ArtSunday: You can take the boy out of the working class, but can you take the working class out of the boy?
As I’ve noted before, I grew up working class in the South. My neighborhood, my school, my family and friends, it all oscillated between “redneck” and “white trash,” and yes, there’s a difference. I wrote not long ago about the challenges facing those of us trying to climb the socio-economic ladder when nothing in our upbringing had taught us which fork to use, how to dress, how to speak or how to behave in polite society.
These days I’m a PhD working in the world of marketing and corporate communication. You’ll find a lot of companies you probably recognize on my client list, and I am positively wallowing in what French scholar Pierre Bourdieu termed “cultural capital.” I’ll spare you, for now, a lecture on how real capital is of more value when the rent comes due, but suffice it to say that people like me are allegedly respected in society due to our intellect and earned status.
In other words, I’ve come a long way, baby, from my modest hillbilly upbringing in Wallburg, North Carolina.
But you know that old saying: you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. I’m fond of telling people that I’m a “simple country boy.” They always laugh, and I’m not sure they ever guess the degree to which it’s actually true. Yes, I’m smart and highly educated and artistic and thoughtful and enlightened and complex, etc., but in many respects I’m still quite the uncomplicated working class kid. The inner tension, the sometimes oppressive dissonance in my head, can be maddening. It’s as though I live in two distinct worlds. Worse, it’s sometimes hard to know who “I” am. No matter where I go, I’m out of place. From the time I wake up in the morning to the time I go to sleep, and often on through a night of disorienting dreams, I’m in exile.
So there. There’s your self-absorbed existential introduction.
I’m thinking about this because yesterday I went to a classic car show out in Wheat Ridge, the decidedly working class suburb that borders my NW Denver neighborhood to the west. We seem to have a lot of folks here in the greater 5280 who love old cars, and I suspect that’s true where you live, as well. From Model Ts through the golden age 1950s and on into the rise of the late ’60s and early ’70s muscle cars – on any given weekend when the weather is nice you can find people who devote a great deal of time and money to a celebration of America’s longstanding love affair with the road.
The thing is, you walk through these crowds and it’s clear that this cultural experience is defined and bounded by class. Despite the beauty, the sheer artistry of some of the restorations, we’re talking about the people I grew up with. Working class. If they lived in the South instead of Colorado I’m sure you’d call them rednecks, and you may anyway.
When I picked up photography nearly a year ago, it never occurred to me that I had any interest in shooting old cars. Literally – that thought never once crossed my mind. I’m not a car guy. I mean, I like cars okay, but this isn’t and never has been anything more than a “hey, look at that cool old car” kind of passing interest for me. But one day last July I drove past a little roll-in at a bowling alley in Wheat Ridge (classic cars and bowling alleys go together like peanut butter and jelly), pulled over for the heck of it, and accidentally discovered that I’m not bad at this sort of photography.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more it makes sense, I guess. I love design. My dissertation was about the evolution of technology, and a significant hunk of that project was specifically concerned with photography and technology through the middle of the 20th century.
Since then I’ve taken quite a few classic car shots, including one that’s easily the best technical image in my brief photography career.
But walking around that show yesterday was unsettling. I felt right at home, and at the same time I felt so out of place part of me was sure that people were pointing and whispering behind my back. My inner working class boy was completely comfortable with his people. I know them, their lives, their frustrations and their hopes and their artistic aesthetics. I know them because I am them. But they also represent the cultural gravity well I have been struggling to escape for 35 years or more. That guy – the one with all the cultural capital – he’s not at home here anymore and he’s sure that they can tell that he doesn’t belong.
As I walked around admiring the cars, I realized that there is a specific era of automotive design that appeals to me above all others: the mid- to late 1930s. 1936 and 1937, in particular, produced the machines that exert the greatest tug on me as a person and as an artist. And I realized why. When I was a kid, I used to go to Winston-Salem’s Bowman Gray Stadium every Saturday night in the summer to watch the races with my friend Ed Berrier. The main feature was the Modifieds, and Ed’s father Max was a bit of a regional legend in the division. At that point in time a vast majority of the cars were ’30s-era Fords, Chevys and Plymouths. Max, as I recall, ran an iconic ’37 Chevy, and I suppose the power and elegance of those cars imprinted on me in a way that I never quite got over. To this day my sense of design in automobiles is more compelled by graceful, assertive curves that trace their lineage back to 1930s Detroit.
By the late 1970s most of the teams had switched over to Pintos, Vegas and Gremlins, which I thought were kind of cool (especially the Gremlins), but when I think back it’s always the older models that I remember.
The culture of minor league stock car racing in the South in the 1970s? Right – working class. People like those at the show in Wheat Ridge yesterday.
A lot of people have grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and earned their way into some capital, be it cash or cultural. Not all of them are as willing to acknowledge their roots as openly as I do, and I empathize with their inner struggles. As I note in the “which fork to use” article I link at the top, society isn’t always forgiving when it comes to uppity working class types, and if they feel they need to keep the redneck in the closet for their own good, I can’t fault them.
For me, though, there’s something energizing in the tension between the art and material culture of the class I inhabit now and the one in which I grew up. There is a way in which the Wheat Ridge audience contextualizes the beauty of these artifacts that is wholly incompatible with a middle class or upper class aesthetic. At the same time, there is a place in which the two overlap, a shared terrain of essential shape and color, a shared history regarding form and function, and I find myself fascinated by the possibility of finding the artistic moment upon which we can all agree.
I took some shots yesterday that I really like, and maybe I succeeded in extracting from a working class ritual something that an elite eye might also appreciate.
If not, I’m going to keep trying. Happy ArtSunday.