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Class discussion

Economist Mehmet Odekon admits that when he first conceived of a Tang Museum show on class in America, “what I had in mind was putting up charts and statistics.” But co-curating took him well beyond the data, and he now speaks warmly about rich discus- sions with his collaborators over each item they included in Classless Society, on view from September 7 through March 9.

The exhibition gathered contempo-

rary artworks as well as materials drawn from popular culture to examine the na- ture of socioeconomic class, the viability of “the American dream,” and the rea- sons why the myth of a classless society persists. Co-curating the show were Eng- lish professor Janet Casey, Tang curator and assistant director Rachel Seligman ’91, and former Dayton Director of the Tang John Weber, who now directs the Institute of the Arts and Sciences at UC– Santa Cruz. Tang staff always say good questions lead to good exhibitions, and Odekon posed one three years ago that resonat- ed immediately with then-director Weber: Why can’t students talk about

class issues? “I knew a lot of faculty were frustrated that students have a very hard time thinking and talking about eco- nomic privilege and social privilege, and would want to use this show in their teaching,” says Weber. “And that’s one of the definitions of a good Tang show.”

The curatorial team had been fascinated by the tradi- tional narrative that anyone can move up the social lad- der to achieve the American dream. “That’s why immi- grants come here,” Casey says, “because they think it’s a classless society and there is a lot of fluidity and mobili- ty among the classes. But mo- bility is shrinking dramatical- ly.” This, she adds, “is very difficult for college students to talk about.” Weber puts it this way: “Over the last 20 years, faculty and students have gotten better at talking about race, gender, and sexual- ity, but it’s still very hard to talk about who gets to wear jeans that cost $200 and who gets to wear jeans that cost $24.95 on sale.” And so the curators de- termined to create an exhibition that would get people talking about class in America.

This fall, visitors encountered their first thought-provoking works before even entering the museum, pausing to vote at Steve Lambert’s monumental Cap- italism Works For Me! True/False (2011), an aluminum electric sign positioned out- side the museum doors. Nearby, in Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s The Social Mirror (1983), they could see themselves reflect- ed in mirrors covering a New York City Sanitation Department truck. Just inside the Tang’s Malloy Wing,



everyone is invited to spin a big, colorful “wheel of fortune,” divided like a pie

chart to show the mass of people in the lower classes and the small sliver of the wealthiest class. The wheel indicates how much access to the show the spin-


ners are entitled to based on their sta- tion in life. (Yes, that’s only a meta - phor—everyone gets to see the whole ex- hibition—but it does give pause for thought as visitors enter the gallery.) Students at Skidmore, like the popu-

lation at large, overwhelmingly identify themselves as middle class, even if they are rich or poor. As Casey explains, the perception that everyone is middle class is reinforced by the media, which tends to portray class in terms of extremes: “We are bombarded with images of great wealth and of poverty, the impli- cation being that people watching are in neither of those groups but in the middle.” Odekon observes, “We all like to think we are middle class.” He hears this notion year after year from students in his course “Economics of Income Distribution and Poverty.” But, he notes, 93% of total financial wealth in America is held by just 20% of its citi- zens. “There is an immense inequality of wealth as well as income.” Such data make a powerful backdrop



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