Class

What Kids “Get”

Content note: social class, classism, art, accessibility

Poor Kids Get Art!

That was the thrust of the piece by Rachel Lu in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the ribbon cutting of the Whitney Museum in New York.

I agree. Poor kids do get art. But the First Lady never said they didn’t:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

The First Lady understands the both the broad and nuanced implications of power, privilege, and marginalization; this is her lived experience.

From Rachel Lu’s piece, and her lived experience:

I myself once took a group of African-American eight-year-olds through the Chicago Art Institute [sic]. Admittedly, they were from the West Side, not the South Side, so maybe they weren’t as underprivileged as Michelle Obama had been.

Once. She took underprivileged kids to an art museum once.

Later, as she showed them Monet’s haystacks:

The question inspired some rousing discussion among the group […] But eventually they started to get it. “Maybe it would be cool,” one boy remarked thoughtfully, “to see how things look at different times of the day.”

“And now you can,” I told him. “Right here in this room. That haystack is surely gone now, but the whole world can see what Monet saw when he looked at it, just by visiting this room.” We were quiet for a moment as the kids took in the room. I reflected with a tinge of sadness that haystacks and sunsets probably weren’t a big part of their concrete-jungle existence.

Here we have some reflection, followed by pity. She also takes credit for opening the students’ eyes to Monet specifically and Art in general. It reminded me of the short-term mission trips popular among my peers during my evangelical days, a kind of privileged tourism. Those poor kids, were it not for me, would never have understood [blank].

Lu’s single experience taking a group of children to the Art Institute of Chicago was enough evidence to counter the First Lady’s assertion that poor children of color do not see museums and other centers of culture as welcoming places. That is the epitome of privilege: my opinion supersedes your lived experience. In fact, the way Lu positions herself as the gatekeeper in that scenario, as the White, middle-class volunteer with the time and the knowledge, keeps the art she loves inaccessible.

In my own field, the astonished Deaf Kids Get Poetry! should give me pause. Of course they do. As a gatekeeper, I need to make sure that I am not making the literary form even less accessible than it already may be. My students proved to me this year that they get poetry–in English, in ASL, signed or spoken. My students chose their own poems this year. I helped them crack the code, but the “getting it” was in their own power. When it came to translating, I know my students see the world differently than I do. I may have the grammar, but they have the images.

My students also “get” condescension. They are tuned in to the adults around them. They know when someone doesn’t expect much from them. They know when a face or a voice is insincere. They would “get” Rachel Lu, even through an interpreter.

I have my own problems with the First Lady’s remarks. Institutions like the Whitney should be doing outreach not with the hope of reaching the next great artist or the next First Lady, but because all children should have access to the arts as a form of expression, culture, and identity. Art should be seen not just as a tool to “rise above,” but also to simply be. Art should not be reserved for the privileged galleries, although some of it is housed there. Art needs to be in the streets, on our hands, on our lips. Kids get art, they get poetry. It’s the adults who fail to understand what that means when their privilege gets in the way.