More moral quandaries
Recently I wrote an article which was critical of the Baltimore Museum’s plan to only buy and primarily exhibit women’s art in 20/20. I objected on moral grounds, because while it is ostensibly rectifying past ostensible sexual discrimination, it is undeniably applying absolute sexual discrimination in the very present. Two wrongs don’t make a right, we should know better now, and the past wrong is not so clear cut. I proposed the best and only just solution is to stop discriminating altogether. I also argued that we are stooping to biological determinism in the present by insisting that men and women’s minds are somehow dramatically distinguishable, otherwise how can you determine which minds to elevate, and which to declare a moratorium on. I offered that we would do far better to consider people as metaphoric souls or spirits — despite the religious connotations — because our invisible, conscious minds, our imagination, memories, and what we do with them are infinitely more relevant than our biology art birth. In the realm of art, the invisible becomes visible, hence, if we want to eliminate discrimination, we have the opportunity to judge the artist by the art, and not the other way around. Art is quite often a manifestation of the artist’s inner person. The movement by the museum, in my eyes, ethically fails because it implements injustice and punishes the individual because of biological factors entirely outside of the individual’s control.
I think that those are all very solid points, but yes, of course, I agree with myself. But I slept on this, and that means my unconscious or subconscious also took a crack at it, and some people, like Carl Jung, think dreams are a way that the unconscious tests us or prepares us by throwing things at us that the conscious mind isn’t willing to contemplate. Science has shown that the unconscious does some sort of deep organization of thought termed “deep chunking [I imagine it looking like defragging a hard-drive], and so I woke up with a couple new cards in my hand.
None of what I wrote in my article deals with what to do about the fact that women’s art only makes up about 15% of museum’s collections. What do we do about that? The present solution is to discriminate against men until equity is met, which is a rather draconian measure, with no subtlety of thought. And my thoughts just got more and more uncomfortable, and they were also thoughts I hadn’t contemplated while writing my article, and I deduced the reason was that they were too uncomfortable.
We want to live in a fair and just world where we are safe and comfortable, and I gather most of us want everyone else to be safe and comfortable as well. We want everyone to have positive experiences, a good life, great opportunities, and the ability to realize their potential… But, and this is the hard realization, what if the universe doesn’t give a flying crap about our morality or what we want?
Immediately following the “what if” question is the simple “does” question. Does the universe care about our morality? If I had to vote, and let’s say there was a lot at stake in me giving the correct answer, I’d have to say NO. This might seem a simple and obvious conclusion, but what are the implications of it?
Mostly I suspect that we don’t like unvarnished reality, and maybe we can’t handle it. I’ve lived in Asia for the last 15 years [when I was in my 30’s I found the biggest hole in my life is I hadn’t traveled and seen the world], and where I live now people believe in karma, and in a rather literal way. If a young girl is run over by a bus in the street, they will say that she must have done something wrong in a previous life. Further, if you help her, you may be interfering with her karma, in which case she will need to be run over again in her next life, or meet some similar dire fate. To me, this represents an unwillingness to face the fact that terrible things can happen to innocent people. Worse than that, not only can you be run over by a bus without deserving it in the least, you will be blamed for it morally by the society you live in. Here, people have inadvertently compounded the absence of justice in the universe by defensively implementing injustice.
If the universe is indifferent to our desire for justice, we can compensate for it to some degree, or we can compound it. In the case of the Baltimore Museum I concluded it was compounding the injustice by knowingly practicing injustice, and precisely the injustice it intended to counter: sexual discrimination against the individual. Whether you discriminate against women or men because of their biology at birth, you are sinning against the sanctity of the individual, and the individual is ultimately an invisible, conscious mind. Biology, like geography, is a set of circumstances the mind is wedged in, but which does not define the mind. Our sex and gender surely play a major role in our lives, but insects have sexes, and what separates us from bugs is far greater than what we have in common with them. We are still punishing innocent minds for circumstances outside their control.
I was recently reading some of the old-school Stoics, and one of them proposed an idea I found rather profound. He wrote that we should consider ourselves as stationed in a post by God. God isn’t the important part here, because it’s not necessary in the equation. Each of us occupies a unique station in which it is our duty to do the best we can, partly just to honor the opportunity of having a life at all. It is in deference and respect of this precious opportunity, and as a role model, that we should endure and prosper in our circumstances, and this should also be in and through the prosperity of others. In this way we can also be role models to help others overcome their circumstances. This is an old idea, but I think it is entirely relevant today. Everyone deserves an opportunity, is beholden to make the best of it, and nobody should thwart other people. The idea of succeeding in and through thwarting others is NOT Stoicism!
I asked in my article why the museum director, Christopher Bedford, who is behind the plan to only buy women’s art for a year, doesn’t step down from his position for at least a year in order to let a woman take his place? The answer is that he believes he is instrumental in championing the cause, and is making it possible for more female artists to gain visibility in the museum. However, there still is hypocrisy and an ethical problem. A woman could also lead the campaign, presumably at least as well as he could, and there’s a violation of the Golden Rule. If he wouldn’t want to have his career sidelined, than he should not blithely prescribe that other men have theirs curtailed in the name of the good. He should step down for a year or more himself, at least as long as the museum doesn’t buy the work of male artists or doesn’t have new shows of their work. That would show genuine integrity, whether or not his moral conclusion was ultimately just or not. One could argue that Christopher Bedford is succeeding because he is thwarting other men.
We have a conclusion as to why women are so sorely underrepresented in the art museums. It is because of the brutal patriarchy! But is this answer too simplistic? Surely women had much less opportunity in the past to have art careers, there was bias against them when they did, and this accounts for much of the historical reason we don’t see many women artists with careers up until recently. Today, preference is given to women, and when it comes to various positions and grants, white men need not apply. This, we hear, is too little too late. The obvious reason that women are underrepresented even today is that the museums contain mostly art of the past, when men predominated the field. If you have hundreds or thousands of years when artists were overwhelmingly men, than even if everything were fair today, museums with historical collections would predominantly consist of male art.
There is a little sleight of hand going on. Contemporary art museums have a much higher ration of female artists, which one would expect. The Baltimore Museum, however, has a very large collection of 19th century art, which is going to be overwhelmingly male art, or, rather, art made by biological males. Keep in mind we are talking about a museum, not a gallery, and the purpose of a museum is to showcase historical pieces. Any museum which has classical art is necessarily going to show mostly male art, and if it is a museum of western art, it’s going to be white male art. That does not indicate discrimination today. The only way to achieve equity in a historical art museum is to remove the historical art. The relevant question isn’t the overall makeup of a museum’s collection of art in regards to biological sex, but only its contemporary collection.
What the museums are proposing to do is overcompensate for the 19th century collections, or even earlier, by showing predominantly female contemporary art, or the minority of past female artists, in the future. There’s an ethical problem here. You can’t hold someone responsible for someone else’s actions, especially if they are separated by decades or centuries, and hundreds or thousands of miles. No person, simply because of biology, stands in for some other person’s crime or privilege. You can’t say to a young male artist of today, “It’s your turn to be squelched” without being a viscous sadist yourself, especially if you plan on taking his place, and specifically because he is disqualified. You are insisting not only that he pay for someone else’s crime, or privilege, or opportunity, you are also defining him by his biology at birth, and committing flagrant injustice in the name of ostensible justice. It cannot be your turn to suffer when you did not formerly enjoy success at the expense of others. What the person is really saying is, “It’s my turn to be succeed at the direct expense of you”. The ideal is not to sacrifice innocent people for the greater good, but for the greater good to not falsely prop itself up through sacrificing innocent people.
Aside from the predominantly male art of prior centuries being the dominant reason there are more male artists in historical museums, what other reason is there? Again, we come to the easy answer that it is male sexism. What else could it be? And this is where I hit a very uncomfortable wall. It is sacrilege, cause for banishment, and utterly repulsive to contemplate the notion that we are not all created with equal capacity. It offends our need and desire to live in anything like a just universe, where people are not vulnerable to lifelong sentences of being disadvantaged in any significant way. Whenever any group outperforms any other in any discipline we look to find the cultural and circumstantial reasons. Any other explanation cannot be countenanced. Given the same opportunity, everyone will, at least on average, perform identically. This is one of our most cherished beliefs.
There is a big problem in universities, which is that Asian students are outperforming everyone else, and this also extends to income outside of the university. There are various possible explanations for this, some more palatable than others. A very popular explanation is that it is because of white racism, somehow in connection with Asians being the “model minority”. Why whites would elevate Asians above themselves in terms of academic performance and income, out of racism, is a bit mysterious to me. I don’t doubt there’s racism, because everyone starts out perfectly ignorant, in which case overly simplistic and ignorant beliefs are an inevitability. Regardless of cause, the solution has been to penalize Asian college applicants by giving them a handicap, so that they must have much higher SAT scores as well as a higher GPA compared to other students in order to be accepted. The rationalization for this is that colleges must also consider what the student has to offer aside from mere academic performance or aptitude, and they arbitrarily determine that Asian students have less to offer on a personal level (which is extraordinarily racist, because it says Asians have less personality, culture, or rich human substance). Is that just? Are they a necessary sacrifice to the greater justice of equal representation for all groups?
Whatever the cause, Asian students are not doing better in academia as a result of white racism, which makes no sense, but because they are simply outperforming everyone else. Similarly, women are presently widely outperforming men in academia. We have quite a moral quandary here, folks. What do we do if any group outperforms any other in any discipline? Do we force equity? And do we only force equity if white men are dominant in whatever pursuit, or should we also impose restrictions so that, for example, teachers for K-12 are not more than 70% women? Should we make adjustment for sports? These are enormous questions, and here we need only address art.
It may very well be that not only did women have less opportunity in the arts in the past, but men also outperformed them, for whatever combination of reasons. In other words, male success at art may not be 100% because of sexism and 0% because of performance. If, given equal opportunity, women outperform men in the present, is that OK, or better yet, is that desirable? And what if, all things equal, men still outperform women in the present? Is that not OK, and undesirable? Surely we can’t expect the sexes to perform equally at all junctures.
When we conclude that men only could have dominated a field because of sexism, we are completely discounting performance, which is not entirely honest. We want men and women to be equal at art, or for women to be superior. Is that a fair statement? And we absolutely don’t want men to be better at it (on average, with outstanding exceptions to the contrary)? And that’s when I face the ugly fact that the universe doesn’t give a crap about our desires or our morality. Are we being unrealistic in insisting that men and women are, on average, equally capable in all endeavors? Did the universe evolve step by step with cosmic justice to produce just that result? In all of nature, are only humans indentical in potential in all aspects? That is a dangerous question to ask, and I ask it delicately, knowing that I have a moral solution.
If you look back at the earliest Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, you will find women doing very well despite the patriarchy. In the 1920’s half the winners were women, and in the 1930’s, 60% were women. We see names like Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Margaret Wilson, Edna Ferber, Julia Peterkin, etc. One could conclude that because — despite discrimination and less opportunity — women performed more than equally to men, that women may be somewhat better than men, on average, at writing fiction.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say it turns out that women, collectively speaking, are better at writing fiction than men. Let’s say this is because, perhaps, historically, while men were out hunting, women conversed and told stories. Men couldn’t talk while hunting without frightening the animals they sought to kill. And hence, over vast stretches of time, women became better story tellers. And let’s say that if the various barriers to women succeeding in literature were lifted, women came to dominate the field. Would this be an affront to our cosmic sense of justice? Would we want to adjust the outcome so that men were published equally and represented equally in (digital) libraries?
The Baltimore Museums of Art’s decision to rectify past inequality between male and female artists rests of the solid conclusion that men and women, on average, perform exactly equally at art. It’s a conclusion that we dare not question, one way or the other, because it offends our dearest sense of justice. But because we are not willing to countenance this possible cosmic injustice, we risk imposing an arbitrary human injustice. Do we punish individuals in order to equalize group performance?
The Baltimore Museum of Art, and other similar institutions, such as MoMA, have decided that the role of the art institution, and of art, is to equally showcase the art of a diverse range of biological, racial, and ethnic groups of people. Until this is achieved, we need to practice active discrimination. Because the majority of the population of America is white, and white males were the overwhelming majority of artists in the 19th century, we need to disqualify living males, and especially white males, in order to compensate for the past and create an equal collage of people. Whether one agrees with that or not, that is the idea. And the underlying belief is that every group performs equally, and any imbalance is due to sexism or racism — a belief which justifies using racism and sexism to readjust the outcome. This also presumes that the universe is essentially just, and only humans are unjust, and I strongly believe the opposite is true.
I’m left wondering if it is a greater justice to give all groups equal representation in the museum, or if that is an injustice because it sacrifices individuals in order to achieve those results. Are we countering or compounding the injustice of the universe?
The only solution I can come up with this morning is to stop thinking of people as defined by their biology, ethnicity, or group affiliation, and consider them as individual souls. This is not to deny past wrongs, or advantages and disadvantages that anyone may face because of their biology in the present. While the words “soul” or “spirit” conjure what many may feel are thoroughly outmoded superstitious ideas, the words are outstanding metaphors for a very scientific understanding of what a human is. It is our conscious minds, our capacity for abstract thought, our imaginations, our will, and our actions that set us apart from mere matter. We are not meat and bone, testes or ovaries, light or dark pigmented. We are experiential beings that not only live in a conscious universe, but are ourselves that same conscious experience. We are invisible, and even science admits it can’t find us. We don’t know where consciousness exists, but only can infer that it must exist, and the mind is maintained in the field of immaterial consciousness. We should, in 2020, consider people as minds first and foremost, not bodies. And when we consider the mind is an actor, and its cumulative actions over a lifetime are infinitely more significant than the DNA of the body at birth, the metaphor of a soul or spirit works beautifully. The person is an individual spirit, and as such, at our most fundamental and crucial level, we are all the same. That is scientifically rock solid.
I come to the same conclusion as a few days ago, and that is that the only way around racism and sexism is to stop defining people by race and sex; to stop categorizing individuals by group identity. Men were the preferred artists for thousands of years, but giving this preference to women today does not counter the problem, but is merely its latest manifestation: we are still defining individuals by their biology, but now with a vengeance, and imposing an artificial hierarchy that insists the human spirit is defined by matter. We are merely swinging the same pendulum. We can’t achieve group equity without sacrificing innocent individuals, and a crime against any individual is a crime against all individuals, because we are all individuals. Any instance of racism or sexism is experienced as a violation against the individual: a wrongful sentence based on a case of mistaken identity. What we can achieve is to stop discriminating against individuals. That actually makes sense. And why not stop now?
To do this, we need to, again, stop conceiving of people as their biology or group identity. Rewarding or punishing men or women for the status of past men or women is not going to fix anything. It will only continue and endless cycle, breed resentment, and appeal to our lower nature hunkered in ignorance. The solution is to evolve our understanding of what a human is, and end stupid discrimination that sees people as the mere product of their biology, and as essentially matter rather than spirit.
So what do we do about historical art museums containing mostly male art? We stop defining people by their sex at birth, which they have no control over, and end sexual discrimination now. We can’t un-fuck the past by fucking the present. We also stop categorizing past artists by their biology, and appreciate their achievements as essentially the achievements of human minds. We can’t change the past, and rewriting art history is at best cosmetic, and at worst a grotesque makeover. Moving forward we can primarily show the best art of individuals, based on the creations themselves, and irrespective of how they can be categorized into this or that group. We especially can’t disqualify people based on what they looked like when they came out of the womb. We can’t just treat the symptoms while feeding the disease.
How do you end the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys? Do we kill more innocents to even the score, or do we stop the killing? Which is a more permanent solution that addresses a more fundamental problem, and allows us to evolve? Further, stop considering little Billy or Margaret as Hatfields or McCoys, or even boys and girls, and start considering them as individual spirits. There’s your answer.
Aaaaand I wrote that over 2 cups of coffee this morning, in one sitting. Oh crap, I forgot to eat. Sure, it’s a bit redundant because it’s stream of consciousness, and I’m circling the problem. And, yes, I may be wrong, ignorant myself, or come to better conclusions in another night or two. At the moment, though, I think this is pretty good, and the way forward. If you have a better idea, enlighten me.