant but I have often said that the music industry would be in a much better state if the stupid amounts of money and celebrity were not involved. Real musicians making real music for the love of it rather than fame and cash driving every pop starlet to seek the limelight. And I loved that first Mike Skinner album too, pity he got shit – maybe that destroys my theory after all!

  6. I do think a large portion of society favours the underdog and generally are more accepting of people who have had to struggle to get where they are rather than have been over-privileged in their rising. Which is a bit annoying as I do think talent and hard work is the same whoever you are and whatever your background. Personally I think Banksy is a woman 😉

  7. I think that class prejudice is a bit of a joke given that about half of the people who believe themselves to be working class these days actually fall into the category of middle class. My family started off as working class, but over the years (through damned hard work) we’ve moved up in employment and educated ourselves further, and through general life experience I’d say that our interests have diversified and we (like I’m sure all parents do) aspire for greater things for our children. So now we are middle class. Our personalities haven’t changed. We still have the same strong family values, we are still hard working and honest, we still want the best for society. We are still entitled to our opinions and we can still have strong political views and we are still capable of expressing them in an artistic fashion (well some people anyway, I don’t think that I’d really have the talent!). So no, personally I don’t think that class should have anything to do with it, it’s just another set of labels to divide society and give the daily rags an easy angle.

    People don’t choose which class they are born into. Personality comes from more than personal circumstance. Wealth, cultured interests and aspiring towards better things does not automatically make a person an arrogant snob any more than poverty or a comprehensive education would automatically make a person a yob or a chav. If a working class person wins the lottery and starts going to the opera and sends their kids to private school it doesn’t mean that they are suddenly incapable of producing art, having more means does not make someone creatively, emotionally or politically void. Labels drive me nuts :s We are all individuals.

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