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Progressive Preponderance: A Reply to Douglas McLennan

Post #1853 • January 3, 2020, 1:55 PM

At his blog, Douglas McLennan just expressed a stunning admission: that the arts can't truly call themselves diverse and inclusive until they're politically diverse and inclusive.

The arts sector has made something of a fetish of claiming that the arts are for everyone, that they make us “better,” that the arts are striving for diversity and inclusiveness. But are we? Politically diverse? Economically? Rurally (if there is such a word, but you know what I mean)? How everyone are we if half of the country sees our definition of diversity as a threat rather than an advantage? How inclusive are we if significant segments of the country feel that their values aren’t represented – or worse, attacked by the arts? How diverse are we if holding certain political ideologies are cause for being dismissed out of hand?

I’ve been making this point and ones related to it for years, but to my knowledge this is the first time someone looked around at the preponderance of progressivism in the arts from the inside, and wondered aloud (as it were) whether it was a problem. Whatever the shortcomings of the post, he deserves enormous credit for it. Nevertheless, the public reaction from his fellow progressives has been the same as it has been to my missives on the topic, namely nigh silence.

McLennan’s post is brief, briefer than this one by far, and you should read it in its entirety because I’m about to discuss it in detail. It begins with the announcement, at some sort of conference of arts administrators, that “a leading researcher in cultural trends made a bold claim: The election of Donald Trump is a result of the failure of the arts and culture sector.”

The point, he said, was that values expressed by the arts sector seem so at odds with the populist nationalist Trump wave that one could view the election not only as a repudiation of the Obama agenda and Democrats but also of arts and culture more generally. The arts had failed to convince large segments of the American public that inclusion and diversity – as expressed by the arts sector – are important values. If the arts had been successful, then Trump would not have been elected.

McLennan’s initial reaction was to dismiss it, which he was correct to do. “Is the arts sector endorsement now a coveted political get for candidates, up there with the Teamsters or teachers unions?” That’s an amusing and pertinent point, but it doesn’t go far enough. The claim of this unnamed researcher in cultural trends begs a few questions. (I mean that in the intended sense: “presumes answered.”) One, must we saddle the arts with the responsibility of promulgating values—diversity and inclusion, perhaps, but really any values? Two, should we expect the arts to be so effective at this mission as to sway whole elections? Three, did Trump win the presidency simply because the public that elected him did not adequately value diversity and inclusion?

It is difficult to perceive the water that one swims in. Non-progressives do not share the desire to totalize politics that gives certain, affirmative replies to Questions One and Two. (I have to resort to “non-progressive” because it encompasses conservatives, libertarians like myself, and what people commonly call “liberals,” who have progressive inclinations but are not prepared to hamstring capitalism, delete amendments from the Bill of Rights, and/or dynamite equality before the law in order to achieve them. This last category is increasingly a refugee status as progressives encroach on their territory.) When Lin-Manuel Miranda proclaims this sort of thing,

All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it.

...the sentiment repulses us non-progressives like he was aiming bear spray at us. It’s not that we think that art can’t be political. Rather we think that experiencing politics as the supreme echelon of reality is a kind of existential disease. Besides which, this general claim—our values are true, scientific, and timeless, their values are false, superstitious, and benighted, true art necessarily serves our values because art is good and we are good—is a hallmark of 20th century dictatorships. Speaking of which, my ancestors endured those dictatorships and I have a hard time thinking of “our current moment” as particularly fractious. The Night of the Long Knives was fractious. Our moment is mostly histrionic.

Utilitarianism in art is a bad thing in any case, but there’s no worse form of utilitarianism than that which produces no utility. Miranda continues:

The family [in a particular photograph of an incident on the US-Mexico border] was in distress, and the border crisis was real, but people used the [errantly reported] details of this particular incident to close themselves off from empathy. “Fake news,” they said. A child is crying for her mother, but that’s not enough to keep people from pushing empathy away. I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.

This follows an earlier complaint that “Trump uses language to destroy empathy.” Empathy seems important to Miranda, which is curious. If you’re Latino, and you hear a presidential candidate disparage Mexicans, and you get angry about it on their behalf, that isn’t empathy. Empathy is making someone else’s suffering yours, not generalizing your suffering to include that of others. So Dr. Miranda has surgery on his mind—who are the intended patients? People for whom he has no empathy. He wants them to feel so much emotional connection to this beleaguered family on the border that they discard their justified frustrations that the news media has gotten into the habit of lying to them. That is not a reasonable demand. But even if they acquiesced to it, it would still not be an act of empathy, but a reordering of priorities so as to match Miranda’s. That is a category error committed by someone who has universalized his personal inclinations into grand principles.

As for Question Three, Trump won his election because the opposition party chose to run against him a technocrat’s technocrat, in the midst of a bipartisan populist uprising. Maneuvering her into the necessary position required skulduggery that discredited the whole party once it was exposed. Ultimate responsibility for this lies, not with Russians, but with Democratic operatives who were not behaving as if God was watching. Over and over again during the campaign Clinton revealed that she thinks of We the People as akin to goats. For all the bigotries of which Trump has been accused, Clinton seems to hate everyone equally insofar as we’re reluctant to gratify her political ambitions. Or more specifically, she deplores us. I value diversity and inclusion, but not enough to vote for cynicism in a pantsuit. I doubt that any amount of art would change that, least of all art made expressly to persuade me that I should treasure diversity and inclusion over all other concerns.

McLennan again:

The 2016 election suggests that those values [of diversity and inclusion] may be less than the universal truths that those in the arts might like to believe. Perhaps most important, it gives lie to the claim frequently made by the arts sector – that the arts are universal and that they are for everyone.

Call me cynical, but I might suggest that every one of these suppositions is flawed.

If the arts were really for everyone and are inclusive and diverse (something of an aspirational mantra for the sector over the past several years), then the election shredded the notion. If the arts are for everyone, where were the 60+ million Trump voters? If the arts are so diverse and inclusive, where are the conservative views held by an enormous segment of population who seems to reject such definitions of diversity and inclusion? This largely white, largely male majority has long been the dominant cultural authority and wants to hold on to its power.

First of all, the arts are not for everyone, they’re for anyone. That may be a harder slogan to endorse, but it better describes the subset of aesthetically inclined people who go for art. But indeed, where are those conservative (and other non-progressive) views? We don’t have handy a fleshed-out answer to this (and it would be worth forming one), but we can get a sense of conditions on the ground at the moment. A few months ago, James Panero, my editor at The New Criterion and the regular author of astute coverage of the visual arts in New York City and beyond, was riding the subway when a fellow passenger took note of his TNC tote bag. To this he responded by screaming in James’s face, accusing him of being a fascist and killing children and other equally plausible iniquities, then storming home and boasting about it on Twitter. If we want to form an answer to McLennan’s questions, we ought to start with that sorry incident and work backwards.

Or alternately, we can begin with that bromide about white men holding on to power. Thanks to the Progressive Preponderance, white men in the arts have no significant power at this point, at least not per se as white men. Power derives from the Progressive Preponderance itself. True, a minute fraction of white men found their success prior to the full formation of the Progressive Preponderance, and can risk being indifferent to it if not speaking against it. Most white men in the arts are glad members of the Progressive Preponderance, and will remain welcome there as long as they occasionally proclaim a need for their own removal and malign their canon.

But the rest of us? To the extent that I feel any connection to the white men that dominated cultural authority in European art and its descendant projects, it comes via the work, and routes around race, sex, and all else to get there. My attraction to Chagall, with whom I share much from an identitarian standpoint, has always been slight. Whereas my feelings of kinship with Emil Nolde didn’t flag even after I found out he was a Nazi. I liked him less as a person, certainly, but there’s a strength in his work, disconnected from his politics, that I relate to all the same. I’m of the position that:

1. We should not grant cultural power to someone simply because he is a white man, or any other kind of person.

2. We should not subtract cultural power from someone simply because he is a white man, or any other kind of person.

As far as I can tell, the Progressive Preponderance thinks that this view is racist, sexist, and implicitly or explicitly fascist. See, for instance, National Book Award winner and Guggenheim fellow Ibram X. Kendi. By the time McLennan concludes thus:

If we claim to be for “everyone” and yet we don’t reflect everyone in our communities, the claim is a lie. It’s as true when we don’t include people of color as it is when we wall off political points of view. The drumbeat of criticism of the arts establishment for not reflecting the racial/ethnic/gender/economic diversity of its communities is entirely justified. However, is it also possible that a lack of political diversity in the arts may also be a missed – if extremely difficult to realize – opportunity?

And yet, what if the values are irreconcilable? What if the arts aren’t for everyone? What if it’s okay that they aren’t?

...he has grown willing to entertain the possibility that the arts need not include political views outside the proverbial wall, and those who hold them. That capitulation would have momentous consequences, calling into question (as the excluded conservatives have questioned for a long time) whether public money should fund the arts, and whether public schools should teach the arts.

I would say instead that the lack of political diversity in the arts is indeed a missed opportunity, but there is no exaggerating how difficult it will be to realize it. It will require, firstly, for progressives to desist from ascribing all resistance to progressivism as lingering bigotry and latent autocracy—the whole Bitter Clinger narrative. They will have to uncouple the production of art with the promulgation of values, namely their own, and make room in their cultural programs for the artists who leave them uncoupled, or couple them in non-progressive configurations. Most of all, they will have to exercise empathy, not with the people to whom they already relate, but everyone else, which after all is what empathy is for. And this will all have to go on long enough, and vigorously enough, that non-progressives stop self-selecting out of the arts because of the not-wholly-mistaken impression that the Progressive Preponderance thinks that they are subhuman.

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