Our recent discussion on how class is represented in art focussed on a feature-length film and accompanying article by the filmmakers and academics Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill. We also prepared by watching an interview between art critic Morgan Quaintance and artist Andrea Luka Zimmerman.
Wayne and O’Neill’s film, The Condition of the Working Class, follows the production process of an amateur theatre performance. While Wayne and O’Neill did not script any of the performances, they devised the open call for specifically working class participants and facilitated political education, writing workshops, and rehearsals alongside the theatre director they selected.
The film’s genre could be interpreted variously: as a practical guide for recreating the workshops, a reality-tv programme about the people involved in the workshops, a documentary about the coming together of a ‘practice-based research project’, or an experimentally produced docu-fiction about working class life in Salford. What is most remarkable about this film is how the subjects are active agents in writing and stylizing their own performances, so let’s consider it as primarily the latter. What kind of working class life does it depict?
The experiences that the film’s subjects choose to represent, as exemplary of working class life, are characterized almost wholly by oppression. The primary affect they create is anger, indignation. But something is up. We find that the subjects in this film express their anger with a clarity that is, in an important sense, not representative of the working class.
As the working class is, in the majority, ideologically captured by the ruling class, the explanations it gives to itself about the causes of its anger are largely dissimulated by this ideology that is hostile to their class interests. In large part, the working class is quicker to blame other sections of itself than to see the causes of its anger in the structural inequities of class society as a whole. To suggest that the working class is different to this seems inaccurate and harmful to the task of confronting class domination. The film’s omission of ideologically problematised subjects gives it the flat appearance of propaganda, work that only the already-initiated could ever love.
While the film implicitly claims to represent a real or authentic working class collective subject, it would be more realistic to say that it represents a vanguard fraction of that class. There is a problem when culturally foreign Marxist intellectuals/organisers represent – in terms of actual thought – a minority, while claiming to represent – in terms of material interests – a majority. To be clear, this contradiction is not the fault of Wayne and O’Neill, but they might have done more to mitigate some confusions arising from it by signposting their position.
Though it might have been detrimental to the emotional pull of its empowerment narrative, the directors could have taken advantage of the documentary format to critique their position as intellectuals, or organisers, within the conditions of the film’s production. We see from the credits that the film is linked, in an unclear way, to Brunel University. A Friedrich Engels text is presented as foundational but why it was chosen above other Marxist classics is ambiguous. The particulars of the film’s distribution – radical film festivals, universities, community art centres – presumably not entirely an afterthought within the process of making, are passed over as topics for the audience to consider independently of the film.
Via their paper, ‘The Condition of the Working Class: Representation and Praxis’ published in Working USA: The Journal of Labour and Society, the directors do critically represent their part in the act, explicitly attempting to address the dilemma of accurately representing the working class. They note that a coherent working class collective subject is problematised by other aspects of identity, and that their open-call casting process only attracted white, university educated subjects. However, the open acknowledgement of this representational lack is not enough to explain the incomplete view of class society that the film gives. I.e. a fragment of the working class with a heightened perception of its own position in class struggle.
A similar longing for, let’s call it a militant self-awareness, is expressed by Morgan Quaintance. His recent Art Monthly article, ‘Closed Loop’, argues that the ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘rich and multifarious state of existence’ of the working class places it beyond description in terms of legalistic categories imposed by bourgeois institutions. In particular, he criticizes how equalities monitoring forms have been expanded to secure greater working class representation in the professional field of art. He identifies this as a bureaucratic force that coerces working class subjects into understanding class position by way of lack, of not having wealth, rather than potential.
Like Wayne and O’Neill, the working class subject constructed by Quaintance is one that exhibits a vanguard consciousness, a ‘critical awareness’, or ‘sensibility’. Andrea Luka Zimmerman describes it more poetically as ‘a sense of the possible’. To say that this is the case is comforting, but perhaps misleading since it disavows the fact that many working class people are powerfully coerced into identifying positively with ruling class ways of thinking.
This fragmentation and co-option is why representing the working class as a collective subject is bound to be fraught. Not because of natural differences between people, but because of sustained exposure to ideological attacks based on class interest. This condition of the working class cannot be resolved through imagining a coherent collective subject in place of a broken one. The most accurate representations of class show complex social fractures and oppositions that are given their character through class struggle, by work and institutions of the state.
To move our discussion forward from this, it may be useful to look at the state and its institutions: how they shape workers into repressive relationships through ideology. For this, it might be helpful to look beyond the sphere of cultural production, e.g. the police, social services, legal firms, healthcare, local councils, etc.