The Hypocrisy of the Artistic and Critical Left

Sam Durant, "End White Supremacy" (2009), spray enamel on mirror 29 x 31 in (73.66 x 78.74 cm),  Courtesy of the artist and an anonymous donor (via Paddle8)
Sam Durant, “End White Supremacy” (2009), spray enamel on mirror, 29 x 31 in (73.66 x 78.74 cm), courtesy of the artist and an anonymous donor (via Paddle8)

Last week, a report issued by the University of Warwick highlighted the alarming if depressingly predictable lack of diversity in the British creative arts. The study concluded that “the diversity of the creative workforce in Britain has contracted:” only 6% of workers in design-related fields were people of color, and only 9.3% of the museums surveyed were chaired by women. The study attributes these abysmal numbers to a variety of factors, low pay and internalized bias among them. “The opportunity for creative self-expression is currently socially stratified,” it concludes.

The report comes amid widespread criticism of the Academy Awards, which host Neil Patrick Harris provocatively proclaimed a celebration of Hollywood’s “best and whitest.” No people of color were nominated for any of the acting awards this year, and women were nominated in only eight of the fifteen categories. Like jury like verdict: women comprise only 23% of the voting members of the academy — and people of color comprise only 6%, according to a Forbes’ infographic.

In the face of such bleak statistics, it’s time for us to ask why the industries with some of the loftiest ideals and the most vocal commitments to progressivism still far so far short of reasonable expectations. And it’s like this across the board: a quick glance at the VIDA count, an annual report that the breaks bylines of top literary journals down by publication, reveals that elite outlets like The Times Literary Supplement aren’t much better. No matter how seriously the panel at that opening seemed to take their discussion of gender performativity, and no matter how expertly the London Review of Books analyzed Judith Butler’s latest collection of essays, theoretical convictions aren’t translating into action.

In part, the systematic conservatism of cultural institutions is a function of their financial constraints. Only the wealthy can afford to take unpaid internships and other low-paid jobs in the name of their ideals — and the wealthy are disproportionately white and male.

But I think that something more pernicious is at play: in the effete worlds of literature and the arts, revolutionary rhetoric masks and even perpetuates underlying aversion to change. The more lip service the privileged pay to the need for inclusivity, the less they feel compelled to act. The more Marxist the art critic, the more coverage of the art market. I’ve witnessed this dynamic manifests itself in countless reading groups and discussions, where professed male feminists are always the loudest mansplainers. Like so many of us in the arts or the academy, they’re all radical bark and no radical bite.

I don’t think that the radical barkers are all evil or malicious — but I do think that the need for material action is lost on a segment of the population who spends much of its time speaking in parables culled from critical theory. The inscrutable rhetoric of thinkers like Derrida allows intellectuals to gesture at positions without ever really explaining them. Artists and critics aren’t policymakers, but we do have the power to hold each other intellectually accountable: to ask, the next time a white straight man holding forth at an opening says “problematize,” what that actually means, and how he plans to change anything, even his interpersonal interactions, by it.

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