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Secular Deracinated WASPism

Post #1910 • February 12, 2022, 3:14 PM • 3 Comments

From a recent email from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, signed by Charles Waldheim, the Ruettgers Curator of Landscape:

As I shared with you in June, this fall the Gardner Museum launched a new series specifically curated to address the most pressing societal, environmental, and cultural issues facing the city today. The Larger (Landscape) Conversation convenes conversations with leading voices on a range of topics shaping the contemporary urban landscape.

On Thursday, March 10, the series returns with Black Landscapes Matter. In this conversation, we pose the question, “What is the role of design in the construction of racial identity, lived experience, and cultural memory?”

For the record, this kind of thing doesn't grab me. I'm not a big design or architecture guy. But this is a legitimate event to take place at the Gardner, at which landscape architecture plays a major role. It continues:

I am delighted to moderate a discussion with a slate of remarkable speakers. Landscape architect, professor, and environmental justice advocate Kofi Boone is nationally recognized for his solutions-based approach to address structural inequality and dismantle environmental racism. Walter Hood, Creative Director and Founder of Hood Design Studio, incorporates history and memory into his design, believing that landscapes carry with them the identities of people and culture. Sara Zewde is a landscape designer, urbanist, and artist who, with sensitivity to culture and ecology, explores race and gender-based inequity in the built environment.

This is typical Bureaucratic Woke Aesthetics. But 'tis the season, as they say - it's Black History Month. Carry on:

This is an important topic. We hope to see you there.

Now this is interesting.

When the recent Titian show arrived at the museum it wasn't necessary to indicate how important it was. Hyperbole about it was rendered impossible. Merely to describe it was to speak of glory.

For the first time in more than four centuries, the epic series of mythological paintings by Titian, one of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance, is reunited in "Titian: Women, Myth & Power." The exhibition—jointly organized by The National Gallery, London; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM)—brings together the Gardner’s masterpiece, The Rape of Europa, with its companion paintings from Spain, England, and Scotland. "Titian: Women, Myth & Power" makes its final, and only US, stop at the ISGM from August 12, 2021, through January 2, 2022.

So when Waldheim feels moved to tell us how important is his subject, it connotes something like, "This is an important topic, not a mere eruption of distinctly New England progressive racial neurosis."

When I moved to Boston in the mid-2000s, I was warned about clannish blue bloods who would not give me the time of day. I never encountered them. Maybe it was that I never sought them out and they were never inclined to discover me, but my experience is that this is a richly diverse city and most everyone has been wonderful. This is in contrast to my time in Southern California, where I found that people were friendly but hardly anyone could be trusted as a long-term ally.

The ascendancy of woke ideology and Covid totalitarianism over the last two years has radically altered how I see Boston. We've thus far been spared the ruination that the country has witnessed in Portland, Oregon, or the explosions of media-downplayed antisemitism in New York City. But increasingly we're becoming the sort of place where things like that could happen, with fatuous blowhards like Elizabeth Warren and Ayanna Presley already installed, and a new mayor who is beclowning herself with odious, nonsensical Covid mandates and plans to push for economically illiterate pipe dreams like rent control. I can forget about teaching at one of the many universities around here - they don't even return my emails. The ones that aren't busy collapsing are committed to hiring on skin color (and not mine).

(RISD, at that last link, may also be busy collapsing. I've looked over PDFs that show up in search, and I'm finding operating costs at more than 99% of revenue, foundering enrollment, eight-digit shortfalls with more expected, and nigh $200 million in outstanding debt with more deemed necessary. RISD's new president is the erstwhile vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion at Boston University. Her academic background is in English. Here is some of her poetry. Having been chosen, she deserves an opportunity to succeed. But I question the wisdom of choosing a specialist in diversity activism at a time when the school needs a veritable wizard of financial governance. There was a baby bust in the 2008 recession. In 2026 all those kids that didn't get made don't turn 18 and don't enroll in college. It's going to be a massacre for higher education, and if by 2028 RISD is a subsidiary of another university I will not be surprised.)

So I got snubbed anyway, just not on the basis that I was warned about. This leads me to ask, are the woke ideologues and the old blue bloods the same culture? I believe the answer is yes.

I was first tipped off about this by a Tablet article by Michael Lind, "The Revenge of the Yankees.

What has happened is that the formerly unified, mostly Northern mainline Protestant American establishment has—perhaps temporarily—broken down, allowing the actual diversity of interests and opinions in the United States to be expressed rather than suppressed. If the emerging woke national establishment has its way, however, that diversity of viewpoints and values will soon be suppressed once again, in favor of an intolerant and exclusive doctrine that greatly resembles the old-time Social Gospel from which it is derived....

In addition to the “Deep State,” other national institutions that the neo-Jacksonians of the New Deal coalition never conquered in their revolution against Yankeedom include the major nonprofit foundations like Ford and Rockefeller and the Ivy League universities. The culture of what might be called the NGO-academic-spook complex remained deeply rooted in the Social Gospel wing of Northern mainline Protestantism of the early 1900s.

The Social Gospel progressivism these institutions have long embraced is a Janus-faced tradition. One face is technocratic, holding that social and global conflicts, rather than reflecting the tragic nature of human existence, are “problems” which can be “solved” by nonpartisan experts guided by something called “social science.” The other face of Social Gospelism is irrational, and rooted in post-millennial Protestant theology convinced that we are on the verge of a world of peace and prosperity, if only wicked people at home and wicked regimes abroad can be crushed once and for all.

This was reinforced at the same publication by B. Duncan Moench.

Anglo Protestant culture has always had a tendency toward political hysteria, but today’s hysterics now express themselves in the accepted vernacular of the culture’s “post-Protestant” stage of liberal development. Confusing, I know. Allow me to explain.

Culturally speaking, America is—and always was—a LASP nation. Liberal Anglo Saxon Protestant. I prefer this moniker to WASP. First because, scientifically speaking, “race” is a fiction. It is a made-up category derived from 19th-century pseudoscience, which has been discredited by pretty much the whole of the 20th-century biological sciences—so the sooner we stop reifying it, the better. Second, replacing the word “white” with liberal connotes the fact that American political thought remains trapped in the early British liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith—an obsession with the self, individual rights, respect for freedom of religion (but mainly for Protestants), solicitous concepts of rebellion, private property accumulation, and a fundamentalist brand of market worship even Smith himself would have opposed.

I disagree with that last point, because the taste for market freedom only extended as far as their taste for freedom of religion. But this, later, is apt:

Woke culture is thriving more in the United States than anywhere else for related, specifically Anglo Protestant, reasons. Ever since the Puritans—Protestant extremists—decided to leave Britain to complete their “errand in the wilderness,” righteous bourgeois mania and moral hysteria have been a fixture of the American experience....

Confusing as it may be, woke thought is now the authorized agent of 21st-century Anglo elite norms. It has been since at least President Obama’s second term. For fun, download nearly any elite institution’s fellowship application, or instructions for a foundation grant, or higher ed faculty job post from 2013 onward. Play a drinking game with how many times the applicant is asked to explain how their work supports the cause of “social justice,” “racial justice,” “equity,” “diversity,” or “inclusion.” If you’re sober after examining more than two applications, see a doctor immediately. You may have more than one liver.

As I joked to a friend recently, grant applications for the last couple of years make me want to cry out, "Do I look like a fucking social worker to you?" Moench, in another piece for Tablet, "What is Progressivism?":

Unlike populists, who wanted state intervention in the economic sphere to help supply them with the means for personal and social autonomy, progressives wanted aggressive state intervention into the social sphere that would deprive working people of individual choices—for “their own good.” Progressives—then as now—understand “social justice” as occurring through moral reform within the self, but believe this personal transformation must be directed by morally enlightened elites wielding state power to prohibit the masses from engaging in “bad behaviors.”...

If we recognize this racialist origin point of progressive thought, the inverted KKK ideology of the new woke hierarchy can be understood as the overzealous expression of a core identitarian precept of progressive thought. In an attempt to repent for the country’s past sins, today’s woke progressives have taken the KKK’s notions of Saxon superiority that Woodrow Wilson and most of the 1910s progressives upheld and turned them upside down. No longer is the “Saxon” race thought of as on top. Instead, today’s woke progressives insist upon intersectional QTPOC supremacy and a bizarre, anti-intellectual—and thoroughly racist—notion that all Americans without European ancestry have inevitably been marginalized and therefore are entitled to governmental recompense. BIPOC and LGBTQ “traits” now fill the same role as the mythical blond-haired, blue-eyed Saxon forest dwellers did in the germ theory of the original progressives.

"LASP" isn't quite right then. I suggest instead Secular Deracinated WASPism. Woke ideology is what you get when you start with White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and subtract faith and pride of ancestry. It is another way of understanding progressive postliberalism.

I recently came across an excerpt from The Progressive Era by Murray Rothbard.

Progressivism was, to a great extent, the culmination of the pietist Protestant political impulse, the urge to regulate every aspect of American life, economic and moral — even the most intimate and crucial aspects of family life. But it was also a curious alliance of a technocratic drive for government regulation, the supposed expression of “value-free science,” and the pietist religious impulse to save America — and the world — by state coercion. Often both pietistic and scientific arguments would be used, sometimes by the same people, to achieve the old pietist goals. Thus, prohibition would be argued for on religious as well as on alleged scientific or medicinal grounds. In many cases, leading progressive intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century were former pietists who went to college and then transferred to the political arena, their zeal for making over mankind, as a “salvation by science.” And then the Social Gospel movement managed to combine political collectivism and pietist Christianity in the same package. All of these were strongly interwoven elements in the progressive movement.

Which brings us back to the Gardner. Michael Knox Beran, writing for City Journal:

Much like James’s Hyacinth, who in Venice feels a new set of nerves coming alive within him, James’s friends Henry Adams, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Edith Wharton were drawn to the therapeutic arts of premodern cultures. In the carved and painted poetry of Nikko, Anuradhapura, Athens, and Chartres, neurasthenic WASPs found a hieroglyphics of the soul, a formula for sanity in a modernity they thought hysteria-inducing. America, these Jamesian WASPs saw, lacked such antidotes, and at the height of the Gilded Age they sought to remedy the deficiency by incorporating, in their schools, museums, parks, and concert halls, bits and pieces of premodern poetry to create spaces that would touch neglected places in the American mind. Gardner established a Venetian museum in Boston; James’s friend Charles Eliot Norton, the Harvard humanist, indirectly inspired an experiment in civic humanism at Columbia in which young people were initiated in older poetries through the study of Great Books....

In the bargain WASPs made with themselves, they would obtain power, and pay for it in the coin of virtue. They would acquaint American innocence with the cultural facts of life even as they introduced their fellow citizens to elixirs by which they themselves had been reanimated. But their virtue was always equivocal; they liked power, and once they had grabbed a certain amount of it out of the hands of Gilded Age plutocrats, they were in no hurry to share the deeper secrets of their own patent medicines. Their museums and concert halls were open to the public, but their most potent humanizing poetry was concentrated in their fenced-off schools, clubs, and houses....

[Anthony] Kronman recapitulates the theory that led WASPs to create spaces like Isabella Stewart Gardner’s museum in Boston, in which the fruits of poetry and aristocratic mastery are cathartically available to workaday democracy.

The Gardner has always been a therapeutic project, carried out by people who were not made of nobler stuff than the rest of us except in their own imaginations. Its stewards continue to hold power and signal virtue. It is in this light that one can fully appreciate the current exhibition.

Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance explores the life and work of internationally renowned photographer and visual activist Sir Zanele Muholi (b. South Africa). For a decade, Muholi, who uses they/them/their pronouns, has documented South Africa’s Black LGBTQIA+ community. Through their visual archive of representation, the artist captures intimate expressions of beauty, vulnerability, love, loss, and belonging, while simultaneously confronting issues of identity politics, selfhood, and Black queer visibility.

Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance spans galleries in both the historic and new building. The exhibition features self-portraits in black-and-white and the U.S. debut of their colorful and expressive new paintings and a new bronze sculptural work. On view are rarely seen images from the artist’s ongoing, critically-acclaimed series, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, several of which were made during Muholi’s 2019 residency at the Gardner, and selections from Brave Beauties portraying Muholi’s chosen family in South Africa. Self-portraits made before and after the COVID-19 quarantine use found objects to address economic and environmental inequities. The exhibition also features poetic responses inspired by Muholi’s artistry penned by Boston Poet Laureate and 2021 artist-in-residence Porsha Olayiwola.

Muholi embodies the spirit of ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term meaning “our shared humanity” and expressed in Zulu as “I am because we are.” They bring with them those who are often unseen, vilified, marginalized and misrepresented, helping us see our shared humanity, by making space for Black and LGBTQIA+ people to simply BE.

*Muholi uses they/them/their pronouns both to challenge the oppositional gender pronouns of “he” and “she,” and to acknowledge oneness with their ancestral and living communities. A glossary of terms as used in the exhibition is available here.

You skimmed! I know you skimmed because if your interest in art is visual, your brain got three lines into that, said OH GOD THIS AGAIN, and started begging for it to be over.

[Edit: My wife just said to me, "I made myself read the whole thing, but it was torture."]

So what's the harm? Thus it has ever been, from a certain standpoint. One, it seems to me that when the forces of Secular Deracinated WASPism cram black art and black programming into the Feburary schedule, it is an act of blackface.

Two, the increased representation only works for people of color who allow themselves to be absorbed into Secular Deracinated WASPism. If you think of yourself as a lesbian rather than a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, or a Latina rather than Latinx, or a black man rather than a BIPOC, or a conservative or libertarian of any race whatsoever, you're as unwelcome in Secular Deracinated WASPism just as much as a Jew would have been at Harvard at one time. It doesn't even include the WASPs who still believe in free speech and colorblind law and the other old liberal values. The vaunted inclusivity is a sham, and mostly exists to assuage the pain of faithlessness and cultural disconnection of elite Anglo progressives and other assimilated paleskins who take care not to distress them.

Three, Secular Deracinated WASPism is a project to cling to long-held power. It is an attempt to disguise class tensions as racial tensions so that the have-nots can be rebranded as bigots and kept down. The trappings of power trump the purported concerns. Everyone can feel this, even the non-whites who have been absorbed. An alert reader brought to my attention an article in Hyperallergic (I don't look at the bigoted rag otherwise) in which the black writer asks whether the black artist under discussion was "capitalizing on the artistic models presented by White male, sado-Marxist provocateurs like the Spanish-born Santiago Sierra" and "actively reproducing the kind of big-dick energy power dynamics of White male artists who also claim mastery over their subject matter." As I've suggested elsewhere, there may be no way out of this in 2022 except to become conspicuously and sincerely anti-institutional.

Four, the WASPs didn't just lose faith and pride of ancestry. Credibility, as well, slipped through their fingers. Their coin of virtue is spent, and they have only debased tokens to spare. Isabella Stewart Gardner scored America's first Titian. The current caretakers of her legacy will never accomplish anything like that. On some level they know it, and consequently have taken to telling us what is important instead of presenting self-evidently important work. They spew their mind-numbing cant at us in hopes that we'll capitulate to their efforts to reform us. But we don't need to reform, except to stop thinking of these enervated, soulless has-beens as important.

Comment

1.

Douglas Bowker

February 22, 2022, 1:23 PM

I happen to know one or two actual New England blue bloods if you'd like an introduction, just to cross it off your bucket list. One even comes from that shortlist of all shortlists of those who have directly descended from the original Boston Brahmin families.

You had me interested for the first few sections where you offered your own observations, and though you sort of reign it back in towards the end, the mid-section - where to begin with some of these quoted essays? "The culture of what might be called the NGO-academic-spook complex" Oh really? It "might" be called that? This sounds nothing short of a vast secret coalition cribbed from a Dan Brown novel. It is bested only by this other kicker:

In addition to the 'Deep State,' other national institutions that the neo-Jacksonians of the New Deal coalition never conquered in their revolution against Yankeedom include the major nonprofit foundations...

Where, what, when and who are we even talking about here? All of these entities are either unrelated, or in direct opposition to one another. The New Deal liberals were secretly cut from the same cloth as Andrew Jackson? How did I not see it before? The New Dealers put in place social welfare programs (like every industrialized country in the world has). Jackson made it government policy to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing (also like every industrialized country, except usually off-shore). Yes, now it is indeed becoming crystal clear. But what about the Masons and Knights Templar?

You skimmed! I know you skimmed because if your interest in art is visual, your brain got three lines into that, said OH GOD THIS AGAIN, and started begging for it to be over.

Well, yes, a little. But it wasn't just that one quote that encouraged skimming, it was all of them. I think perhaps you might hire your wife as copy editor, because she sounds quite sensible about these things. But what was even more disappointing was that you didn't comment on Muholi's actual work. Forget what he says and what the Gardner says: What do you think about the actual photography?

From what I can see, it displays both technical mastery of the B&W photographic medium, using compelling composition, balance and texture. Self-portraiture has a long history and from what can I tell, this fits into the canon. Artists publishing (and museums encouraging) absurd and rambling statements is nothing new at all, and best ignored in favor of experiencing the art itself. As David Lynch plainly states: "The movie IS me talking about it!" But if I go to read an art blog about a show, I do hope to hear a little bit about the show itself.

2.

Franklin

February 23, 2022, 9:55 AM

Spend some more time with Lind's essay. Yes, those parties were opposed and yet they had a common enemy. In history that pattern is the usual one.

What do you think about the actual photography?

I wouldn't venture an opinion on it sight unseen. That is ultimately what matters, I agree. That granted, it is possible for the art to drown in the hogwash. Could they be museum-quality photographs despite having been manufactured to capitalize on Secular Deracinated WASP racial neuroses? By all means. But that's not what this post is about.

3.

Franklin

March 2, 2022, 7:29 AM

I saw the Muholi exhibition. The paintings are maladroit, with expressionism attempting to make up for the lack of painterly gift. The photographs reproduce well digitally but in person they are nearly devoid technical interest. Conceptually their program is lifted wholesale from Cindy Sherman—aggressively but unfaithfully referential self-portraits, intended to unpack stereotypes—and repurposed for a black enby. Literal blackness stands in for racial blackness à la Kerry James Marshall, except that Marshall can paint circles around Muholi and that the latter achieves the effect in post-production, obliging the museum to ascribe political import to his use of the contrast slider in Photoshop.

I more or less forgot that Murray Whyte exists, but a recent communication from the Gardner noted his review of the same show for the Globe. Therein he commits this utter gem to print:

Muholi holds court in the very same space occupied until last month by Titian’s six “Poesie” paintings, the apex of high-Renaissance allegorical art freighted with violent, objectifying sexual narratives. It feels like a corrective and a rebalancing. I can’t think of a better follow-up.

That's what one of the most magnificent achievements of the museum's whole history requires in Whyte's mind—a corrective. And this overweening art-school solipsism is the thing to correct it. I stand by everything I said about Secular Deracinated WASPism overhead and I have had it up to my eyeballs with this town.

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