But Is It Art?

Usually the conversation between art and commerce tires the living daylights out of me, but since there’s a big cultural war being waged over this all over social media I might as well put in a few thoughts that can’t be contained in my usual Twitter mega-threads.

Here’s the thing: Every time art/literature/cinema gets brought up, I am always reminded of my sociology classes in Diliman, where I was introduced to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of cultural capital, which (as I understood it) refers to the body of knowledge and skills which can only be accessed and acquired based on where they are in society, and in particular their socio-economic status.

Let me put forth an example of cultural capital for you: Imagine that you are a public-school student in the Philippines being assigned Shakespeare as your required reading. Of course your teacher might blame you for not “getting it,” but the truth of the matter is that you don’t have the “capital” for accessing Shakespeare–not only do you not see yourself among the eloquent characters, but you don’t have enough access to other things that would help you understand Shakespeare better, like theater productions, movies, and TV shows. In essence, it’s not your fault that you can’t relate to a bunch of white people getting dramatic with each other–it’s the social norms that dictate who and how you get to experience Shakespeare.

As an educator in the Philippines, I buy this concept, because I’ve taught students who have a hard time experiencing complex issues from psychology and philosophy to critical thought and developmental benchmarks (seriously–I’ve had a student tell me that she didn’t know what kindergarten is, let alone play with crayons and building blocks). As a writer–and not just in romance–I get this, because I’ve studied the canon long enough to know that I rarely see people like myself between the pages. And as a person…well, again, I honestly believe that my “dark nights of the soul” in high school and college stem from my own intellectual snobbishness and contentious relationship with The Great Books.

You could imagine, then, how it’s been impossible for me to divorce the appreciation of art from the distinctions of class.

Seriously, look at the men who get to define society and class all over the world, in this day and age. I’m not talking about the Trumps and Dutertes of the world, but the members of the upper-class elite who support them. A good number of them have read Shakespeare. Some of them can quote tenets of Greek and Roman philosophy off the top of their heads. Some of them love classical music and old movies. And I can bet you millions of dollars that none of them have the deep understanding of humanity that the great intellectuals have written about in their collective bodies of work. It’s as if they don’t want certain people–like, say, anyone with a lower socio-economical status–to have a better understanding of those concepts than them.

Meanwhile, here I am with my Netflix membership and my kissing books…and I’m the cheap and trashy one?

(Okay, not necessarily that cheap. Two-and-a-half years of Spanish classes means I can watch Money Heist in its original language.)

I think about all of this as a woman all the time. I think about how I have to work ten times as hard to be viewed as perfect and competent, while the men around me get promoted for almost nothing. I think about how I haven’t seen people like myself–especially as a woman of color–in the books that I’ve read and movies I’ve seen all my life, how certain men write about people like me as receptacles for sex. (And not even good sex. God forbid we have an orgasm on-page without being punished for it later.)

I think about being given the freedom to like what I like and write what I write all. the. freaking. time. I think of it knowing that, while I am privileged, I don’t have enough of that freedom, and if I do I have to think fast before the privilege is taken away from me.

Hell, not a day goes by where I don’t think about the people who don’t get to live the same life of privilege as I do. That’s what motivates me to be extra noisy on Twitter most days, non-confrontational scaredy-cat I may be off-line.

(Note: Please don’t come @ me for my inability to leave Twitter alone and join people in the streets. I’m in my forties; I can only pick and choose my battles at this point in my life.)

Let’s not pretend that culture has nothing to do with class and privilege, shall we? Let’s not pretend that poor education alone has contributed to the deterioration of art and society. (Don’t even get me started on class distinctions in education, please.) Come to think of it, let’s start asking ourselves about the privilege we have in hanging on to the knowledge that has shaped us.

Would that be a little too much to ask for in this day and age? Maybe, but we should start the conversation there while we still have that freedom, before the forces of doom take the light away from us.

Love, Stella

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Stella Torres

is the author of the adult contemporary romances Save the Cake, Crushingly Close, and Nine Years Away, as well as the short story “Be Creative” in the anthology Kids These Days: Stories from Luna East Vol. 1.

In her previous life, she has worked in public relations, taught English as a second language, and even attended graduate school (twice!). She has lived in Indonesia, Honolulu, and Quezon City before moving back to her hometown of Los Banos, a few hours’ drive (with traffic) from the heart of Manila.

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