The artists Ligorano and Reese have made a new ice sculpture project to confront delegates at the Democratic and Republican conventions. About 2000 pounds of ice will be carved to read: MIDDLE CLASS. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, it will melt away, leaving only memories. It’s a combination of earth, language and performance art, creating a striking hybrid. For whereas land and environmental art has tended to create permanent forms out of rock, earth and water, this piece is time-based, like performance. In the tradition of language work, it relies for its impact on the material form of language but here the words are transitory and ephemeral, like conversation rather than print.
One of the oddities of the United States to an outsider is the insistence that there is no such thing as class here, only a “middle class” that covers almost everyone. Any attempt to point out that government policy over the past three decades has enormously benefited the wealthiest, those now known as the one percent, is nonetheless immediately described as class war.
There is a way to make sense of the “middle class.” We might describe it as the assemblage of all those people able to improve their lives by debt financing. That would extend from the lowly store credit card via student loans to the mortgages that made the “American dream” of home ownership possible. Excluded from the debt middle class would be those at the bottom unable to qualify for credit, except at places like Pay Day loan sharks or pawn shops. At the top, there are those who use debt to make more money, whose personal well-being is not at risk.
As we all know, this middle class is indeed in dire danger. Student loans now total an absurd $1 trillion, while outstanding credit card debt is not far behind at $800 billion. As secured loans, mortgages were supposed to be the smartest investment a person could make. Today, some ten million homes have been foreclosed or are in the process of foreclosure. So what would be left of “America” if the middle class disappeared, as Ligorano and Reese suggest? The melting will leave us drowning in debt.
Melting ice is of course also suggestive of the palpably accelerated pace of human-caused climate change. This Northern summer has seen unprecedented ice melt across the Arctic and Greenland, prompting only an unsightly squabble among nation states as to who gets the mineral rights to the newly exposed land and sea bed. Neither political party has anything of substance to say about the planetary disaster, for fear of alienating Big Oil. Perhaps the very melting of the art work recognizes that its message will not be seen, let alone heard.
Let’s propose an alternative ending: the melted water should be collected, refrozen and carved to read: “We Are The 99%. S17. Join us.”