The art of downward mobility in America

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MY friend Chuck Kyle's story is not among the many personal histories that Katherine S. Newman relates in Falling From Grace: The Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class (the Free Press, New York, $22.95). It is not that Newman is careless or insensitive. Generous sympathies inform her report on the collision of Americans' belief in a meritocratic workplace with the reality of job displacement. This is a work of anthropology, not social science: The aim is understanding, not policy recommendations. It weighs the cost of downward mobility. Newman does not consider contemporary artists, perhaps because the relationship of contemporary artists to the middle class is contradictory. We expect artists to gibbet the faults and foibles of the middle class, yet we have been slow to recognize that many artists have become middle class. They have mortgages, backyard barbecues, orthodontia, and IRAs. One of the misleading legacies of the 1960s is the image of a bedraggled artist with waist-length hair, driving a beat-up van home to his goats and his yurt. A few of those renegades keep on truckin'. But most artists have the same aspirations to material comfort and financial security as the rest of us.

All the arts have grown in number and in kind since World War II. Abstract Expressionism anchored the US place in the world art market and helped to focus collectors' attentions on American painting. Increased public and private spending on the arts has allowed more people to consider art as a career.

The postwar prosperity helped to bring about more academic positions for artists. In turn, academic artists created more artists, more academic slots, and more peripheral positions, like artist-in-residence programs. Academic artists fostered the notion that artists require academic degrees. In 1950, 525 master of fine arts degrees were awarded in the United States. In 1980, the figure had risen to 8,708.

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The most rapid acceleration came in the late 1960s; it continued through the '70s. The memoirs of the Abstract Expressionists, that tough-talking band who ate spaghetti for breakfast and dinner five days running back in the late 1940s, show that they all knew one another and felt the kind of kinship people feel when shipwrecked far from society's normal reaches. Today there are so many full-time artists, more than 30,000 in New York City alone, that they can't know one another. Further, they can't all live in pricey, white-walled SoHo lofts concocting new ways to combine lobster and sun-dried tomatoes. They live in New Jersey - way out in the 'burbs, and in Cincinnati, and Burlington, and Boulder, and Bakersfield.

Consider the data accumulated by Diana Crane in The Transformation of the Avant-Garde: The New York Art World, 1940-1985 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, $24.95). Sixty-seven percent of the museums in the US were founded after 1940. In the last census, more than 1 million people described themselves as artists. Over time, Crane reports, artists have ``internalized values and goals associated with the middle class and with popular culture.'' She concludes that regardless of style, many artists have lost their attitude of opposition to the middle class.

Yet despite the increased integration of the artist into middle-class society, the public holds fast to an outdated, if market-wise, image of the antiestablishment artist. Which brings me back to my friend Chuck.

Chuck has chosen to fall from grace. He treasures the interactions of teaching but will not take a full-time academic position. Chuck isn't worried that his painting might suffer. Instead, he fears the distractions and enticements of middle-class life that follow on an academic appointment. ``Once you're inside,'' Chuck says, ``you can no longer look at it.''

But Chuck is no morose romantic. He looks with bemused good humor on the complementary activities of the academy and the art market. When I argue that great numbers of artists with real talent and ingenuity are forced to compete for recognition in a system that has not accommodated the possibilities for a truly democratic art, Chuck grows impatient with my Utopian rambling.

He will sell any of his pieces but makes no effort to do so. He considers the pursuit of sales, exhibitions, and the art scene as ``hedging'' on his career. He has no written record of where his paintings are or when he painted them. He is refurbishing the attic of his rural studio to store canvases, many of which he will paint over. For him the act of painting has what my old instructor used to call ``ping.'' The painting itself is an empty chrysalis, a hollow impression of a central experience.

Chuck is not paid to paint, though he puts in as much time as an investment banker. His paintings are large, frequently figurative, and closely rendered, and they boast the cold, clear illusionism associated with Surrealism. Chuck likes to articulate space, smashing open three-dimensional depths behind two-dimensional spheres of rich color. His images, which achieve the dreamy, fluid pretense of computer graphics, are especially time-consuming. He recently spent 38 hours depicting grass in the foreground of a painting that only a handful of friends are likely to see.

I made my annual trek to see Chuck's paintings not long after Raymond Carver, the short-story writer, died. Carver, whose academic office was on the same floor as mine, talked Chekhov but walked like Stanley Kowalski. He never learned the measured tread of an academic. ``Dirty realism,'' wrought of his own struggles with poverty and alcohol, became the label for his gritty stories. Chuck walks like Stanley Kowalski, but he is as different from Carver as Carver was from John Cheever. For Carver, the experience of downward mobility informed his art as it took its toll on his mind and body. For Chuck, the experience of downward mobility has become access to grace.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the fine arts department at Syracuse University.

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