Shock of the new bourgeois reality


San Francisco skyline and bourgeois housesI am in the US for work, and I’m reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. His beautiful and vivid essays string together the material and immaterial in ways that are transcendental. They help explain how the material and immaterial are so densely and confusingly interwoven here in the US, which is a place of both immense creativity and great poverty.

In his powerful essay ‘Circles’, Emerson writes: ‘That which builds is better than that which is built … Better than that hand, and nimbler, was the invisible thought which wrought through it.’ 

For me, this points to the immaterial forces that drive historical change and creative transformation, while acknowledging the ways the contemporary moment is always held to be material, a-historical, and permanent. ‘Everything looks permanent until its secret is known,’ he says.

The San Francisco neighbourhood I’m staying in could best be described as the Prius capital of America, or possibly the neighbourhood with the highest instance of fresh paint jobs on Edwardian exteriors. Anyway, it’s a very nice neighbourhood, and by nice of course I mean comfortably middle-class. 

It used to be populated by artists and dilettantes, and now it is affluent. We are a block away from an organic grocer, and a dog park, and my neighbours shouted at my housemate for smoking a cigarette in a public area. Because everything seems permanent until its secret is known, middle class-ness looks obvious until the fact that it is predicated on order, authority, and materiality becomes known. 

The middle classes – and without irony I really mean the bourgeoisie – consume art and culture, perhaps in a similar manner in which they consume Priuses and house paint. These are modern-day versions of iron and grain. 

Artists need the bourgeoisie, then, because material things like health and safety and housing and nourishment require material upkeep. But artists are not middle class. They can’t be. They have to exist as Emerson’s ‘invisible thought’ that works through the material world, or else there is no possibility for transcendence or change. But then, I’m reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre, who writes that poets never ‘resemble the bourgeoisie more closely than when they attempt to set themselves apart from it.’ 

Nadine Gordimer distinguishes artists from the bourgeoisie by affirming the notions of ‘relevance and commitment’ that are central to an artist’s mode of being. Sartre writes that the bourgeoisie is ‘unable to ground its privileges in Being’ but rather ground it in moral negation, and Gordimer seems to finish his contention by describing this dominant class as a ‘closed-value system’ which offers only a very limited set of freedoms for artists. 

By creating social power through negation, by imposing moral bonds on outsiders to affirm dominance (‘Do not smoke, smoking upsets my vision of natural harmony from which I draw my social privilege’), the bourgeoisie attempts to contain Emerson’s ‘secret’ from ‘becoming known’ – so as to protect its permanence. Art threatens, at least it should threaten, the logic of this permanence, and the invisible wells of privilege.

For artists, writes Gordimer, commitment ‘is the point at which inner and outer worlds fuse.’ In mastering a form, artists ‘create new norms and forms out of and for a people recreating themselves.’ To permanently transform the permanence of the present has spiritual as well as material outcomes. 

Participating in the dominant culture comes with its privileges, of course, alongside its restrictions. And living as we do, the choice of opting out of this culture is especially difficult. The daughters and sons of the bourgeoisie who are enabled to make art because their material legacy supports them must especially feel this, because often they take up the challenge by ripping off the outward cultural signs of people who are kept outside the bourgeoisie. Think Miley Cyrus’ appropriation of Black American culture. This kind of cultural flipping is low-cost, and probably serves the interests of the dominant class in any case. Genuine transgressions cost a lot more.

Working in publishing, this is one of my biggest concerns: that the need to exist inside an economy regulated by bourgeois tastes and preferences restricts the possibilities for the work that I make, curate, and work with. It’s quaintly twentieth century, and profoundly bossy, to impose this asceticism onto people who make things. But when our present is rocked by the incredible injustices we are watching unravel in Ferguson, artists are called upon to drop their aspirations for class mobility that is tethered to the material, and instead draw light on the immaterial, Emerson’s ‘secret’. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage has just been appointed editor at The Lifted Brow.

San Francisco image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, art, publishing, aesthetics, Emerson, Gordimer, Miley Cyrus, San Francisco, Ferguson



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Existing comments

I have a few poetry anthologies that I browse through on more than an occasional basis. The one I like best contains notes, written by the two editors, about the poets. As their reader, I like to know how their talent and commitment to write has influenced their lives. Not many poets would make their living solely from writing poetry though. I'd hope that poets and other artists making a living in the 'real' world would make that 'real' world a bit more bearable for the rest of us.
Pam | 27 November 2014

Frank | 28 November 2014

i am a lawyer by day & pipe organist by night; as an undergraduate, jean Paul Sartre provided an alternate latch key into the beyond. I am still trying to turn that key. I am with the author until reference is made to the Ferguson riots.How that relates to artistic freedom or expression eludes me.
alan roberts | 28 November 2014

Artists are 'drawn' to feel and be separate for the process of creativity to be enabled.This separateness can be in physical isolation and also amidst the everyday experience.. Artists living in a capitalist world are different to those, for example, in North Korea,where The artist is given huge responsibility and importance. Western artists have also historically been held in highest regard, bringing to life the fundamental and exclaiming, expressing beliefs. Artists,at once, reflect and create the culture.Artists naturally feel the spiritual connection as co creators and an audience enters into this in relationship,with their unique engagement and a dialogue with a myriad internal and external connections revealed...there is a sensual discovery in looking, listening,feeling,smelling, tasting and we all become artists fashioning something new. Art is not bound by a material world yet it is necessary inhabit spaces to reveal absence,'draw' the mind and senses to the spiritual,invisible, unconscious. Thank you Ellena
Catherine | 28 November 2014

Interesting that this essay is juxtaposed with the one by Mike Bowden on the "long grassers" over from the Esplanade in Darwin. So I search for an image that might link the two. One that comes to mind is from the gospel: the scene in which the imaginative (poetic, artistic) Syrophoenician woman tells the ideology-bound Jesus of Nazareth that even the dogs can eat from the master's table.
Noel McMaster | 28 November 2014

The events in Ferguson are intimately connected to the system of domination and disempowerment exposed so elegantly in this author's article. Unspeakable things are done behind our backs by the bourgeoisie, to defend their interests. And even greater efforts are made to keep us seeing the big picture. Truth is just a commodity for the bourgeoisie. That is the real secret of the bourgeoisie.
Paul White | 28 November 2014

Interestingly there are two Australian creative artists - outstanding in their own right - who are both terribly middle class who make a very decent living commercially. One is Barry Humphries the other John Williamson. Barry has the talent to be a great satirical novelist and John, if he wasn't primarily a song writer, could be considered a pretty damn decent poet. Many great authors Trollope etc. had day jobs and were very middle class. I think the image of the alienated artist starving in a garret is a wee bit passé these days. Of course, if you wanted to be really creative, you would avoid Parkville and its equivalents because of the literary critics and supporting acts.
Edward Fido | 28 November 2014

A very stimulating essay. It made me ask the question: 'When is an artist not an artist?' Many years ago I found guidance 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' by James Joyce. At the end of the novel Stephen Dedalus writes in his diary: 'Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millioneth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.' In that sentence Joyce combines two elements that I believe are at the core of the true artist. The artist experiences life in an especially sensitive way and feels compelled to express that experience (in whatever medium) for the benefit of the culture in which he/she lives. If he/she profits materially by his/her artistic endeavours that is secondary to his/her expressing him/herself. Of course the skills of an artist can be prostituted. Or as Picasso is alleged to have written home to his father in Barcelona: 'To succeed in Paris one needs to have a gimmick'.
Uncle Pat | 29 November 2014

Art is the way. It is a mirror and also flag,beacon and siren. Art is so powerful it infuses cultural dialogue with meaning and truth.Deep connections resonate across social and political borders and its language is universal.Ferguson is shocking because we have let democracies become almost feudal, owned by corporations, commodities for markets.There has been no real equality for millions of americans,economic slavery is still a reality,unacceptable incarceration rates, a worn down democracy and superficial (gun toting) civil rights led to now; a shocking sight = urgent need for revolution.
Catherine | 29 November 2014

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