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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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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

14 replies on “The Hypocrisy of the Artistic and Critical Left”

  1. I like this idea, but don’t think it’s entirely a matter of white men vs. everyone else. I know plenty of “others” in academia who “problematize” things without making much change either. All bark, you would say, and not much bite. You might argue their invocations of theory carry greater weight; a woman speaking about feminism, for example, has more authority than a man speaking about feminism, and for her to occupy a position of authority is progress in itself. I wouldn’t argue with that, but I’m wary of the worst tendencies of identity politics; the reduction of people to their types. The subtext of this article seems to be that only women can speak about women’s issues, only people of color can speak about race, etc. This limits discussion in more than one way, because the corollary notion is that anything a person says is also reducible to their type; women are necessarily speaking about women’s issues, people of color are necessarily speaking about race, white men are necessarily speaking about their privilege, etc. I’m digressing. Just wanted to say that, barring certain reservations, I love the thesis; progressive rhetoric masks conservative habits. This is a line of inquiry that could be applied to just about anyone. In my opinion, it merits a book.

    1. actually, your quick to assume that everyone who is not a cis white male would solely focus on their own identities which is false. the simple fact that lived experiences very greatly for individuals of all kind is the main factor that is missing from these institutions. and that you can easily reduce “others” to their “type” is part of the problem of this faux-purist bullshit.

      1. I’m probably more in agreement with you than not. We are both arguing against reductive thinking. I think the original piece tends to engage in this, but maybe you disagree. I’m not sure how you leap from there to “faux-purist bullshit”. My point is that I would like to see this subject explored with the kind of complexity you suggest, rather than a one-off essay.

  2. So many “radicals” are just liberals looking to hold the moral high ground. They aren’t working to make the world a more just place, they’re working to absolve themselves of responsibility for actually making the world a more just place. The art world is rife with such people.

    1. Is the art world responsible for making the world ‘a more just place’? I thought law-makers were

      1. The work of building a more just world is a universal responsibility. As much a responsibility of the art world as it is of lawmakers.

  3. I’m not convinced by the claim that men are the only ones who can afford internships. The fact of the matter is the art world (especially on the administrative side) consists mostly of women, including in internship positions. The issue is actually that although the art world is predominantly made up of [white] women, the loudest voices and highest paid people are white men.

  4. The author seems to imply (granted, inversely) that the less lip service paid to the need for inclusivity in the culture industry from the critical left, the more compelled society members
    will be to move naturally towards diversity. Actually, the problem seems elsewhere. The problem seems to be that most people (of all types) really don’t give a fuck about inter-mixity, collectivity or even community. And that’s the funny thing about a lack of critical theory. It yields a lack of consciousness. One the film entertainment and fashion industries tell us nothing about.
    Maybe some of us would be a little less willing to brand and be branded if it actually entailed bending over in front of a hot iron.

  5. If the “critical left” wanted change, there would be. What is painful is the knowledge of why there hasn’t been. We have always been well aware that there are many in the arts that like and want things to stay the same. As artists of color and the growing number of
    curators, cultural producers, professors, etc become increasingly aware of our value outside of our communities, we are moving to control our narratives. For example, artists like David Hammons, Kara Walker and Theaster Gates are leaders in that school of thought for black artists. And much like the many museums that have been scrambling in the last few years to “catch up” on collecting and showing works from non-white artists, they will eventually have to “catch up” on diversity and inclusion throughout the arts.

  6. Is it possible, and I hate to admit it, that no one of color, and no women, AT THIS TIME happen to be doing work at the superior quality work rewarding or noticing or praising or elevating??

    1. Just think about what you’re asking for a second: there is a superabundance of artists around the world today, many of them are and always have been people of color; you truly think it’s possible that of the innumerable artists of color working today that none of them are producing work of superior quality?

      Who we recognize as artists producing work of superior quality has more to do with who is given access to galleries, grants, residencies, museums and institutions of higher learning than with any independent rubric of quality. It’s not that there aren’t any people of color, let alone women of color, producing excellent art today, it’s just that they are rendered invisible in the current art world, in which white men receive accolades far in excess of their numerical presence. The same entrenched interests which lead to an overrepresentation of white men in the art world are those which make your question even possible in the first place.

    2. thanks for two of you agreeing. I got severely slammed for what I thought was a fairly innocuous statement

  7. I do agree with your argument, for the most part. I find that in public conversations, particularly ones in an academic setting, or ones that feature academic discourse, there is generally an absence of consciousness of practice. In these contexts there is rarely a willingness to talk about what one’s politics mean for how one deals with people–actual people, not theorized constructs.

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