The Risk of Increasing Diversity of Bodies but Uniformity of Minds in Art

[This is a reaction to an article that appeared in Artnet News.]

Visitors to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Timothy Schenck, 2015.

I think most everyone would agree that we don’t want one monolithic vision or art, or for people to be excluded from art careers because their perspective, culture, or biology is being discriminated against. We don’t want to miss out on great art because the artists are being squelched because they don’t fit whatever the dominant vision is. How do we insure that we have a range of vision, and are not squashing the outsiders? The city of New York has a solution. They have a “cultural plan”. According to an article in Artnet News:

In order to continue receiving city money, art institutions will have to put forth concrete plans to increase diversity and inclusion among their staff and board members.

Diversity of what? Opinion, world view, skills, political agendas, experience, minds? More than 900 organizations are receiving $170 million in funding through the Department of Cultural Affairs, but they won’t get it anymore unless they “improve”. While this is supposed to be about fairness, and make us feel warm and good inside, it is also a blatant threat to defund art. If art institutions don’t conform to a particular vision, which will be hashed out in a “vision document” over the next few years, they will be starved of resources. On the one hand they are asking for diversity, and on the other they are insisting everyone adopt their vision.

This seems to be a contradiction. How does the Department of Cultural Affairs plan to insure diversity of minds, perspectives, background, and so on, while instilling their own “vision”? There’s a simple answer:

Represent the city’s breadth—from racial and ethnic groups and diversity of physical abilities to gender identities

Oh, this is a much easier task than being more inclusive of different perspectives, which would require that we find out what people’s perspectives are to begin with. In this case, we can pretty much just look at people and ask a few questions. But that doesn’t guarantee diversity at all. One could, for example, easily find people of all races, body types, physical disabilities, sexual identification and orientation who voted for Donald Trump. Let’s really do some cherry picking and find those Trump supporters who also believe art should be representational easel painting. Really, if diversity is what we want, and by that we mean diversity of minds and perspectives, than we are going to have to look beneath the epidermis, get out of the people’s bedrooms, stop inspecting their gonads, and use a measure that evaluates their vision, and not just their physical appearance and additional information that could fit on a sticky note.

How do we know that art institutions lack sufficient diversity of perspectives? Statistics can answer that question, no need to probe what people actually think.

Nearly three-quarters, or 74 percent, of senior staff at New York City’s cultural organizations is white, according to the cultural affairs department’s survey.

That does sound like a lot of white people. Maybe there really is a problem here. I wouldn’t doubt it for a second. I gather the presumption is that the white old guard is lording over the art world, and discriminating against the best non-white candidates because of racism, or something along those lines. But how do we know this is the real reason?

What percentage of senior staff in New York’s cultural organizations should be white? Perhaps we need to have a maximum that we don’t go beyond. I have to agree that if there were no black, Latino, or Asian people, for example, that would be a big problem. Surely there are qualified, energetic, personable non-white candidates who would make very valuable contributions (and you don’t really need to be personable or energetic, you could be ornery and a bit of a couch potato). If 74% white senior staff is too much, where should we move the bar, and what is a minimum of non-white people we should be appointing to these coveted positions?

One obvious guide is the population. White people make up about 64% of the population, so are over-represented by 10% relative to the population. There may be some other factors, such as how many people within a given racial or other group major in art, liberal arts, or an appropriate field to begin with. And of that 74% white, what percentage of them are gay, or have physical disabilities? But let’s keep it simple at first, and just go with white people being 10% over-represented.

If we agree that cutting back on whites 10% is desirable, as a general idea, we encounter another problem: we might need to cut back on other groups as well. Asian’s account for less that 5% of the population, so are we going to curb Asians at only 5% representation in these senior art positions? That seems unfair. And what of Native Americansm who are less than 1% of the population. They might as well not apply at all if we are going to match representation to population. That seems really unfair.

There must be some other measure.

BRIC, a visual and performing arts organization in Brooklyn, [is] a success story. Over the last five years, its mostly white staff has become 60 percent people of color, earning it recognition as one of the city’s most inclusive arts organizations.

Here we can see success in terms of trimming the white staff to 40%. This is well below percentage of population, and makes your statistical chances of getting a job with BRIC much more difficult if you were born white. You will have to compete with a majority of the population for a minority of the jobs. One may pause and wonder which white people were let go, and if it were those who had a vision different or similar to that of the BRIC, or was it just random? Likely, I’m guessing, it was those who didn’t fit in as well with the vision of of the BRIC. In any case, if you are white, you probably need not apply at this point.

If there is a vision that senior art staff should follow, and by extension the art world should follow, what is it? Perhaps there’s a clue in this statement:

Over the next year for some 60 New York City arts organizations, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Drawing Center will receive a stipend and training to “interrupt structural racism”.

That’s a relief. As soon as I read the word “training” I got visions of re-education camps. Mandatory training does tend to make people wary. But this is obviously a good cause. It’s not training on “how to make America great again” or “how to identity potential terrorists” or some other such causes with implicit hierarchies and a high potential for abuse. Or so it seems. We know the alt-right would say that this is just indoctrination, but that’s the alt-right and they’re wing-nuts. Though, this same sort of argument, admittedly, is starting to come from more centrist liberals as well.

We like the idea of social justice because we want to live in a moral, ethical, fair society. We want the social contract that allows freedom, protects people, and gives a fair shot at opportunity. And yet, it may be that the social justice movement is itself skewed a little bit, and may have drifted from a higher, more inclusive, more fair, more universal morality. Does it privilege some people over others based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, or does it really strive for treating EVERYONE equally? Does it allow all kinds of perspectives, approaches to art, and styles, or does it expect art serve a certain purpose?

Related to this I found it curious in the last election cycle that the art world was getting more behind Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders. At least that’s what I saw in the online art magazines, and various tweets and so on. Note that Jerry Salz, for example, blocked me on Instagram for commenting, “Go business as usual!” under his graphic that said, “Go Hillary!”. He’s about my least favorite critic, anyway. This was, of course, when Bernie was still in the race. Anyone who knows Hillary and Bernie knows he has the much more progressive platform, and has been it for decades. And yet, I gather, a good section of the social justice minded art world chose Hillary because of the configuration of her sexual organs, rather than the policies in her immaterial mind. Is this the most moral decision?

I think it might be safe to say that the overarching vision that the Department of Cultural Affairs has for art is social justice with a smattering of identity politics. If you aren’t for ostensible social justice, than you should probably do something else more suited to your sensibility.

This all sounds good, and yet it feels a bit Orwellian. And here I think I know why. I can compare my undergraduate education to my graduate education. As an undergrad I went to UCLA, and as a grad student I went to UC Irvine. Irvine was much more committed to social justice and diversity, and the staff and students reflected this. In fact I was the only straight white male in my year of grad students.

At UCLA no matter what kind of art you did, you would have supporters and detractors, because there are so many kinds of art and approaches to art. You could do very traditional printmaking and focus on representational art if you wanted, or you could make photo and video art dedicated to race and gender issues, or you could make conceptual works, or any and all combinations. Two of my favorite teachers were my lesbian photography teachers. Two of my least favorite teachers were my famous white male sculpture and conceptual art teachers. I liked my painting and drawing teachers, except one, but thought their model of art was a bit too conservative at the time. Including community college and a semester at Cal State Northridge (I dropped out because I thought the art department was too backwards), I’ve studied art at 5 institutions, and UCLA, at the time, was the most diverse in terms of approaches to art.

UC Irvine, while obviously dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and social justice was, ironically, not as diverse as UCLA. Despite having more people of color, gays, and so on, the school had one overarching vision, in which art is essentially political, conceptual, and should be in the service of social justice. There may have been some outliers, but they were slowly disappearing. The white staff was being replaced, as a matter of course, most likely depending on their political views. In short, you have to agree to the political agenda, or you’re out. Most seminars and critiques revolved around analyzing art in terms of political message, was it the best message, and of course how well the art in question conveyed that message. Thus, for example, you really couldn’t be an abstract artist, or an Expressionist, or a Surrealist, even if you were a person of color… We had diversity of body types, gender identity and orientation, but uniformity of approach to art. You needed to be a part of the cause. You sure as hell couldn’t be a conservative. I couldn’t even be a liberal humanist.

So, for example, I remember two standout female painters among the undergrads. One was Asian and the other white. I wasn’t making painting in grad school, but have a painting background, and these two were serious contenders. Later, they’d both abandoned painting and were doing video and installation about identity politics. I’m sure nobody took the paint brushes out of their hands or forced them, you just wouldn’t be considered a viable contemporary artist, or even a particularly worthwhile humanoid, if you didn’t jump on the social justice bandwagon and make work for the cause.

I’m assuming we want people in these senior art spots who have something of their own ideas, some independence and originality. If you have a group of such individuals they aren’t going to fully agree on much of anything. But if we are selecting people because of their race, gender, and so on, and we are probably screening out any members of the alt-right, for example, are we just going to end up with one meta-narrative as propounded by a wide variety of like-minded people?

Obviously we should end any unwritten but extant policy to discriminate against non-white people for senior positions in art. I also believe everyone should be given a decent shot at a good life, and opportunities in the art community. On the other hand, defining people by their race, gender, or sexual orientation for positive reasons is still a kind of discrimination, and it also reinforces the antiquated association between DNA and whatever is going on in a person’s mind, their character, ethics and so on. Does it make sense to preserve the underpinning of all discrimination – fixing people’s identity to their bodies – in order to fight discrimination? Thus, before selecting or deselecting people based on their race, gender, and so on, most of which could be determined at birth, I’d think we’d want to probe their minds a bit and see if they offer a different perspective, and something unique to contribute. A lot of that very may well come from marginalized groups, who are likely to have different life experience from the majority or norm. This can be quite enlightening. I mentioned that two of my favorite teachers were feminist lesbian photo teachers, the third was a male Latino who does multi-media work. If you go back further I had one old white drawing teacher in community college who was pretty good for me. But I’ve also had non-white teachers I didn’t think were that great, and who, to be honest, did not treat all students fairly.

One thing I do feel fairly confident about, is that when it comes to the art world, I need not bother apply. I can just make my own shit and hope some individuals on the planet like it and support it. But when it comes to institutional support, gimmie a break. I’m DOA. I’m a 51 year old white [last I checked my epidermis] male visual artist making digital, Expressionist, Surrealist, Psychedelic, Sci-fi type paintings. Disqualified. Somebody release the trap door. If you made a table with “in” or “out” columns for what’s in fashion in the art world. I could tick “out” for virtually everything I am and all of my art.  This garbage needs to be removed post-haste.

Which brings up another sort of a problem. I like to think I’m a nonconformist. I don’t wanna’ follow anyone. I don’t belong to any group. I don’t subscribe to any religion, political group, or art movement. I think things through myself [hence all the blog posts making arguments and backing them]. I’m not sure this vision of diversity allows for nonconformity. You really need to get onboard with the cause. If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. And they are going in saying there’s a problem, so, yeah, if you aren’t on board with the solution, you’re IT. I don’t wan’t on board. I’ll row my own boat. Cheers.

My concern with this new cultural vision for the art world is that in the name of diversity of bodies it will instill uniformity of minds, and it is doing this by force.

Let’s hope that they are working hard to make sure that is not the case, and I am just overreacting, because, as I said in the opening, I think most everyone would agree that we don’t want one monolithic vision or art, or for people to be excluded from art careers because their perspective, culture, or biology is being discriminated against.

~ Ends

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2 thoughts on “The Risk of Increasing Diversity of Bodies but Uniformity of Minds in Art

  1. Even when orgs and incs project/market diversity and have hire/promote folks of all ethnicities and genders only one kind of person gets to the top of the heap—the opportunistic sociopath whose “vision” limited to self promotion. So, the so-called diversity is meaningless when it comes to serving the entirety of a community. Yes?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Only a sociopath gets to the top? I don’t know about that. But I know that the guy behind this proposal is a white dude, and while his plan includes a likely massive purging of white people from the NY art world, he’s planning on sitting pretty and riding it out while he throws other people under the bus. So, in his case, well, maybe you are on to something.

      What worries me is that the whole plan is under the rubric of postmodern/identity politics/social justice, and if that’s the case, woe to those that are non-believers. I’m not a part of that scene and don’t even live in America, so, it doesn’t really concern me personally. But I have to object to the morality of it, as, in the name of fighting discrimination it is planning institutionalizing discrimination with self-righteous impunity, and assuming that people who are ennobled over others and awarded power over them will not abuse it.

      At least that is what it looks like. I hope I’m wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

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