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Identity and Decline: Some Thoughts on the Schumacher Report on Visual Arts Journalism

Post #1833 • March 10, 2019, 12:38 PM • 2 Comments

"We're a liberal bunch," observes Mary Louise Schumacher in her report on her art writer colleagues for the Nieman Foundation, the journalism think tank at Harvard. Schumacher, while a Nieman fellow, surveyed visual art reviewers and reporters to ascertain the demography and state of the profession. With the sort of ironic twist that would be too on-the-nose for fiction, during the compilation of her research, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel eliminated her position as art critic.

Many commentators have already recognized that art criticism's fate has been haplessly tied to the sinking ship of journalism. Schumacher's data and her remarks upon them prompt me to consider that, alternatively or additionally, it is tied to the collapse of left-liberalism.

The terms we use to describe politics are garbage. Liberalism, as I'm using it, is the tradition we inherited from the Enlightenment that prescribes rule by principle, enshrined in a disinterested legal mechanism, with an emphasis on individual rights. Left-liberalism, what Schumacher means when she refers to liberals, is a subsequent impulse to better the human order by state regulation, to the extent permissible by the aforementioned principles and rights. We could call that impulse regulationism. But stating it like that doesn't sufficiently distinguish it from neoconservatism. That betterment of the human order is oriented to the protection of the poor, women, racial and sexual minorities, and a few other concerns that don't bear on this discussion. (If the reader disagrees with my framing of these terms and the terms to follow, please bear with me while I use them anyway for lack of better ones.) Left-liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism all trace back to the liberal tradition.

Liberalism's emphasis on the individual is inherently atomizing, a point made by Patrick Deneen. But political atomization, setting the individual as the atomic political unit, is an enormous good. Social and existential atomization are not. We libertarians avoid the latter by circumscribing politics to the political sphere. The idea, or part of the idea, is to maximize the individual's freedom to order his social and existential affairs according to his inclinations. Libertarianism is so specifically a critique of state power that it wouldn't occur to anyone sensible to go looking for the meaning of life in it. (No doubt some have tried. I hope it didn't end too badly for them.)

Conservatism deals with atomization by considering state power in a matrix that includes man, government, and God. (Obviously, in practice, mileage varies.) "But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?" asked Edmund Burke. "It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint." Much of left-liberalism, in contrast, is an attempt to abstract from Christianity a moral template that can be encoded into the state and thus put into practice by believers and doubters alike. The state is a source of moral order for left-liberals in a way that it is not for conservatives. Not only does this not protect against social and existential atomization, it invites it. It encourages the sort of totalization of politics to which socialists are prone—the notion that all art is political, that religion is foremost an opportunity to practice social justice, that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to talk to your family about the left-liberal issue du jour, and so on.

This doesn't work well. It turns political opponents into moral opponents, and political crises into existential crises. Mirth was had at left-liberalism's expense last month when the director of the eponymous Dr. Susan Block Institute for the Erotic Arts & Sciences appeared on Salon to discuss PTSD—not the phenomenon you're already familiar with, but Post-Trump Sex Disorder. A recent study commissioned by The Atlantic found that the most politically intolerant county in the country is Suffolk, Massachusetts, the deep-blue principality that contains my adopted hometown of Boston. Burke saw this coming. Writing about the abandonment of Catholicism during the French Revolution, he worried that "some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take the place of it."

Part of the reason I burned my Facebook account last September was because I tired of the anguished reaction of my social circle to the 2016 presidential election. Clinton voters concluded immediately that the heart of America was an irredeemable cesspit of corrupt prejudices and that we were cascading into a fascist white ethnostate. They cling to this narrative two years on and counting, having doubled down on the pieties that played a large part in getting Trump elected in the first place. However flawed they may be, I think that Americans are generally better than that. (Just not on Facebook.) And to the extent that Trump has exercised anything resembling autocracy, it is to the degree if not in the directions that Obama did likewise. (This isn't mere whataboutism. Some of us were warning you about the unitary executive ten years ago.) To believe he's a fascist is to accept that he's the first fascist in history to try to draw down the nation's wars instead of escalating them and initiating new ones. One can make fair criticisms of Trump but that characterization makes no sense. (While we're in the neighborhood, fascism is a form of socialism. In particular, fascism couples unconstrained regulationism with race-constrained citizenship and rights. International (Soviet, Maoist, Venezuelan, etc.) socialism couples unconstrained regulationism with class-constrained citizenship and rights. This is how they end up so resembling each other in practice.)

Identitarianism and socialism had already made inroads into left-liberalism by 2016, but the election prompted their paving and expansion into highways. Socialism works its way in via left-liberalism's concern for the poor and its tendency to totalize politics. Identitarianism works its way in via left-liberalism's concern for women and racial and sexual minorities, as well as its tendency to totalize politics. Consequently, left-liberalism is now a stage for profoundly illiberal tendencies. (Like I said, the terms are garbage.) Because there's a superficial fit, and because left-liberalism is afflicted with the same malaise that prompted conservatives to get behind the biggest nationalist on the 2016 GOP primary slate, they haven't the strength to reject this incursion.

Left-liberals, who likely think that they simply acquired a newfound sensitivity to race, sex, and gender, and are (to their minds) justifiably frustrated with the economic order, have signed on to some of the most pernicious impulses in all of political thought, ones that undermine the core principles of their liberalism. Socialism has no concept of individual rights and cannot accommodate them except as a second-order concern below collective good. Thus its regulationism can expand infinitely, until the economy, public life, and even private life are subject to its controls.

Identitarianism seeks to replace the holistic individual as the atomic unit of legal, political, artistic, and existential consideration with aggregates of identity pertaining mainly to race and multifaceted aspects of sex. (It includes other possible components of personhood as well. I have seen "sick person" presented as an identity.) An individual may intersect with any number of those identities—hence intersectionality, roughly speaking—but has no significance apart from them and their associated histories of oppression, either as victims or perpetrators.

The philosophical atomic unit of socialism, as well as that of identitarianism, is the mob. Whereas the core method of liberalism is reason, the core method of socialism and indentitarianism is mere declaration. They share that trait with nationalism. Getting subjected to an excess of declaration is one of the reasons that I burned my Twitter account back in January.

The previous post noted that Creative Capital awarded its sizable grants to people of color at a rate of 77%. Various attempts to map out the demography of the art world routinely reveal preponderances of white people in the eighty-percent range, and Creative Capital gave out awards to nearly that proportion of non-whites. If the applicant pool was as white as we would expect it to be, then the selection process was biased against the whites by something like 400%. Even if you argue that this is a good thing (and given a more forthright representation of what the award was about, I think it could have been), this is nevertheless a totally illiberal way of looking at art.

It is also a totally illiberal way of looking at art writing. From Schumacher's report:

Art beyond the art capitals of New York and Los Angeles is increasingly important, as are artists addressing issues of race, gender, and identity. As for influence, it’s concentrated in the hands of veteran critics, a small cadre of mostly white men based in New York City.

And again:

These artists [considered to be notable in the survey] represent quite a contrast to 2002, when Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, quintessential postwar heavyweights—and white men—were the favorite living artists among art critics. The earlier survey posed the question differently, though, asking respondents to indicate how much they liked specific artists rather than asking them to name artists.

This is probably a good time to state an unsurprising finding: The field of arts journalism remains mostly white. About 60% of those who took our survey agreed to answer a question about the race/ethnicity that best describes them. Of those, 167 identified as white, four identified as black, five as Latino, six as Asian, and 20 additional respondents described other or mixed ethnicities. Our highest-paid colleagues, the fewer than 20 people who reported making $80,000 or more, are mostly white men, too. Not a lot has changed since 2002, when the field’s lack of diversity, including among the then younger generation, was highlighted.

So what are the implications of a mostly homogeneous field of arts writers? What is the cost to the culture of having the top jobs and much of the influence in the hands of a few white men?

And again:

The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation began a new collaboration recently called Critical Minded, intended to support the work of critics of color writing about all artistic disciplines and broadly about culture. Last May, Elizabeth Méndez Berry, of the Cummings Foundation, wrote an important essay about the project, making the case for what’s at stake when so many of our salaried critics are white and male. I’ll let her speak to the issue: “While some white critics write thoughtfully about non-white aesthetics, too many enforce white aesthetic supremacy. The notion that only works emerging from European traditions are worthy of contemplation and celebration still shapes what is covered, what is held up as exceptional, and what is rendered invisible.”

One of her most important arguments was that white artists need to be covered by journalists of color as well. “Critical Minded exists to support ecologies of aesthetic excellence that are not predicated on the white gaze,” she says.

And again:

Beyond [Roberta] Smith, the most influential critics are veteran voices, mostly white men based in New York City. It should be noted that, for our question about influential critics, more than half of the mentions went to just six writers. Smith was the only woman in that top tier. And while a majority of the survey’s respondents were women—who are generally less likely to hold staff jobs and more likely to believe they are expendable—few of them were well ranked in terms of influence.

These may be valid concerns, but excepting the glass-ceiling contention just overhead, they're not liberal concerns—they're identitarian concerns. What if we could wave a wand and make the demographics of art critics reflect that of the rest of the country? They would become more racially diverse, a bit less female, and every bit as economically doomed as they are now, because journalism is twisting asunder at the rivets, and contemporary art—art criticism's primary hunting ground—is no longer a cultural touchstone among the general public, or even the rich outside of a modest subset. To solve the identitarian concerns is, in the end, to solve nothing.

Is the idea that a more representative field would be a healthier one, morally or materially? Well, if we forgot to specify to the magic wand that we only wanted our demographics to reflect the rest of the country's in terms of identity, and not in any other respect, while the numbers of people of color would increase modestly, the number of Republicans would explode.

Of the more than 200 arts journalists willing to share information about their personal politics, more than eight in 10 identify as either liberal or progressive. In fact, arts journalists were more likely to vote for the Green Party or to describe themselves as “other” than to vote Republican in 2016.

I downloaded the paper with the data, and this is rather understating things. At N=213, 85% voted Democrat, and 0.47% voted Republican. Doing the math, we're talking about one Republican voter here. To give you an idea of how this compares, of 213 respondents identifying their gender, 115 were women, 89 men. At that N, that's (sort of) close to the half and half that one would expect. Of 167 of N=196 identifying as white, that's 85%, compared to 62% or 77% of the American whole depending on whether you include white Hispanics. It's nevertheless in the 80% range that we suspect to be true of the art world in general.

But the Republican voters are underrepresented by a factor of what, a thousand? We can't even extrapolate meaningfully from the lone instance in the sample who voted for Trump in 2016. Rounding to whole percents, her share is zero of them. (The numbers slightly favor her being a she.)

To paraphrase an earlier question from Schumacher, what is the cost to the culture of having the top jobs and much of the influence in the hands of a few liberals and progressives? Because the numbers are way more out of whack for politics than race. I would assert that with this kind of liberal-progressive homogeneity, the whites are doing a better job accounting for the values of the non-whites than the progressives are doing accounting for the values of the non-progressives.

Meanwhile, here's Elizabeth Méndez Berry saying that

too many [white critics] enforce white aesthetic supremacy. The notion that only works emerging from European traditions are worthy of contemplation and celebration still shapes what is covered, what is held up as exceptional, and what is rendered invisible.”

One such art critic would be too many, but can she name even one? Can anyone? This survey labored mightily to turn up a single conservative (0.47% out of 213, again, one instance), to say nothing of the kind of blinkered reactionary that she's describing. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I can claim to know some conservative critics (not all of them are white), and any of them would deem that attitude toward European art as horrifying. This profession, for the record, is not exactly teeming with latter-day Hans Sedlmayrs. Yet Schumacher is quoting her for truth, instead of telling her that she's bananas. The core method of identitarianism is declaration, not reason. Reason would require evidence. Declaration requires only agreement. To do what I'm doing here instead, analysis, is to risk being accused of all that identitarians regard as evil.

Go ahead, y'all. I don't subscribe to your ethos, so your invective might as well be barking. Besides—as identitarians, you might appreciate this on some level—my people have been here before. I hereby issue Einspruch's Iron Law of Identitarianism: All identitarians, regardless of political inclinations, eventually conclude that The Real Problem Around Here Is The Jews. I want to make it clear that I am not accusing Schumacher, or any respondent to this survey, of anti-Semitism. Rather, I'm saying that the identitarianism which is evident in her report is a known infection vector for further and greater iniquities. It used to be that we just had to keep an eye out for anti-Semites on the right. Thanks to the incursion of identitarianism into left-liberalism, now we have to monitor the other side of the bog as well. Frank Furedi:

The return of bigotry through the sanitised medium of identity politics is key to understanding the rise of contemporary anti-Semitism. Today, identity politics works to devalue the moral status of Jews. At the same time, through its influence in wider culture, it gives a green light to old-school anti-Semites to voice their hitherto self-censored sentiments. It is likely that the spiral of silence surrounding the Jewish Question will soon give way to a more open and aggressive tone.

That was in February, before the Democratic Party was called upon to make a singular condemnation of anti-Semitism, and found itself unable to do so. Anti-Semitism by way of identity politics has already found its way into art. James Panero on the 2017 Whitney Biennial:

"[Jordon] Wolfson is interested in violence as a rupture or distortion of our everyday consciousness," we are informed by a wall label. Yet the extreme violence of the work calls out for its own suppression through our natural aversion to it. For added effect: a Chanukah prayer, which plays in the headphones during the beating, hints at Jewish culpability in the fictitious atrocity. It seems to serve no other purpose than to needle another identity group, which so far has not taken the bait.

Such antagonism of identity is the sole purpose of a large sculpture by the artist named "Pope.L aka William Pope.L" called Claim (2017). Consisting of 2,755 slices of dripping, suppurating bologna pinned to a grid, "each slice has an image portrait of a purported Jewish person pasted to its center," as Pope.L describes it in a document included in the work. In fact these images were collected with no regard for individual identity, as he goes on to explain, and were simply based on a calculation of the total number of Jews living in New York. Of course, the singling out of Jews has an evil history, and Pope.L hedges such finger-pointing with what you might infer from the inclusion of "baloney." At the same time, the work operates through an aggression on its Jewish subject matter, with an overall effect that is decidedly not Kosher.

I thought that was generous of James, given what would have happened if an artist had nailed nearly three-thousand portraits of purported Muslim persons to individual slices of ham. Instead the 2017 WhiBi's chief object of outrage was Dana Schutz. Who has a Jewish-looking name! And has shown at the Jewish Museum! I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

But my point is not about newly burgeoning anti-Semitism, but a breakdown of the liberal component of left-liberalism that repels such evils and permits rational analysis of its situation. This has implications for art writing. Let's walk through an overview:

1. Patrick Deneen is correct, at least in outline, that liberalism is a victim of its own success and has resulted in social and existential atomization across the board.

2. Responding to this disenfranchisement, left-liberalism has admitted socialism and identitarianism to live within its gates.

3. Thus much of what goes on in the name of left-liberalism is in fact an illiberal exercise of some kind. This goes for the overwhelmingly left-liberal and progressive art writers as much as anyone.

4. The art writers blame racial disconnect (and other identitarian concerns) for problems that are caused by a political disconnect of far greater magnitude, and write accordingly.

5. The audience, already bewildered and now only more so, steps cautiously away. Periodicals that would support art journalism and art criticism, periodicals already under gargantuan fiscal pressures, put their dwindling resources elsewhere.

6. Art writing becomes an increasingly niche pursuit, turns into an even better-insulated echo chamber, starts again at Step #4, and repeats until all the full-time positions are gone and the alternative publishing projects can no longer sustain themselves.

I conclude with Jed Perl, who deserves credit for calling out this issue, however imperfectly, five years ago:

An illiberal view of art is gaining ground, even among the liberal audience. This is one of the essential if largely hidden factors that is undermining faith in our museums, our libraries, our publishing houses, our concert halls, symphony orchestras, and theater and dance troupes.

The title of his essay is "Liberals Are Killing Art." I have it from Perl himself that the title is not his, and The New Republic refused to change it when he objected. Nevertheless, the art world's response was to shoot the messenger. (See, for instance, Hyperallergic.) It will have to do better. Doubling down on illiberalism is a losing strategy, both morally and materially. There will always be art, but the culture to which art writing belongs will evaporate around it if it can't connect to the core of human experience. Identity is not the core of human experience.

Comment

1.

Franklin

March 10, 2019, 3:52 PM

Jacob Howland, Prophecies of democratic leveling:

Søren Kierkegaard considered the primary human good to be individual freedom: the freedom to judge for oneself, to speak and act for oneself, and to come to be oneself in the fullness of one’s concrete particularity. “The good cannot be defined at all,” he wrote in The Concept of Anxiety (1844). “The good is freedom. The difference between good and evil is only for freedom and in freedom, and this difference is never in abstracto but only in concreto.” The goodness of the natural world resides in the harmonious abundance of existing beings—this improbable lily, that joyful bird—each of which earnestly inhabits no more or less than its allotted place and time, spontaneously expressing, within these limits, its own rich particularity. The goodness and meaning of human life similarly consists in the irreducible particularity of individuals and communities—families, congregations, nations—that arise in freedom and are sustained by freedom.

As early as the 1840s, however, Kierkegaard warned that late modernity is animated by a crushing spirit of abstraction that poses the gravest threat to the human good. The Hegelian philosophy that dominated the age’s intellectual culture, he observed in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), was of no use to actually existing human beings; it spoke absurdly “of speculation as if this were a man or as if a man were speculation,” and would perhaps someday find its “true readers” among “inhabitants of the moon.” But such philosophical lunacy was the least of the matter. Long before the revolutionary followers of Marx and Engels brought Hegel’s systematic science down from the heavens and settled it in the cities of men in a malignantly inhuman form—the reductive ideology of dialectical materialism—Kierkegaard prophesied the inevitable destruction of individual character and passion through an inherently reflective social process of “leveling.” The present age, he wrote in Two Ages (1846), is democratically “oriented to equality” and marked not by “the happy infatuation of admiration but the unhappy infatuation of envy,” a “censorious” passion that wants to “stifle” and “degrade” individual excellence rather than to emulate it. A constant bane of human existence, envy is particularly destructive in the present age because “the abstraction of leveling is related to a higher negativity: pure humanity.” Late-modern leveling, Kierkegaard predicted, would destroy all organic structures that mediate between living individuals and the bloodless abstraction of humanity as such. Nothing—no person, institution, or even “national individuality”—will be able to halt what he calls the “spontaneous combustion of the human race.”

You can always rely on Kierkegaard for a shot in the arm. (eye roll)

2.

A Reader

March 10, 2019, 4:00 PM

Identity is not the core of human experience.

You almost got me tearing up at that line. The core of my liberal arts education left me with exactly the opposite idea of that sentence, and it took me a full twenty years to disabuse myself of the notion. Now that I'm in my forties, one of my prime reactions to younger people laboring around their identities (a reaction which I never share with them because identity is sacrosanct) is, "you're trying to solve the wrong problem, darling."

I think the above quoted line deserves its own unpacking, but perhaps not at artblog.net. For those of us ostensibly left-liberals invested in any kind of Identity as Truth project, the sunk cost fallacy threatens to suck our feet further into the mud. What if as a culture we understood a kind of Kate-Bornstein-thru-Judith-Butler fluidity to the point that we understood that while intersections exist, it's the fields in between—the rich fertile and unidentifiable ground you can plant a garden in—where we actually live, make meaning, make poetry, and have emotional experiences?

Art as declaration becomes an experience much like using Twitter, in that its forceful textual requirement is simply to receive and agree with the message. That is the experience, and in my opinion it's an impoverished one.

Socialism works its way in via left-liberalism's concern for the poor and its tendency to totalize politics. Identitarianism works its way in via left-liberalism's concern for women and racial and sexual minorities, as well as its tendency to totalize politics.

What if we grasped that art living solely in politics is just as removed from questions of emotional and spiritual existence, and beauty, as left-liberalism is unanchored from being able to address moral and existential questions the state can't solve?

The core of human experience is not politics. You hint at this with your statement, "[L]ibertarians avoid [social and existential atomization] by circumscribing politics to the political sphere." You distinguish conservatism and left-liberalism by this: "Much of left-liberalism, in contrast [to conservatism], is an attempt to abstract from Christianity a moral template that can be encoded into the state and thus put into practice by believers and doubters alike. The state is a source of moral order for left-liberals in a way that it is not for conservatives."

Politics via identity is not the core of human experience. Once we make politics an identity, we've totalized a totality. We've taken the bait, and now we're in the mud. Reasoning about political questions becomes an existential reckoning: stating an economic idea that (at least on the surface) seems to have a consequence that attacks women or poor people or poor women of color amounts to a declaration that one doesn't care about those people. And making such a statement, insofar as it irons your political identity into one that is anti-left-liberal makes you Other, and in the same category as rapists, Trump, and actual Nazis. And so it doesn't matter if Jed Perl was right.

Is this sort of totalization of politics an attempt to immamentize the eschaton? If a person has internalized the fallacy, usually by way of a postmodern education in the humanities, that politics by way of identity is the core of human experience (the personal is political, after all), they've fallen into enough of an existential trap that a deep yearning for the eschaton via political change starts to make sense. If your politics doesn't lead to a supposed ideal state where poor people and anyone with an oppressed identity (ultimately everyone) isn't oppressed, then you are evil.

Maybe not all art has to address existential questions, but for people who have experienced that breathlessness when beholding a line of poetry or ink or music because it speaks to us as some kind of existential balm, isn't that when art functions? It connects us to a base experience, and therefore our humanity?

Are these identity head games giving us that experience? While politics might give us some existential feelings, if the only vehicle we try to access those feelings is by way of politics, the state, the politics of identity— if we rely on this means, are we not spiritually and emotionally starving? Are we not like anorexics, getting feelings out of that starvation, that deprivation (think, outrage politics on Twitter) being somehow better than the terrible suffering of the actual world, with all its contradictions and inequities? What about all those fields we can play in, at the intersection of birth and death, the gardens we can grow, the light we can turn to that doesn't fit in the nameable boxes?

I'm left feeling like we're skirting around the deep existential question by fighting over which fences should keep out which voices. Since representation is also not the core of human experience, policing this amounts to an extension of the project to better the human order by state regulation. What you have said elsewhere, of course, is that this is not resulting in very much good visual art, by any visual standard.

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