The romantic story of the struggling working-class artist persists in our contemporary culture: the bohemian wanderer who casts aside the stringent laws of conventional existence, who dreams of a better life where passion is rewarded with fame and fortune. Examples abound, from Pablo Picasso’s threadbare days in Montmartre, to Andy Warhol’s roots as the son of a construction worker father, and Damien Hirst’s teenage years where he was caught for shoplifting on numerous occasions.
Class roles continue to underpin much of society, though insidiously, as wealth and power are purported to be universally attainable, depending on how hard you work. In reality we know that wealth is easier to access if you have the contacts, accent and confidence to search it out. Michael Müller’s hand cream BLAUMANN directly references the working-class blue romper suit, worn by manual labourers in the early twentieth century. Though social mobility arguably opened up over the course of that century and into the twenty-first century, education and access to capital enabling its fluidity, recent right-wing political victories, from Trump’s American presidency to Brexit’s will to close Britain’s borders, has presented a clear regression. We are in the midst of a class war, where the rich and powerful desperately seek to retain supremacy.
In the mid-twentieth century, artists such as Joseph Beuys sought the dissolution of hierarchies and of the line between art and life. He promote the idea that everyone could be an artist and that everything was art. Believing that it was possible to transform society through the creativity of every individual he stated: “Everything under the sun is art!” Indeed, Andy Warhol’s vision saw that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Rich and poor, artist and banker could each have their moment in the limelight.
Extending this thinking about class to the use value of buildings, museums were exclusively the remit of the rich upper classes until the eighteenth century. Up until this point, it was a meeting place for ‘society’ people, and even a courting ground where women could sit alone to contemplate works of art and chat jovially with gentlemen suitors. It was the French Revolution that neutralised the museum space, making this an arena for the propagandistic expression of national prowess, which could be witnessed by all peoples.
Interested in this history of space and people, Michael Müller’s 2017 exhibition at Galerie Thomas Schulte, “Teil 18. Die Welt gibt es nicht!” (Part 18: The World does not exist), presented a gallery that could be mistaken for a fashion store. As such, the status of Müller’s objects within the exhibition was unclear: are they artworks or products? With the gallery being situated in a former Jewish fashion store, Müller’s concept sought to expand upon this history and shift the usual rules of engagement when it comes to art, blurring the line between fine art, fashion and life.
— By Louisa Elderton