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What makes something 'art' and how does that relate to class?

Cosima von Bonin, MISSY MISDEMEANOUR #02 (THE BEIGE VOMITING CHICK, MISS RILEY[LOOP #02, 2006], MVOS VODOO BEAT & MVOS ROCKET BLAST BEAT), 2011. Installation at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Whitney Curtis | Provided | Beacon archives

This article first appeared in St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 29, 2011 - Is a velvet Elvis painting, art? What about a guitarist playing on the street for tips?

Polling local performance and visual artists, the Beacon found a pretty good consensus: Art doesn't have to cost money or be vetted by an institution.

"Art is self-expression," according to Lara Teeter, actor and head of musical theater at Webster University.

"If someone is expressing their art, they don't have to be on the stage at the Sheldon or Carnegie Hall," singer, actor Denise Thimes said.

"It's all subjective; a lot of it is just doing something outside the box that no one has seen before," stencil artist Peat Wollaeger explained.

What about Cosima von Bonin's vomiting stuffed chicken riding a 36-foot-long rocket that was in the lobby of the Kemper Art Museum on the Washington University campus until recently? It is nothing if not an example of out-of-the-box artistry. But the value of the playful piece referencing Dr. Strangelove and the Cold-War era stems from the artist's intent, not the objects alone, according to Kemper associate curator Meredith Malone.

The arrangement is a mockery of military might, with the sick chick a commentary on the desensitization of violence. The never-ending club music that accompanies the work suggests the stupor in which the poor Missy Misdemeanor finds herself. The method speaks to a growing trend in contemporary visual art.

"A lot of artists in the 20th century and today play with what is popular versus what is considered fine art," Malone said. "Those lines are so blurred now."

The same piece by an unheralded artist would still be art, Malone said. But the known artists gets displayed; the other wouldn't. The Kemper, like other galleries, can't exhibit everything that comes to its attention.

"It's not about excluding something. And we only have a certain amount of funds," Malone said.

There's definitely a correlation between commercial success and what's considered valuable in the arts world. The cream rises to the top, according to arts patron Stephanie DeChambeau, who spends about $40 a month on the arts. DeChambeau said she often gets what she pays for.

"When you go to a community theater production, you get one level of quality and when you go to a professional theater and pay more for your ticket, you -- usually -- get a higher level of quality," DeChambeau said.

Class is and Isn't About Money

Differentiating between "low art" and "high art" -- whose meanings vary depending on who you ask -- often involves the income of its patrons. For example, one-third of Union Avenue Opera Theatre's audience earns $60,000 to $90,000 a year. Not megabucks these days, but enough for extras.

Those opera "high" notes might be a lot cheaper than pop culture.

"A lot of people will pay a fortune to see Lady Gaga or Beyonce, but they will not pay that amount of money to see something they perceive as slightly selective or an acquired taste," said Dance St. Louis artistic and executive director Michael Uthoff.

The concept of art can be examined down along lines of class -- with pop stars, TV and most magazines considered lower class, and opera, theater and art gallery exhibits, higher class.

To some, however, there really is no such thing as "class." Washington University social work professor Jack Kirkland sees class designations as fulfilling a need to distinguish ourselves from others through income, zip code and culture.

"People use these things to separate themselves so they can operationalize prestige and a sense of being 'better than,'" Kirkland said.

No matter what you call it, if your family struggles to sustain shelter and food, you're not likely to seek out the date of the next Touhill performance, much less buy a ticket. Once a family can meet its basic needs, exposure is key to cultural norms.

From passing front-row seat Muny season tickets down through four generations to free visits to the Saint Louis Art Museum, parents and other adults in their lives influence children in numerous ways. Take Stephen Sondheim of "West Side Story" and "Sweeney Todd" fame. His childhood friend was Jimmy Hammerstein.

"Oscar Hammerstein was Stephen Sondheim's surrogate dad," Teeter said.

Scott Schoonover 2011 heads Union Avenue Opera
Credit Provided by Union Avenue Opera | St. Louis Beacon archives
Scott Schoonover

But it doesn't always work that way. Accessing musical inspiration was much more difficult for Union Avenue Opera Theatre artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover.

While Schoonover's parents had little interest in the arts, he was captivated by the classical music he heard in first-grade music class. On his own, he checked out record after record at the library.

"My parents thought I was totally crazy. To this day, my family doesn't understand it," Schoonover said.

Mixing It Up: Beer with Ballet

Bringing individuals to new experiences is one way to create connections between people and the arts. Bringing new experiences to existing audiences is another.

Thimes remembers an event in the mid-1980s in which her church performed a pioneering show for a mostly white audience. Their strategy for acceptance was to begin with classical hymns, ease into spirituals and save the get-down gospel for the second act.

"The people were able to process that a lot better than just a choir getting in there and clapping their hands and stomping their feet," Thimes said. "That way it wasn't as confusing to them, like, 'Why do they have to jump up and down, what are they saying?'"

Consider this scenario: As the dying swan flutters its last, the proverbial pin drop is the only sound the audience hears -- until the crunch of a tortilla chip.

What? Nachos with Nureyev?

Bringing classical entertainment to more pedestrian venues is not a revolutionary concept.

While no ballet has graced a Busch Stadium, Rudolph Nureyev did perform at the Muny with The Royal Ballet in 1967 and 1969, and in 1978 with the Dutch National Ballet. In 1987, The Moiseyev Dancers found a home on the Muny stage.

The worlds of beer and ballet will collide again, if Dance St. Louis artistic and executive director Michael Uthoff has his way. Uthoff hopes to book the American Ballet Company at the Muny at some point to expose a wider class of St. Louisans to dance.

"There are audiences that may be afraid to come to The Fox because they might not feel comfortable," Uthoff said. "We would like to provide an informality about dance, an accessibility."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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