#BlackHistoryMonth

“Black people don’t go to galleries” – The reproduction of taste and cultural value

David Osa Amadasun

David Osa Amadasun

by David Osa Amadasun

Since childhood I have always been curious as to why rich people were rich and the poor were poor. Fast-forward two decades and that same curiosity has evolved into a call for action to do something about the insidious ways in which inequalities infect our daily lives. It was during the second year of my undergraduate degree, at the age of 32, that I became aware of the limited exposure I had had to certain social and cultural resources as a child and young adult. As a teenager my experience and aspirations were heavily influenced by two things: the media (mainly TV and music) and the church – my mother was an international evangelist. During one of my undergraduate courses I was mentally conversing with a lecture about the ideas of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on Social and Cultural Capital. I had one of those eureka moments, I wonder if I can use these ideas to increase my kids’ life chances? Bourdieu was the son of a farmer who went on to become an academic and public intellectual. Despite his success Bourdieu always felt out of place among the middle-classes, ‘like a fish out of water’ – a concept he called ‘hysteresis’. The matter of how class is reproduced by the unconscious imbibing of tacit rules, values, dispositions and tastes was to become an enduring theme in Bourdieu’s writing and research.

In order to get on in life Bourdieu believed that you had to have a ‘feel for the game’ of different social situations or ‘fields’ and the different types of cultural capital and taste that each demanded. For Bourdieu the body, how we carry ourselves, how we dress, how we feel, was key to how the game of power within any field was played out. When there is a fit between us and a particular social field there is ontological complicity’; we are like a fish in water

It does not feel the weight of the water, and it takes the world about itself for granted.’ (p.127)

Inspired by Bourdieusian ideas I began to think about how our tastes and cultural capital affect our aspirations. How plausible is it that taste creates a disposition that favors certain aspirations and is aversive to others? For example, might engaging in certain types of social and cultural activities help a child’s (or adult’s) social, cultural and educational development and progress? Could the rejection of particular cultural tastes and activities impede or make difficult the realisation of hopes and dreams such as going to university or getting into a certain career?  I thought that if these propositions were true then there must also be a way to apply Bourdieu’s ideas to interfere with the everyday reproduction of hierarchies of cultural value and taste. I worked with a simple hypothesis: that a parent’s cultural orientations form part of the cultural capital that their child draws and builds upon.

In October 2010 I began an experimental campaign called Project U.N.C.L.E (Unite in Nurturing our Children’s Life Experiences) to investigate but also to try and dismantle the cultural barriers experienced within working class communities of colour. As part of my research I decided to explore the extra-curricular activities that middle-class parents expose their children to and the institutions that they routinely participate in. It is important to remember that not all of our tastes create social distinctions and division in the way Bourdieu suggested. A large, multi-method study The Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion Projectcarried out in Britain between 2003-6, found that liking police dramas or whodunit type books, and not liking eating in Italian restaurants or reading religious books had very little impact upon cultural capital. As the authors put it some tastesdo not carry any symbolicbaggage‘, and do not cluster with other distinguishing aspects of cultural life.’ (p.51).

I chose to focus my attention on what I felt was a divisive cultural activity and space: the gallery, traditionally seen as being a white middle-class milieu, associated with social, cultural and educational benefits. I thought hard about why working-class people of colour didn’t use such spaces and I organised a visit to an exhibition with a few friends and family. My eldest daughter’s reaction to a visit concretised the painful reality of how the exclusions of cultural value are deep-seated and felt in the body.

The juxtaposing of these two images are highly symbolic for me. In May 2011 I took my daughter, who was 14 at the time, for a surprise trip to see the Tracey Emin exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. We arrived at the Southbank Centre, parked underneath the gallery and walked up the stairs towards it. Shaniah glared at me as we neared the Hayward. Before I could say anything, she froze and said that she wasn’t going into the gallery. “It’s not me dad, it’s not me”.

I was speechless. The daughter who I have seen hold her own in a rough school and area was visibly affected by a building. I was so upset that I nearly swore at her. I wasn’t upset or disappointed with her, it was because in that brief moment I felt my family’s vulnerability to the mundane violence of cultural value. As a parent I felt powerless, unable to protect her. Thankfully with some coaxing and the promise of a Caramel Frappucino, Shaniah agreed to ‘try’ the exhibition. She loved it. The swearing and sexual explicitness intrigued her and caught her imagination.

That initial experience led to a small ethnographic study ‘Experiences of exclusion within the mainstream art gallery – an ethnography of black and minority ethnic visitors’. It consisted of three art related activities, which I used to attract parents into a gallery space in order to explore how they felt whilst engaging with it. The first obstacle I had to overcome was actually getting the parents to the gallery. Tiredness, financial pressures and a lack of time were all given as reasons to avoid the gallery visit. This is not to say that any of these issues do not exist but these same parents would also spend £40 to go to the cinema or to eat out. Devising fun and interactive projects, coupled with a good exhibition, plus free entry into premium exhibitions helped.

In each of the exhibition visits with the parents I could see that observational learning was taking place. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning theory focuses on how we are shaped by social experience and observational learning. The concept of self-efficacy plays a key role in social learning theory and concerns our belief in our ability to succeed in certain situations. In the gallery it became apparent that the parents were experiencing self-efficacy issues, although the kids, aged between 5-14, were not. The dialogue below is an extract from a longer conversation I had with a participating parent, Richard, during a visit to the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward in 2012,

Richard: Black people don’t go to galleries.

Me: What are you talking about? Am I not black? (I laugh)

Richard: I know, but you’re different.

Me: What! How?

Richard: Come on man, you just are.

This seemingly light-hearted exchange shows some of the circuits and flows between class, race, gender and cultural value. Richard’s assertion ‘Black people don’t go to galleries’ is a part of the very phenomena and the experience that he was having. His choice of words, which are based upon his understanding, visceral experience and observation at the gallery, articulate an unspoken norm: it is natural/normal for Black people not to participate in mainstream art galleries and that ‘real’ black people do not use these spaces. This version of an authentic black identity is created against the whiteness of the gallery, and in the process other black people, like myself, who are found in such places are ‘different’: read – not really black. A Russian doll of othering opens up, revealing smaller hierarchies of taste and what Sarah Thornton has called ‘subcultural capital’.

During the exhibition Richard was clearly uneasy. He looked uncomfortable and kept glancing around at the other gallery visitors. In his video account of his exhibition experience he said that due to the lack of representations of his culture, it was as if he and his culture had never existed. Why? Because the exhibition was supposed to represent popular working-class culture in Britain but in reality it was an exhibition of white working class lives and cultural artifacts. It later transpired that Richard’s conversation about black people not going to galleries was in part a response to his own feelings of anxiety within the gallery space. Richard, as well as a few of the other participant parents, had developed personal strategies for avoiding painful situations and settings in which they felt inferior or out of place. In effect they were using strategies of self-policing and elimination with regard to places of ‘high’ culture, deploying their own versions of subculture as a rationale for their own exclusion.

This small interaction shows the workings of something larger and sophisticated: how part of the negotiation of everyday life for those who are marginalised involves the tacit development of bodily practices and social maps that help us to avoid situations where as Bourdieu put it we ‘can feel the weight of the water’. At the same time because of the ways in which cultural taste is value-laden, our subcultural capital and the places that we inhabit because they affirm us, can protect as much as confine us.

As I mentioned earlier, my aim in Project U.N.C.L.E is to co-develop strategies with parents to develop self-efficacy in the hope that empowerment will break out of these vicious circles and broaden our children’s horizons as well as our own. So how can self-efficacy be developed? One way is through representation. Seeing people similar to one’s self succeed by sustained effort can help the observer to believe that they too possess the capabilities needed for success. During Project U.N.C.L.E the issue of representation came up again and again in different ways. During the ‘Me, My Face and I’ activity day, I found out just how important it was for black children to see themselves reflected in the mainstream.

Here’s the scenario: two children, one white and one black, walk into an exhibition filled with portraits of white people. Both children enjoy it. After the exhibition they make self-portraits out of food. The black child asks for brown ingredients – cocoa pops, hot chocolate powder – to represent his skin in the portrait. The white child does not bother with colour in the same way. Her whiteness is not a colour that needs to be marked or thought about, it is naturalized as normal, a seamless part of the wall-to-wall whiteness of the surrounding exhibition. On closer inspection the portraits show further nuances of colouring and also commonality. Other features such as nose, lips, eyes and hair were not represented mimetically. As the brown skin colour of the portrait on the left stands out because of its purposeful colouring, it creates a link between the child and their artwork, making visible what is taken for granted in this space – whiteness.

 There has been progress in the diversity of representations within exhibitions, for example the Meshac Gaba and Ibrahim El-Salahi exhibitions at the Tate – which the kids and parents loved. But adequate progress has not been made in how these institutions, funded by public money, encourage those from underrepresented groups. As Dr Eleonora Belfiore from Warwick University has pointed out, there are fundamental and ‘awkward’ questions that need to be asked about the social and institutional structures that support and maintain hierarchies of taste, ‘if the debate on cultural value is to go beyond an empty rhetoric of self-celebration’ Belfiore writes ‘then it needs to be an occasion in which awkward questions are asked of the sector as a whole. Questions such as ‘For whom does the sector generate value?’, ‘What do organisations big and small do to live up to their status as public cultural organisations?’

It is because of questions such as these, that I have felt compelled to work within Outreach initiatives and to try and contribute to institutional change. By understanding and valuing different orientations to cultural value I was able to mobilise pop-cultural sensibilities to begin playing with and eroding the “low/high” culture divide. For example, I was able to attract parents to the George Condo exhibition at the Hayward and to research self-portraiture. How did I succeed where mainstream cultural institutions with bigger budgets had failed? I made visible the connection between the work of George Condo and the work of Kanye West and I made the day interactive.

The work of questioning and rearranging cultural value is not easy or straightforward, more ‘awkward questions’ arise. Do we want to encourage cultural omnivores by diversifying taste and/or do we want a radical overhaul of the very values that make distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture? How do we survive and make some progress in our day-to-day lives? Since completing my research I have worked within higher education outreach and have seen first-hand how a lack of the ‘right’ cultural capital can continue to impede the realisation of aspirations. I am also painfully aware of how subcultural capital can work to exclude us through a valorization of stifling ideas about what it means to be black. And this will continue until we begin to question and unravel the limitations and complexities of such worldviews, particularly when they can be a protective/defensive response to the injuries of exclusion. Increasing our own self-efficacy is just one way forward.

I want to end with a video in which George the Poet shows us the imaginative potential that awaits us in the gallery. This is not about a passive ‘viewing’. It is about entering into conversations, participating in art, taking up provocations – being moved.

Gwarn George the Poet

David Osa Amadasun is an award winning cultural entrepreneur with a passion for widening access to the experiences that help a child develop into a future innovator. Being a creative thinker, problem solver, and entrepreneur helped him survive the tsunami of adversity that he experienced as a young father.  When he’s not strategising on how to solve social issues relating to social mobility/diversity via Project U.N.C.L.E (his action research initiative), you’ll find him scooting along the Southbank or in the Royal Festival Hall with his daughters on his black scooter that has a red bandana tied to the handle bars @DavidOAmadasun

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26 replies »

  1. Am an artist and had vatually converted my room into a small gallery of some sort because that how I display before I find a market for them. The responds I get from people when they visit me is so marvellous. I have had a friend who has a culture of always bringing people to my room just for them to see my art and am excited at the way they interact with the works on the wall. Well am so enjoyed this article and encourage a way for the public to be informed on the importance of gallery visit expecially children. Well thought out concept

  2. This is a great blog, well worth a read. Being from a working class background and still identifying myself as a working class girl, there are so many places over the years where I have felt discomfort in a particular setting.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I read it previously a month or so back and re-found the link today. I work in promotions and marketing in what we (many in my circle) regard as one of the whitest cities in the US. While doing research for one of our local museums I found a study conducted by that museum. In the study it looked at the demographics of attendees – whether they were white, black, hispanic, asian etc, what their incomes were, how many times a year they attended a gallery, if they were a donating member of the museum etc. Essentially the break down was over 90% white, 8% asian/asian american, 2% hispanic and black.

    In the study it was asked of attendees if they felt socially encouraged to participate and go to art exhibits. Nearly all of the white attendees said yes, while a very dismal percent of the next highest group – asian/asian americans – said no.

    Looking at what I do for work, several of the organizations we work with that claim to be for the improvement of all classes specifically leave out the neighborhoods of color in their strategies. And I’m talking about free or minimally priced events that anyone could love if only they felt invited to participate.

    Needless to say this has broadened how I look at how we promote for certain clients, and I always encourage clients to reach out to the “poorer” (because we don’t want to say “black community” or “communities of color”) areas to make sure everyone is adequately extended the invitation.

    Thank you for this article and thank you for expanding how I see things.

  4. Greetings! As a low income white woman with children, I splurged on museum membership for a few years, and made the most of it. We went everywhere we could find a museum. Mainly science centers, but some had art attached, and within NY state, there was reciprocal membership in a range of museums. Museums are no longer the first choice for my grown sons, but they occasionally go along when I go, and enjoy watching their little sister explore.
    I think that seeking out opportunities for all students to visit museums from early years is important– as it is important to expose them to all arts and cultures, as available.
    If I may make one admission- I have always enjoyed what Langston Hughes poetry came my way. I read his work on the printed page from early childhood, and didn’t realize until I was in grad school that he was black. I knew the art, not the artist. Having studied art and artists through the years, each has value on its own, even if enjoyment is often enhanced when studied together.
    I enjoyed the article and subsequent comments.

  5. What a interesting article. A simple concept with developed theory attached. I loved George the poet at the end he basically summarized the whole article. Brilliantly done.

  6. I’m so glad that this is being addressed – and with such positive feedback from readers!

    I was thankfully raised with parents who wanted to immerse their children into as many varied activities as possible so as to cultivate their “cultural capital” – regular library visits, art galleries, classical music lessons and the like. We need to transform the negative and self-deprecating thoughts that so many of our BME parents have towards these edifying extra-curricular activities and come to the realisation as a community that children who miss out on such activities simply will not be able to fully integrate into their future schools, universities and work places. It starts from home!

    http://www.365daysofthought.blogspot.com

  7. I formerly ran an art gallery in Pittsburgh (now I’m simply an artist). I fondly remember meeting a friendly black gentleman, Gordon, who would bring his beautiful young girls to just about every art opening. Bringing children (of whatever color) to the actual openings, when possible, is something that more parents should do. Gordon was unusual in this regard, and I watched as his children, who were initially wide-eyed and shy, became completely at ease surrounded by art and people who admire it.

  8. If we wait for white owned and managed institutions – galleries, museums etc to find the will and the money to organize access and exposure for non-white children we continue to leave it in the hands of those who created the divisions in the first place. Research shows that such cultural visits have real influence and so are important on many levels. So Organize. Don’t wait for them. This is not difficult or even expensive. It just requires that art and culture be prioritized in the budgets of non-white institutions – from churches to casinos. And that the handful of people who see it’s importance ACT on that. It has to be YOUR priority too…
    In fact, there are a great writers on this blog. Write a one page proposal requesting free passes for 100 kids and adults a month – or whatever – and distribute to individuals who want to follow up – any museum education department, at least on the west coast will give you those passes if asked in writing with a visit, phone call etc..Make your case there not just here – and organize. And Zanna – even if you think I am a racist – I suggest taking poor white kids too. I won’t go in to the research and science on the importance of that here…
    It’s a new year soon. Maybe this is the new things we all do…Peace…

    • Hear hear! If any organisers can make use of me (I am a museum-addicted arts graduate who did PGCE in science teaching English as a second language with years of voluntary experience in heritage education and a very sympathetic inside connection) I am all yours. Obviously I am White so will support as directed…

  9. that was an interesting article but i feel that dividing participation by race misses the boat somewhat. don’t these divisions happen along class lines? are poor whites going to galleries? i doubt it.

    • They are intersecting issues. The article shows how black people specifically feel excluded from galleries etc. Saying it’s only a function of class is just racist, erasing and denying their experience, while validating that of white people

  10. same with white people…it all in education and exposure…agreed…( title should of read, ” WHY BLACK PEOPLE DON’T GO TO GALLERIES”…)from my experience in working in art galleries for 30 years in usa….

  11. Thanks for this interesting, and important, article. I’ve had similar experiences with buildings, as a Jew, when faced with the prospect of entering a church, or Buddhist temple, e.g. visiting them as historical / tourist sites.

    As an aspiring museum professional, I often wonder, what can museums & galleries do to make themselves more welcoming to people of color? Even the Bishop Museum, founded by a Hawaiian royal princess to hold the collections of the Hawaiian royal family, is widely considered, I am told, a “colonial” or “haole” institution, and is thus not as well regarded or well attended by Native Hawaiians as it might be otherwise. So, it’s not purely a matter of seeing one’s own people, one’s own history, represented.

    And we know that it’s not simply a matter of pricing, or Free Fridays, or other more purely practical forms of accessibility. It is, I guess, about a culture that makes people think that only certain types of people visit museums, and that museums are not “their” place. We must work to change that, somehow.

  12. With all the education cuts and the government’s reluctance to fund the arts, this is a very necessary article. As a Londoner, it’s depressing to think how many black school children will never walk through the British Museum for free and look at the thousands (upon thousands) of African artefacts on display.

    As a black community, we need to ensure that all kids of all backgrounds share a common understanding of world history. For that to happen, barriers such as the ones highlighted in this article need to be brought down. Education is the key.

    • Akwesi – the point about cuts is so important. My Mum works in heritage education. Before the cuts she was leading the outreach/education team (four-five people?) and working alongside the access team (three people whose central remit was working on bringing a wider range of people into the museum) at the main archaeological museum in Lincoln. After the cuts, she WAS the education and access team – just her and one part time assistant. The council think museum education doesn’t matter – they only ‘ringfence’ resources to take care of collections (catalogue and preserve the artefacts). The education program was mind-blowingly wonderful and inspired thousands of kids every year… but the changes left my ridiculously talented Mum not just underpaid (as was always the case), but also lonely, unhelped and unappreciated. I doubt very much that people like her will continue to seek this kind of work. When we heard the council’s decision, we sobbed all the way home, which sounds stupidly melodramatic, but really, if all we do is polish the vases, who is going to see them?

      • I can understand both of your frustrations at the cuts in arts and other departments. Especially when we remember how hard people fought to have these facilities & services made available to joe public in the first place.

      • Exactly. That is what I meant to express: the sense is that something wonderful, carefully built over the last 30 years is being cut down with a chainsaw… Same with the primary (school) National Strategy and Every Child Matters. There was no need to destroy them. This government is slashing and burning the little progress made towards breaking down social barriers in public institutions.

    • Education is a key, yes… but a common understanding of world history is quite impossible under the best of circumstances when history professors will generally disagree on the particulars and significance of any given event or set of “facts”. That doesn’t mean we give up on starting to learn a history… but that we come to understand that “facts” are usually interpretations… and that “history” is personal and will change as we acquire more “facts”.

  13. I teach art to kids in a central London school, we have a deliberate part of our curriculum to look at non white european male art. It makes much more sense to everyone.

    • = ) If I were in charge of an art curriculum, I’d just scrub white male european art altogether, since the students would be having it shoved in their faces in most other art-related contexts…

  14. Terrific, insightful and thoughtful article – articulating what is known superficially (e.g. I reject it because there’s no one like me there) but making explicit the potentially devastating subconscious impact on young people, in particular, who grow up having to deal with this unarticulated but powerful means of exclusion – if it’s not articulated, it’s not acknowledged, and even the well-intentioned dominant culture fails to grasp how it still, unthinkingly, perpetuates exclusion

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