SKIP TO MAIN CONTENT

The Cleaner as Critic

ECOLOGIES | Culture Is Ordinary  }

Rose Cleary / October 16, 2021
Have you heard the one about the cleaner who destroyed a work of art? How do these jokes relate to the "improving" function of museums, and to anxieties about the materiality of art? 5689 words / 23 min read

Image: Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, The Royal Academy, 1888 by Henry Jamyn Brooks.


Have you heard the one about the cleaner and the artwork? It’s a familiar joke: the cleaner mistakes a piece of artwork for trash, or any other material object, and so treats it as such. In 2001, a cleaner disposed of an entire Damien Hirst installation. In 2004, a component of Gustav Metzger’s “Recreation Of First Public Demonstration Of Auto-Destructive Art” was put in the waste disposal by a cleaner. In 2011, part of a Martin Kippenburger artwork was cleaned by a cleaner, causing damage apparently reaching to the hundreds of thousands. The joke lies in the “uneducated” cleaner’s inability to understand the difference between art and trash.

However, it can go in two directions, each corresponding to a different attitude towards contemporary art. On the one hand, for the partisans of contemporary art, the punchline is that the cleaner’s ignorance means they have not understood what “real art” is; for traditionalists, it is precisely the cleaner’s posited ignorance that allows them to see through the pretensions of modern art and the throwing away of the artwork then is a piece of sound practical criticism and understanding of what “real art” is. The cleaner’s supposed inability to “see” art, or alternate ability to see it for what it is (trash), makes them the great decider of what is real and what is not.

However, whilst the joke may function differently depending on the critic’s attitude towards contemporary art, in either case it is structured by a shared set of presumptions, which are both generically classist, and have cleaners in art galleries as their specific target. Having worked as a cleaner to support my studies while studying for a fine art degree at Central St. Martins, I can attest to the inaccuracy of the identification of cleaners with ignorance about art. However, the long histories - of exclusion, contempt, middle class efforts at moral reform through culture and a social order whose class structure has persisted for at least two hundred years that are condensed in the joke - makes it worth further exploration.

It is worth beginning with how the incidents offer a useful allegory for positions on either side of the contemporary art “argument”. In response to the incident regarding Hirst’s installation, the Stuckism co-founder Charles Thomson stated that, “The cleaner obviously ought to be promoted to an art critic of a national newspaper. He clearly has a fine critical eye and can spot rubbish, just as the child could see that the emperor wasn’t wearing any new clothes.” Whereas Hirst’s apparent reply was simply “…fantastic. Very funny.” A vague but self-satisfied response.

Why has the cleaner specifically come to symbolise this dichotomy in the realm of arts engagement? The “accidental” nature of these incidents appears to be distinct from similar but deliberate critical acts. As a comparison, Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”, 1999, was subject to multiple intentional “attacks”; from a member of the public attempting to “make” the bed, to two art students staging a pillow fight upon it. In their deliberate attempts to reduce the artwork down to its material basis, these are clearly demonstrations of critique. In another instance, museum attendants believed Emin’s installation to have been vandalised, and so tidied it. While this attempted tidying is accidental in nature, it doesn’t seem to have gripped the public or become a matter for jokes; incidents enacted by any figure or worker other than a cleaner rarely capture the imagination so succinctly.

So if anyone, even a member of the public, can essentially enact the same damage upon an art object, why is the cleaner’s “accident” so symbolic? Is it really over whether the damage is an accident, or a question of intent? Are they not simply “doing their job”? After all, the Hirst installation was simply a mess of overflowing ashtrays and coffee cups, intended to mimic “an artist’s studio”. Metzger’s bag of trash was literally a bag of trash, and following its disposal, was replaced by another bag of trash Metzger found at the gallery. The Kippenberger piece in question was a plastic trough which had been painted to appear dirty.

More clues lie in the media coverage of such events. The Guardian article regarding the Kippenberger incident places the cleaner in a position of ignorance, with the headline: “Overzealous cleaner ruins £690,000 artwork that she thought was dirty”. Conversely, a blog entitled “Gallery mulls ‘damage’ after cleaner scrubs modern art – Mistook rainwater installation for rainwater”, points the blame at the artwork itself. These examples hint at the central basis of the contemporary art reception topos: the value of art, and either the failure to recognise it or proof of its arbitrary nature. So why have the cleaner and, more precisely, jokes about the cleaner, become such an encapsulation of its contradictions?

Art as Social Reform

There is a specific social ontology in the relation between the cleaner and the art gallery. This is rooted in the conception of the art engagement realm, the classist principles of which are still prevalent today.

From the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, civil reformers designated culture as a tool of governance, as part of a wider movement to transform social, economic and political disorder into moral problems for social administration.1 Reformers identified practices of so-called high culture as a means for solving social ills, civilising the population by imbuing the individual with self-regulation. The public art museum model was developed to enact these principles: a space for the working-classes to be exposed to middle and upper-class conduct, giving them examples from which to regulate their own behaviour. Indeed, prior to public museums, collections were limited to visits by the middle-to-upper classes, who were permitted to touch artefacts – a decisively more embodied and tactile experience. To avoid damage to displays from the dirty and unlearned working-classes, the public museum was required to be a realm of quiet admiration and detachment. Conversely, this relied upon a notion of “cultivation” to be formed, its characteristics to be endowed as innately high society.

Reformers identified practices of "high culture" as a means for solving social ills, civilising the population by imbuing the individual with self-regulation. The public art museum model was developed to enact these principles.

This self-regulation reflected the Victorian notions of civility, based on the conception of two spheres: one belonging to polite high society, the other belonging to the rough and raucous. The middle- to upper-class sphere represented the “polite” sphere: elevation, contemplation and education. The second sphere was designated to the working-class: lowliness, ignorance, the everyday. People could choose to distinguish themselves from the latter sphere by behaving and appearing like those in the former. Attending these cultural institutions became a mark of cultivation, often being the primary onus for such visits.

The rules of art gallery attendance, those hallmarks of Victorian sensibilities – being quiet, not running around, not touching the artworks – are still in place today, despite many essentially being “unwritten”. Disobeying these rules, intentionally or otherwise, suggests ignorance. In this way, attending a gallery remains a performative act.

Another aspect of this self-surveillance is in curation, which is based upon pedagogical frameworks the viewer is required to demonstrate understanding of. More recently, curation has moved away from the historical hang towards models focusing on the relations between art objects. Visitors are not obliged to take certain paths through the galleries. This can result in what Natalie Heinich describes as wandering, for those visitors with “a lack of points of reference or an inability to use the reference points offered.” This signifies an exclusion regarding who precisely is able to engage with art “correctly”.2

While some contemporary museologies subvert these rules, i.e. encouraging visitors, particularly families and children, to interact with certain objects via touch or sound, this is still curated by the institution, granting the visitor the illusion of free movement, so to speak. Essentially the visitor’s gaze is beholden to that of the gallery, the pedagogical framework still present. Art galleries therefore remain spaces of cultural governance. Efforts then to liberalise the experience of galleries, to move away from a stuffy Victorian mode, do not, in themselves free galleries from being spaces of cultural governance, determined by classist imperatives and excluding on those terms. Indeed, these attempts may even intensify these tendencies.

Efforts to liberalise the experience of galleries, to move away from a stuffy Victorian mode, do not, in themselves free galleries from being spaces of cultural governance, determined by classist imperatives.

Furthermore, these conditions have imbued arts engagement with an apparent exclusivity from the “outside world”, as a civilising and performative sphere detached from and superior to the material world. This is what we need to bring forward from this history, in order to understand why the cleaner’s operation within the arts space is so symbolic.

But at this point we can identify a founding facet of the classist allegory at hand: cleaners, assumed to be uneducated, do not understand how to navigate the arts space. In addition, they do not belong to this social sphere.

Gaze and Liminality

If viewing art is such a restrained, self-conscious act, why do people do it? The key to understanding this is via the cleaner’s navigation of the arts space, which as we’ve identified, is “wrong”, evidenced in their mistaking artworks for material objects. But on a basic level, their interaction with the gallery space is obviously different to that of the public or any other type of viewer. The general visitor is unlikely to be compelled to “clean” Kippenburger’s trough. The cleaner is not subject to the same mode of self-surveillance: they are not in the gallery to be seen, but to be invisible. Their interaction with all objects is influenced by the objectives of their work. While the visitor (if on their best behaviour) moves around the space with restrained admiration, the cleaner’s movement is laborious and practical. The cleaner’s experience is not a matter of ignorance, but a fundamentally different relation with the objects on display. This frame of engagement does not uphold the spectacle of art. This becomes particularly legible in the case of the work of art that, on a material level, is “merely” a mess of ashtrays, cigarette ends and coffee cups, and which becomes an artwork through its placing in the museum context and inscription in practices of art-viewing.

If viewing art is such a restrained, self-conscious act, why do people do it? The key to understanding this is via the cleaner’s navigation of the arts space.

The art museum is proposed as a transformative space, in which the art objects on display are elevated, becoming vessels for contemplation. These spaces have a potent liminality – so potent is this atmosphere that it renders every single object up for spectatorship, art or otherwise. Navigation between the art and the material can be complicated, not only to the “untrained” eye, but to anyone. As Carol Duncan writes,

… in the liminal space of the museum, everything – and sometimes anything - may become art, including fire-extinguishers, thermostats, and humidity gauges, which, when isolated on a wall and looked at through the aesthetising lens of museum space, can appear, if only for a mistaken moment, every bit as interesting as some of the intended-as-art works on display, which, in any case, do not always look very different.3

The admirative restraint of arts interpretation is therefore a useful tool with which to be seen to navigate the space correctly, to avoid mistaking a material object for art. Despite the cleaner not figuratively performing as a visitor, to engage with an artwork outside of these boundaries is a mark of uneducation. “…those who are best prepared to perform its ritual – those who are most able to respond to its various cues – are also those whose identities (social, sexual, racial, etc.) the museum ritual most fully confirms.”4

This confusing liminality is made more complex via what Pierre Bourdieu called “the aesthetising gaze”. Essentially, the quality which makes an everyday object an art object is invisible. To see the “art” in an object is the aesthetising gaze: a mark of cultivation, setting the individual apart from visitors who require prompts. Studying the responses of gallery visitors to explanatory materials such as guidebooks and labels, Bourdieu alongside Alain Darbel found that working-class visitors tended to respond more positively to such prompts – although it is not guaranteed that these texts will gift “‘the eye’ to those who do not ‘see’”.5 By contrast, the middle to upper-classes were hostile towards these prompts, which Bourdieu and Darbel read as not only a desire to demonstrate their own cultivation, but also a hostility to improving art’s accessibility. Bourdieu and Darbel consider these contextualising prompts to act as props for an ideology which validates the “cultivated” – which, by making

…an encounter with a work of art the occasion of a descent of grace (charisma), provides the privileged with the most indisputable justification for their cultural privilege, while making them forget that the perception of the work of art is necessarily informed and therefore learned.6

It’s important to bear in mind that these socioeconomic positions are constructs, and the display of middle-class cultivation is just as precarious as assumptions made about cleaners. In this way, for those in the supposedly cultivated classes, to admit to not knowing things would demonstrate a lack in their position.

Here lies the crux of the issue. The professed ability to understand and navigate the displays “correctly”, to possess the aesthetising gaze, still represents one’s education. The ability to “see” the invisible value in the art object which distinguishes it as art is a learned one – but those who see it as a mark of their cultivation are made more secure in their position via the notion that it is not in fact learned, but instead a natural ability, a gift. For the working-classes, to work oneself up the economic ladder, to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”, is not enough to be considered cultivated, for such a status is gifted, not earned.

The ability to “see” the invisible value in the art object is a learned one – but those who see it as a mark of their cultivation are made more secure via the notion that it is not in fact learned, but instead a natural ability.

This is upheld by the complex language, theory and fetishisation of the artist, which further encase art objects within a constructed value. This is what grants a trash bag inside of the gallery more monetary and artistic value than one outside of it. Another facet of the art museum’s ideological power – not only as a decider of value, but also in defining the sociological standing of individuals within.7 Each viewer communicates with that power, as it not only transforms their outward gaze, but also their inward gaze, constructing a power dynamic between themselves and the art object. Therefore the artwork’s value is subject to a complex system of language and symbolic relations within the eye of the aesthete.

Returning to the cleaner, not only is their navigation of the space exempt from the same self-surveillance or aesthetising gaze, but they also have the power to disrupt these conditions. While the art object’s value is presented as objective, on both sides of the contemporary art topos there is a latent knowledge that such value is invisible, and thereby essentially arbitrary.

Perhaps the reason, then, that the incident of the cleaner and the artwork has captured the cultural imagination so distinctly is that the cleaner is seen as the ultimate remove from the realm of arts engagement. Their operations within the space are the antithesis of liminality. For example, the contemplation of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal exists in a domain separate to the cleaning and maintenance of the gallery’s own toilets.

The Cleaner as Iconoclast

Considering the pejorative power of the cleaner’s “disruption”, could such acts be considered a form of iconoclasm? What else does this suggest about the cleaner’s socioeconomic position in the arts realm?

Using the example of the 1980 Swiss Sculpture Exhibition, an outdoor exhibit which took place in the industrial town of Bienne, Dario Gamboni suggests that destruction of art objects, whether accidental or deliberate, can be considered a “latent iconoclasm.” The Swiss Sculpture Exhibition went through an “iconoclastic crisis” of sorts, as a huge portion of the artworks were damaged by members of the public. As the majority of this exhibition took place in public areas and streets of Bienne, it is of course worth bearing this outdoor context in mind. However, that the art objects were rendered so distinctly vulnerable purely by being exhibited in the “outside” (a public space which is actually public, and not a conceived-public as within an arts space) highlights the complicated relation between the art object and its supposed publics - and furthermore that arts interpretation is dependant upon the surrounding environs and the complicity of bodies within. No doubt this street curation was an effort to break down the institutionalisation of the avant-garde, in a hopeful attempt to open up new possibilities of artistic autonomy, or at the very least present it to new audiences. Gamboni concedes that this brought into contact “objects requiring a rare competence to be regarded as works of art and people devoid of – and generally uninterested in – that competence.”8

Addressing the apparent resentment which motivated these attacks, Liam Dee notes that it is difficult to ascertain vandalistic or iconoclastic motives when the enactors remain overall anonymous, although Dee includes Gamboni when identifying that the works in this case were “targeted for apparently lacking an appropriate display of artistic skill”.9 While on the one hand this can be considered a defence of “real art”, it is also “an attack on the arbitrary prestige accorded to elite dilettantism.”10

In what Gamboni calls a ‘a symbolic redoubling of social domination’ not only did Swiss locals feel their space dominated by a group already privileged with their own dedicated (and usually tax subsidised) spaces, but it was dominated by minimalist works flaunting a higher prestige and monetary value than average workers gain, despite the higher level of skill demanded of these workers.11

In this way, these attacks were a reaction to the pervading conception that artistic labour and interpretation are of a higher value than the labour of the working-class. For the inhabitants of Bienne to destroy the works is to demonstrate the art object’s essential materiality. This coincides with my previous statement that the interpretation of an artwork connotes the sociocultural position of the viewer. Thus these acts were explicitly iconoclastic; in reaction to a display which presented a challenge to the people of Bienne, a measure of their worth. A revenge of materiality.

In general, acts of iconoclasm and vandalism are treated as an ignorance of the destroyed object’s value. This is a protective measure, enacted by pedagogical authority, which ensures the value of the object is figuratively conserved. Where the cleaner’s act is concerned, this defines the retellings in which the cleaner’s unwittingness is the focus.

However, to consider the cleaner’s act as iconoclastic also suggests the presence of pathological intent. Returning to Bienne as a comparison, the cleaner’s act is not explicitly iconoclastic in the traditional sense (i.e. violent), although the possibility of (accidental) premeditation is relevant. But the reason these incidents possess a particular potency, marking them out from the same accidents by other enactors, is that the cleaner’s role, within the art realm, inherently represents the imbalance of labour value. There is a distinct duality between the cleaner and the art object – bound together by invisible value, yet presenting a challenge to one another.

Indeed, the residents of Bienne remained anonymous in coverage of events - this was partly down to the nature of the attacks, which were apparently random but continual.

Drawing on this element of anonymity, the cleaner, despite being an actor of apparent significance within coverage of “accidental iconoclasm”, is never named nor spoken to. In current Western media, this appears to have only been granted once: to Emmanuel Asare, the cleaner who “tidied up” Hirst’s Eyestorm installation. He is even given a voice, stating in a Guardian article that, “As soon as I clapped eyes on it I sighed because there was so much mess. I didn’t think for a second that it was a work of art – it didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into binbags and dumped it.” Perhaps we can see here why Hirst reacted to the incident with apparent bemusement – it allows him to retain artistic autonomy, extracting the destruction of the installation from what it really was: a cleaner tidying up rubbish. We can also see why Thomson made claims to Asare’s critical ability: not in praise of Asare specifically, but as a demonstration that the avant-garde is not art. Importantly, the coverage of such events is primarily focused on the value of the artwork and its life following the act.

At the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition, only one apparent “vandal” was identified. An installation by Gerald Minkoff consisted of 14 television screens buried in a grid formation in the soil of the grounds adjacent to a school. Having installed the piece a week before the exhibition’s opening, Minkoff returned two weeks later to find it had disappeared. It transpired that the televisions were ordered to be taken away and destroyed by the gardener responsible for the grounds, Oskar Fischer. The exhibition organisers asked Fischer to rectify this “mistake” by getting hold of replacement televisions so that the piece could be recovered. Minkoff argued that he would not accept any replacement nor duplication of his work, asking instead for financial compensation. However, Fischer had already placed an advert in the local newspaper with an urgent request for 14 old television sets.

The advert caught national media attention. Fischer denied any responsibility for something which he perceived could have befallen any other contractor; as the work was not indicated as a work of art, instead simply comprised materials which had not been altered or processed in any way. So as Gamboni writes, if the gardener’s account is to be believed, this particular instance presented a series of circumstances which made it possible for a work of art to be treated entirely as refuse. Furthermore, the conflict produced between the site’s conception (as either an art installation, building site, or public grounds) highlighted the opposition between artistic and mechanical activity, and “the revolt against the inequality of their evaluation.”12

This was inadvertently embellished by the exhibition organisers when they requested Fischer restore the installation, for conceiving this to be a sufficient act implied that anyone - even a gardener - could make art. Additionally, in one press comment, the exhibition secretary remarked that “…one cannot have a grudge against workers who know nothing about art,” and “…this had to happen, given what certain artists make today.”13

When even those within the arts industry openly acknowledge the “mirage” of arts interpretation, who, or what, does this attitude serve? In Minkoff’s unfortunate case, the secretary’s comment points to a “reality” of the contemporary artistic landscape, in a way which at first instance is deceptively placating, but protects the organisers, not least considering the public mood in response to the events (particularly that of Bienne).

This is what is meant by latent iconoclasm: the devaluing of artistic autonomy, essentially debasing the art object to the material, via an underlying belief of art’s inherent farce. As Gamboni writes, this attitude, or “half-hearted support” of the avant-garde, is typical among those required, professionally or otherwise, to support such movements - a valuing of art which not every arts practitioner can or even will advocate.14 Therefore the socioeconomic ontology of the cleaner’s role is a threat to the art realm’s claim to objective truth.

The Cleaner as Cleaner

On the one hand, based on the idea that arts engagement in the conventional way is a mark of being “cultivated”, the cleaner, defined by their tasks in the gallery, is exiled then from the world of “cultivation” and education. On the other, the cleaner must be a cleaner and therefore uneducated, lacking in culture. There is a circular logic when it comes to considering cleaners in this regard: the cleaner is a cleaner because they are uneducated, the cleaner must be uneducated because they are a cleaner.

These factors can provide motivations for the aesthete’s gaze – after all, the presence of a symbolically uncultivated individual may bolster the aesthete’s own social standing and reassure them of their “special” ability to “see” art. But this is based upon an inherently classist premise – the ability to “see” art without direction, while still a learned ability, is apparently a sign of sophistication and natural excellence. On the other hand, the cleaner’s presence deconstructs the surrounding conditions which the art object’s contemplation is dependent upon. This is why cleaners are not “supposed” to be seen in other liminal or atmospheric environments: as an example, their presence in a restaurant during a romantic dinner for two can “kill the mood.” Their presence within other workplaces is also necessarily rendered invisible, i.e. working outside of opening times, employment on flexible and outsourced contracts, to avoid the very idea of a cleaner disturbing the environs. So while the cleaner can be a tool for the viewer’s own validation, they also pose a threat to their apparent cultivation.

The socioeconomic ontology of the cleaner’s role also presents significant dualities within the art space: liminality to anti-liminality, spectacle and performance to pure intent and function, bodily restraint to physical labour, the surveilled and the non-surveilled. The gallery’s clean, minimal space, the cleaner’s direct contact with dirt (despite the gallery depending on the cleaner for pristine conditions). Overall, how the cleaner’s role is configured represents the exact opposite to arts engagement, therefore posing an ever-present shadow of doubt over the possibilities of arts interpretation and its autonomy. It is no wonder, then, that this act holds such pejorative power.

Above all, the cleaner’s very presence disproves the art gallery’s purported ability to elevate and transform the everyday into something of contemplation. Museums and galleries are certainly not exempt from the highly alienating, gendered and racialised practices of employing cleaners, made more extreme under the neoliberal framework. Often at the minimum wage end of the pay scale, working “flexible” hours (set around business hours so as not to disturb the environment, of course). In the UK, migrants make up 23% of the cleaning workforce, often facing a double-exclusion from the workforce and labour movement overall as a result of inaccessibility and low incentive for union campaigns. A further erasure of their labour and its value.

The ontology at hand within the arts space is unique, as both the cleaner and the art object, challenging each other’s value, remain bound together by invisibility. By disturbing an artwork in such a decisive way, the cleaner’s sudden presence exposes the socioeconomic injustices upon which such institutions are based, and not the liberal, inclusive idealisations which they allude to.

By disturbing an artwork in such a decisive way, the cleaner’s sudden presence exposes the socioeconomic injustices upon which such institutions are based, and not the liberal, inclusive idealisations which they allude to.

The Cleaner as “Critic”

In the destructive element of the cleaner’s act, the two spheres of society become apparent. This is how the cleaner is rendered as the ultimate judge of art in the cultural narrative: as the perfect representative of the “other” sphere, the cleaner possesses the ability to cut through the liminal gaze, treating objects as per their intended purpose. By approaching the object and responding to it without contemplative forethought, they disrupt the spectacle entirely.

And so, how the cleaner’s role is utilised as an allegorical vessel is problematic. Again, the coverage of these events generally falls into one of two camps: the cleaner’s ignorance as proof of the aesthete’s cultivation, or the cleaner’s critical abilities as proof of art’s arbitrary value. The cleaner is alternately either a salt-of-the-earth “one of us”, or “one of them”. As a defence of idealist traditionalism, there is a limitation of the former: whereby the cleaner is considered a representative of those opposed to contemporary and avant-garde movements, this requires the cleaner to be performing conservative criticism without forethought. Boiled down, the implication of both is that cleaners exist on a societal rung which excludes them from the realm of arts engagement.

The cleaner’s use as a narratival vessel is made more problematic by their removal from the narrative. Only in the Guardian article regarding Hirst’s Eyestorm installation is the cleaner given a direct voice and even a name. There is never news of repercussions on the cleaner’s position. Any articles following up the event are centred upon the art object and its value, e.g. compensation measures and negotiations with artists and dealers. The person who works as a cleaner, outside of providing a useful allegory, is irrelevant.

This makes it easier to invalidate any critical statement which the cleaner may unintentionally make: for while the act’s delivery mirrors the model of art theoretical statement, rendering the cleaner as anonymous removes their agency. Additionally, in the similarity of their treatment to that of iconoclasts, they are rendered nameless and unknowing of the value of the art object, invalidating any pejorative impact.

The Museum as Power

Whether museological practices and the sociocultural positioning of cleaners will evolve beyond these classist frameworks is yet to be seen. But in the current context, whereby curational and museological practices are changing to acknowledge problematic histories, the equivalence between art objects and the humans employed to clean their environs is something for these institutions to consider, as their proclamations for inclusive, sustainable values and ability to spark important debates are irrelevant if they do not translate into their employment practices. Outsourcing and zero-hours contracts are common, and increasingly so, this is to a significant extent a consequence of post-2010 austerity. Outsourcing in particular tends to create or reproduce inequalities, particularly around race. The conditions of employment are exploitative, precarious and yet entirely legal, for example sick pay is not included - something which, during the pandemic, has lead to a terrible loss of life, particularly for workers from Black, Asian and migrant backgrounds.

The key aspect is that these workers, often employed on a salary below the living wage, are paid less than their white in-house counterparts. In London’s Royal Parks, the black and migrant outsourced workers who make up the majority of the park’s attendants have on average been paid £4,000 less than their in-house colleagues since 2014, as well as their employer taking £70,000 worth of their annual leave. Furthermore, unionisation can be inaccessible for migrant workers, with knowledge of rights and language providing a barrier - as well as their immigration status being used against them by the very unions themselves. Outsourcing practices are inextricable from this framework of inequality, and on a steady increase since 2010 many cultural and academic institutions have privatised their facilities management, from University of the Arts London to the Tate and British Museum .

To conclude, when a cleaner trashes an art object, it is read as a statement on the nature of contemporary art because the cleaner symbolises the art realm’s divide from the “real” – whether within contemporary or traditional thought. Here then the jokes render explicit capital’s system of needs and capabilities, where working class people are limited by their absorption in materiality, and culture belongs to those freed from, if not work itself, but manual work. For some, this act recertifies their own cultivation. For others, it coincides with negative opinions of contemporary art. So despite the art institution’s embedded social designation as a space of open debate and contemplation, arts engagement is modelled upon, and therefore benefits from, the divide in the two spheres. Importantly, these two spheres cannot in their nature coalesce, and so the arts realm remains exclusionary.

The jokes render explicit capital’s system of needs and capabilities, where working class people are limited by their absorption in materiality, and culture belongs to those freed from, if not work itself, but manual work.

So many galleries profess their “duty” to provide art “for all”, a liberal denotation handed down from their history as a tool for civilising society, keeping them in a position of pedagogical and societal authority. For arts engagement and museology as a whole to function with true benefit for all of us, the two exclusionary spheres must be dissolved. At the very least, this requires attending to the material conditions, including those of their most exploited workers, which even well-meaning contemporary efforts to make things accessible both obscure and profit from. Ultimately this requires a removal of pedagogical authority, dispersed into community-led and democratic initiatives; unknitting the ties between arts institutions and corporate lenders; exposing and challenging discriminatory practices at every level, configuring these towards equity. Once the elitist defences surrounding arts interpretation are undone, the arts can be truly public.


  1. Tony Bennett. 1995. The Birth of the Museum: History Theory Politics. Abingdon: Routledge. 

  2. Natalie Heinich. 1988. “The Pompidou Centre and its Public: The Limits of a Utopian Site”. In edited by Robert Lumley. The Museum Time Machine: Putting Cultures on Display. Abingdon: Routledge. 

  3. Carol Duncan. 1995. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge. p. 20. 

  4. Duncan. Civilizing Rituals. p. 8. 

  5. Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel with Dominique Schnapper. [1966] 1997. The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public. Translated by Caroline Beattie and Nick Merriman. Cambridge: Polity Books. 

  6. Bourdieu and Darbel. The Love of Art

  7. Bourdieu and Darbel. The Love of Art

  8. Dario Gamboni. 1997. The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution. p. 222. 

  9. Liam Dee. 2018. Against Art and Culture. London: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 176. 

  10. Dee. Against Art and Culture. p. 176. 

  11. Dee. Against Art and Culture. p. 176. 

  12. Gamboni. The Destruction of Art. p. 221. 

  13. Gamboni. The Destruction of Art. p. 221. 

  14. Gamboni. The Destruction of Art. p. 221. 


Author:

Rose Cleary

Rose Cleary is a writer from Essex, UK. More of her writing is available on her website.