ART, STATUS, ANXIETY AND A WALL PIECE

: THINKING CONTEMPORARY STREET ART FROM THE CONTEXT OF STATUS ANXIETY

As a starting point we can analyse the kind of society that produces “Status Anxiety”, in terms of its historical difference from past societies. This concept will be later referenced in following posts so this is a good starting point for the blog.

If we compare our present society with any other period of our History it is possible to see how in general we have improved our levels of wealth but not our levels of happiness, even when we are richer than our predecessors were two generations previously, we are apparently more anxious and dissatisfied with our lives. Status is related to our social-economical position; the anxiety produced by our life aspirations for status is what Alain de Botton called “Status Anxiety”. This anxiety increased with the idea of Democracy making social interaction no longer the same by promoting the value of equality and equal opportunities in life.

In the time of Feudalism status referred to wealth and possessions; there was little chance to change ones social position, social mobility was extremely limited. The Aristocracy were concerned only with lineage, continuing to hold the same privileged position of high status for generations. The social classes were easy to identify by the family surname, occupation and living arrangements. People from lower classes had little opportunity to rise through the social structures in place.

Marx developed one of the most important sociological theories by the analysis of social classes and their conflict. A class is defined, says Marx by the ownership of property. Such ownership gives a person the power to use the property for different purposes. In relation to property there are three main social classes that Marx describes; the bourgeoisie (those who own the means of production such as machinery and factory buildings, and whose source of income is profit), landowners (whose income is rent), and the proletariat (who own their labor power and sell it for a wage).

Social mobility at this stage was still limited and the endless routine impeded the possibility to think of social mobility, if we compare it is not too different from Feudalism, it only changed the way to produce defined by the market. Marx’s theory states that; class-consciousness identifies classes, its different meanings and forms. A society’s ruling ideas are the ideas of its ruling class.

Bourgeois society tends to break up the social bonds of feudal society and replace these with market relations, a revolutionary change. According to Marx, ideology is as a set of imposed ideas that constitutes one’s goals, expectations and actions. Ideology is imposed by institutions, adopted by the upper class and adhered to by the lower classes. Class-consciousness gives rise to the possibility of social mobility as well as revolution or change in any levels of social class, also to the ideology of social equality.

In the middle of the XVII century there emerged a new social system that re-evaluated the distribution of status, giving the possibility for anyone to attain any social position. This new system was called Meritocracy. The original idea of Meritocracy was based on the rights of equality and justice but actually increased social anxiety through the pressure of change and envy by social competition. Alexis de Tocqueville analysis of American Democracy pointed out, in ‘Democracy in America’(1), how the change from Aristocracy to Democracy increased the status anxiety and envy, as mentioned before; with Aristocracy it was not possible to change social status. However in Democracy anyone can choose their own social standing, having equality and liberty as rights, the dream seems reachable. This makes a substantial change not only to individual perception of social standing but also to the collective way to conceive society.

Taking the idea of equal rights and opportunities; to succeed in life despite background, race or current social position, status is essential in society and is predominant in how people judge their position in comparison to others. Consumption is more about achieving status symbols (2), the aspiration of ‘making it’ has subjected lower classes into falsely attaining a consumer lifestyle in situ of real social climbing.

The key point is that what changed was the idea of distribution of status but not the ideal of what being high class was. So to succeed one should imitate or aim to attain the lifestyle flaunted by higher classes.

This whole new ideology that America adopted after their revolution promoted a consumer society, where goods and material things were more relevant than spiritual and intellectual faculties, increasing the anxiety to attain. What Bauman would say about this point is that 

Every culture lives by the invention and propagation of life meanings, and every order lives by manipulating the urge for transcendence; but once capitalized, the energy generated by the urge can be used and misused in many different ways, though the profits from each allocation benefit clients unequally.
— (BAUMAN, Zygmunt “The individualized society”

 

Therefore it is not only about ideology but its reproduction and life. Presently status symbols can be related to how successful one is at business, fashion, sports or generally projecting an expensive image. Money then becomes a validation of position and right to social inclusion. This creates a paradox, the pursuit of success is infinite and unobtainable; class once bound by lineage and social conventions has been succeeded by material possession and competition.

One status symbol that becomes relevant for this discussion is the possession of art; portraits for example were highly fashionable in the preceding centuries, the reflected importance enhanced status. The creation of art by artistes and the taste of collectors has changed throughout history and is continually adapting, even art inspired by lower class movements has found appreciation, yet it is not often attainable for low class or middle class citizens to own or have access to artworks even from their own milieu. Art has become a symbol of status, its price and exclusivity promotes perpetual competitive pursuit. The cultural impact of art movements now crosses boundaries more easily than individuals within social classes formally.

From this point the categories discussed identify status as flexible to change, however throughout history certain communities and individuals have always decided to live alternatively regardless of imposed class boundaries or imposed cultural ideology sometimes resulting in acceptance of innovations such as art by status society.

One of the most contemporary and usually prohibited forms of art is street art and graffiti. Contemporary life gives special importance to our relationship with objects and possessions including art, street art however contrasts with modern values of material possessions by its accessibility and usually illegal application. Some graffiti artists however have found popularity even amongst art collectors and have begun commercial production. The street artist Banksy’s artwork is based on political alternative and radical statements but his artworks attain some of the highest prices of contemporary artists.

Street art attracts variable opinions of its place in the art world and application in environments. Taken from a letter received on the Banksy website is this interesting view of graffiti; 

I don’t know who you are or how many of you there are but I am writing to ask you to stop painting your things where we live. In particular xxxxxx road in Hackney. My brother and me were born here and have lived here all our lives but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here neither of us can afford to put a house where we grew up anymore. Your graffities are undoubtedly part of what makes these wankers think our area is cool. You’re obviously not from around here and after you’ve driven up the house prices you’ll probably just move on. Do us all a favor and go do your stuff somewhere else like Brixton. Daniel (name and address not withheld)
— Banksy, “Wall and Piece” Century, 2006 p 130

 

Interestingly art can be a symbol of status but not necessarily one held by the upper classes, art also has the power to transform lifestyles, people’s perspectives and customs as well as creating the chance to avoid status anxiety, as personal creation in its different forms art has the power to create a counterculture or even react against contemporary ideologies.It is possible that art can allow an individual to express themselves without the need for material or superficial gain.

 


REFERENCES:

De BOTTON, Alain, “Status Anxiety” video recording

De BOTTON, Alain, “The consolations of Philosophy” video recording.

BANKSY, “Wall and Piece” Century 2006.

BAUMAN, Zygmunt “Work, consumerism and the new poor”, open University Press, Philadelphia 1998.

BAUMAN, Zygmunt “Wasted lives, Modernity and its Outcasts”, Polity, USA, 2001.

BAUMAN, Zygmunt “The individualized society”, polity, Oxford, 2001.

HEBDIGE, Dick “The meanings of style; From Culture to Hegemony”

 

NOTES :

Note (1): This example is used by Alain de Botton in “Status Anxiety” plus the reference of Thomas Jefferson as the early basis of construction of the American Democracy.

Note (2): Defined by de Botton as material objects primarily used as psychological, objects that signal to the world that we are aware of dignity and respect. “Status Anxiety” videorecording.

Fashion Sociologist