QUOTAS FOR ART MUSEUMS
Are quotas a good idea for art museums? Should museum collections be based on race, gender, and sexual orientation/identification? The Baltimore Museum of Art is doing something very similar to that: selling off works in the permanent collection by white males, and replacing them with new art by marginalized persons. Some think this is long overdue and should be done everywhere. Others think it’s an example of politics hijacking the art-world, which is in and of itself a red flag, and may portend less freedom or opportunity for artists who don’t have the correct anatomy and don’t toe the party line. Many are afraid to say anything.
I’m a bit of both. I’m definitely for discovering and integrating talents into the canon which have been overlooked or neglected because of discrimination or any other reason, but I don’t welcome political activism and ideology overriding art history and art criticism. My fear is that we are being sold the former but served the latter, with some overlap.
“A museum is a place where racism and sexism is on full display,” said artist Shinique Smith. “You can see this in any institution in any part of the world.”
That’s the topic sentence in an article by Cara Ober on the subject in the online radical politics & art magazine, Hyperallergic. I’m just gonna’ go ahead and throw out that it strikes me as perhaps just a teensy bit of an overstatement, and I’m wary of things that deliberately skew the truth. More and more I find that balance and compromise are where both reality and the best solutions reside. But the quote lets us know that the Museum’s curatorial decisions were made in response to just such a perception.
Further, the author and artists she interviewed maintain that selecting white male art to be removed and replacing it with work of marginalized persons was very specific and deliberate (and of course should be celebrated and replicated).
The simple facts are that the museum is selling off works by Franz Kline, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, and using the proceeds to buy works by Mark Bradford, Jack Whitten, Trevor Paglen, John T. Scott, Sara VanDerBeek, and Zanele Muholi.
There’s part of this that I quite agree with, which is culling a bit of the older stuff to include newer work. I used to joke about starting a radio station called S.O.S. Radio. The slogan was, “S.O.S. Radio, Same Old Shit, all day, everyday. You know every song we play. Next up, Sammy Hagar, ‘I Can’t Drive 55′”. That was in reaction to some classic rock station that boasted, indeed, that they don’t play anything you haven’t already heard before. What about the music of the last two decades? How are today’s musicians supposed to survive if they get no airplay?
When I see a Gauguin selling for $300,000,000 I think about how many living artists could quit their day jobs and take art off the perpetual back-burner and have a chance to contribute, if only they could get a tiny fraction of that money.
I’m also already a fan of Mark Bradford, and would honestly rather go look at some of his paintings than more mid-century New York School of American Art stuff. I Googled the other artists and most of them seem like pretty solid choices.
But, yeah, there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with me, which is that this isn’t about selling off some of the dusty old stuff to buy interesting new stuff. It’s about selling off the art of one group of artists and replacing it with another. It’s about identity politics, and POWER, and I can’t think of a time in history where I would say it was a bright shining idea to base curatorial decisions on political ideology. And in this case, the goal is grandiose. Cara Ober asserts that these are: widespread changes in museum culture that should be, in my view, ubiquitous.
Ubiquitous? All pervasive and everywhere present? Let me get this straight. All museums should sell off the work of white male artists and buy works by non-white-male artists. And I’m assuming this applies to all Western countries. There is the sticky little issue of disqualifying the largest group of living artists in the West on ideological grounds. I’m not against inclusion, I’m just not overjoyed with being excluded myself, along with scores of millions of others. Well, at least Cara anticipates having a career (with a lot less competition). No, no, there’s nothing of the “chopping off everyone else’s heads to be the tallest person in the room” about any of this.
And does this apply anywhere else? Should China or Japan sell off their art from Chinese and Japanese artists in favor of buying art by non-Chinese and non-Japanese? Should they buy the art of white expats who are a minority in their countries? No, of course not. That’s ridiculous. They should also purge white colonialist art that has made its way to their countries. I see. I got the memo decades ago, and the bullet list hasn’t changed.
Once these changes became ubiquitous (a term often applied to God, as in “him” or I guess “HER” being everywhere at the same time), white men should pretty much just get drunk or high and drop out. What’s the point of making work if it’s just going to be rejected in an ubiquitous purge? Fuck it.
My ideal radio station already exists. It’s WFMU. It’s a commercial free, listener supported radio station in Jersey City, NJ. Their DJs are serious and very eclectic music aficionados. You can listen to a 3 hour radio program and hear nothing you’ve ever heard before. I’ve been listening to them for decades and was once a repeat supporter (when I had some disposable income). You can hear music from all over the world, every genre, and about every era. New music, and music of women, people of color, queer and LGBT groups is all lovingly included. And I love that about them, because I like to listen to everything that’s any good. It’s one of the ways I expand my consciousness in the world.
But there’s a difference between WFMU and the Boston Museum. WFMU isn’t choosing their music based on politics (though maybe an individual DJ is, here and there), but rather on interest. No, this isn’t exactly “meritocracy” because it doesn’t need to be. It’s not so much a competition to be at the top, but rather about including any and all significantly interesting musical creations no matter who made them, or when, or where, or why. They will even play lost and found audio tapes by anonymous people, field recordings by unknown musicians, player piano compositions, and anything worthy of a curious listen. I think the DJs compete amongst each other, while also influencing each other, to find the overlooked or undiscovered gem.
Announcement. You may have heard that meritocracy, objectivity, and reason/logic are tools of oppression used by the white, male, heteronormative oppressor. There are two outstanding problems with this argument. One is white men do not deserve all the credit for developing these thinking skills, which are collaborative developments based on invisible minds rather than visible bodies, and which not only white men employ to outstanding effect. Two is that without these things we have sheer arbitrariness as an arbiter in which someone is automatically correct and there’s no independent recourse to counter them. That’s fine and dandy for you if you are the one who is automatically correct, but doesn’t work for everyone else. Rational objectivity can be used to attack power, whereas authority based on who or what one is ultimately belongs to the tyrant. Now back to our scheduled program.
The museum is obviously making a political statement, not an artistic one. The selection of artists is quite outstanding in terms of satisfying diversifying the collection in league with identity politics. Most the artists are black, the woman is from Baltimore, and the white male makes politically radical art.
However, in terms of artistic quality, are they the best artists in the world to include while specifically removing white male art? Probably not, not all of them. We’ve already excluded the majority of working artists in America, only including a token white male because of his radical politics. This is a bit like selecting our Olympic skating team based on identity politics. Unless we are going to judge their performances in the same way (which is something we do in the art world), than they aren’t going to win the Russians. Calm down folks, I just mentioned the Russians because their ice-skating team ruled this year (I know there are issues with overworking young female athletes, but let’s try to stick to the topic and just read this as a convenient analogy).
Art has become so subjective, relative, and, frankly, full of shit (see Martin Creed, who is a white dude, btw), that I don’t know that any sort of consensus based on quality is even possible. But the last thing I’d want is for decisions to be made based on an external criterion, whether it were religious, economic, or political. One of the things I love about art is it is an escape from that reductionist shit (to put it rather frankly).
So, in my ideal museum we would cull some of the older stuff, but it might include a Georgia O’keeffe sunflower; and the new stuff would be open-ended so that nobody was automatically excluded or a shoe-in for extraneous reasons.
Someone might try to argue that the relatively redundant art just happened to be by white males, and the upcoming, relevant and interesting work just happened to be by mostly black artists. And if that were true, that’d be just fine with me, folks, ideal even. More power too ’em, I say. I don’t agree with the popular idea that one can only identity with ones own biological type. However, an announcement from the Museum stated: The funds raised will be used exclusively for the acquisition of works created from 1943 or later, allowing the museum to strengthen and fill gaps within its collection.
What are the gaps in the collection? The author of the article gives us a clue: “Why wouldn’t you sell off redundant works, deemed to be lesser in value than similar works in the museum holdings, in order to buy others by underrepresented contemporary artists?”
By underrepresented she doesn’t mean an artist who doesn’t get represented in the art world — Mark Bradford represented the United States at the Venice Biennale — but rather groups of people that are underrepresented relative to some notion of what the appropriate makeup of artists represented should be. A curious thing about this is that it is not underrepresented art or styles, but rather artists of a particular biological type, or sexual orientation/identification.
Dr. King Hammond (who is a woman of color, because thet’s the most important thing you need to know about her) expresses this more directly: “How many white males do we need? How many times can we hear the same story? Right now, so many voices are missing.”
Because an art museum is a museum of ethnography, and its goal is to tell the stories of each ethnic, racial, and social group…
And here the clear distinction is that it’s not about the art, but the artist — not what art should be shown, but which artists. There is the underlying conclusion that the museum should reflect the racial/gender/sexuality demographics of the community
in the same way that a basketball or football team does. Here the museum is doing the noble thing of trying to compensate for a radically skewed showing of predominantly white male artists. The assumption is, of course, that non-white-men have been deliberately excluded because of white supremacy, misogyny, and everything else in Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical basket of deplorables. I think that’s probably another wee bit of an exaggeration.
What may trouble some people is the idea that people are defined by their race, gender, and sexual orientation, in which case anything and everything they’ve done since they were born is irrelevant compared to the mix of DNA that occurred when their father’s sperm entered their mother’s egg. You are defined by your biology (biological determinism), or else you are defined by overwhelming cultural forces relative to your biology, with the same result — the artist is defined by his or her body, and not the mind. Your morality is established at birth, and not through your actions.
According to Dr. King Hammond, white men all tell the same story. I gather all black men and all gays and all women also tell the same story of their collective group. Each person is merely a rubber stamp of her or his biological type. Liberating!
If someone refers to me as a white male artist it makes about as much sense as saying I’m an 150 pound artist with poor eyesight. Why are you addressing my body? Is it really as relevant as you make it out to be?
A further problem is that the curatorial decisions rather conspicuously appear to uphold a political agenda, in which case in order to qualify an artist must also fit in with the political beliefs involved. The artists are selected according to social justice, their work should be in league with the social justice movement’s concerns, and the exhibitions should further the cause of social justice. The danger here being that social justice, when taken too far, very easily slips into social injustice, and I think we’ve already seen this happening with self-righteous glee in the art world. Oh the joy of discriminating and bullying and scapegoating people with self-righteousness and impunity while congratulating oneself for being eminently and incontestably moral. It’s enough to make an honestly ethical person toss their cookies.
You might be less fine with art needing to champion a social agenda if it’s not an agenda you agree with (ex., you are a humanist and classical liberal, and you are faced with a far right agenda or a radical left, revolutionary agenda that wants change by any and all means necessary including violence, censorship, and oppression). I can get political arguments anywhere — I already barely survived a near lethal dose in grad school — so wouldn’t really elect to go to a museum for social edification.
Here, art and artists are subordinated to a political movement, which is something I’d never go along with because I believe each individual artist has a right to her or his own unique mode of expression, and I would not expect that to necessarily coincide with the political fashion of the day. And if it doesn’t coincide, than an artist has to sideline his or her own voice in order to become a cadre in someone else’s cultural revolution.
I don’t see art as a tool of social engineering, but rather as an outlet against it. When artists are culled based on social/political content and biology, that is in direct opposition to the freedom of expression of the individual, whoever they may be. I think it’s now unfashionable to think of people as distinct individuals, and we are supposed to regard people as members of racial groups and so on. I think one can recognize the latter without denying the former, and if you can’t be your own person and think and create for yourself, how can you make original art?
The short term gains of highly politically motivated curating may be beneficial as some great artists who are promoted in connection with their biology and identity politics are great anyways, and maybe those same artists really were excluded in the past for reasons of prejudice. But if we are going to select artists based on identity and political agenda, that’s only going to work for us if it’s our own agenda and identity that is selected for. Something that excludes people’s’ art absolutely, no matter what they do, is against principles of individual freedom, dignity, and aspiration.
There is more diversity within any given group than between any two groups. So, for example, the tallest woman is taller than the average man, and the shortest man is shorter than the average women. The richest black is richer than the average white and the poorest white is poorer than the average black. When we lump people together by biological type, sexual orientation, etc., we deny all the other ways where people may be outstandingly different than the average of their group. In this way we deny their unique characteristics and hence their individuality. And when you deny the quality of individuality, you cut everyone down, because everyone is an individual. Quotas and such address the mean average, and can be useful at times to redress serious discrimination, but are in themselves discriminatory and reductionist, hence ultimately far from ideal.
Quotas in the museum might temporarily counterbalance some past discrimination, but is ultimately the same cancer of favoritism it is designed to oppose. We are left with the possibility of the pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other without ever resting in the middle where everyone can be accepted.
I much prefer the model I think WFMU uses, which is to not discriminate at all and open the doors wide and enthusiastically welcome novel and interesting creations no matter where they come from. It works for them, and nobody should feel excluded. Why wouldn’t it work for the art world?
Well, maybe the goal is a wee bit different, and it’s not to expose art audiences to the best and most eclectic variety of art, but rather to further a social/political agenda, cadre. As I said, I don’t go to art for social engineering. I go to art for the antidote.
I might like some of the new art which is replacing the older stuff in the museum, but I wouldn’t support an overarching and reductionist agenda that tells me my story is shit. And it’s not just that “white art” is being replaced by non-white art, but that genuine art appreciation, criticism, and curatorial practices are being replaced by boilerplate political activism. The criteria for all art forms is the same: first and foremost, does it have the correct political message? It almost seems like museums are being replaced with churches of political correctness, and I’m not a believer. I’m more of a non-conformist or heretic. There’s plenty of room for me in the real diversity and actual inclusivity of WFMU’s enormously eclectic music programing, but art lags behind music, is mired in practicing exclusion, and has been hijacked by political correctness.
In that case I’ll probably wanna’ just look at other shitty art outside the INSTITUTION!
Good shit, that is (and no matter who made it, when, why, or how).
Do I think quotas, or something along those lines is a good idea for a museum? Well, it might be fine for certain exhibits, and individual galleries, but it’s a bit like if Major League Baseball chose Hall of Famers based on race, sexual orientation/identification, etc., in order to insure diversity, rather than looking at the players’ performance and stats. We want everyone to have a shot at playing, but when we are selecting for the best of the best, it’s a matter of how you perform, not what you are. That seems fair enough to me (and anything else kinda’ seems unfair, no?). if it seems fair to you just imagine that you are the one denied an opportunity to have a place in your career because of your biology at birth. Now how does that suit you?
Why NOT rewrite art history past and present to further the agenda of a radical, reductionist, political ideology, cadre? Let’s enlist art and artists for the cause! Viva La Revolucion!
And here’s a little anecdote.
There’s a family with kids, two boys and a girl. One sweltering afternoon the parents bring home a quart of ice-cream for the kids. The oldest boy wolfs it all down and doesn’t share with the other two. The next day the parents buy another quart of ice-cream, but this time they give it all to the girl. The youngest boy says, “But I didn’t get any yesterday!” The parents reply, “Yes, but your brother did. He is a boy, and you are a boy, and you look like him”.
Moral of story: Just because you superficially look like someone else doesn’t mean you enjoy whatever they have or had that you don’t and didn’t.
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