The call for "diversity" in demographic representations of human talent in various fields is not new, but it now has become a searing issue everywhere, including museums.
Way back in 1969, the organization "Black Emergency Cultural Coalition" charged New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for failing to include Black artists in an exhibition featuring scenes of Harlem (sort of made sense; there must have been some good Black artists to feature their hometown in their work).
But in 1971, the demands escalated when 15 Black artists backed out of the Whitney Museum’s exhibit "Contemporary Black Artists in America" because it wasn’t curated by any Black specialist.
The Coalition then called for boycotting that show and started pressuring all museums to make sweeping "systemic" institutional changes (which museums began doing).
Since then, color-group-representation complaints have burgeoned, and calls for "diversity" have evolved into today’s demands not only for Black artists and curators but also for museum board member, docent, and employment staff representation; plus, we now witness demands for categorized artists and museum employees not only of color but also of gender, gender preference/identity, ethnicity, or . . .really . . . any characteristics identifiable as an underrepresented demographic group, i.e., individuals from every minority background and context who are not white.
Let us remember, here, that no art form — including painting and sculpture — is a group endeavor. All art is an individual endeavor.
Museums, however, are now vigorously trying to appease ever-more-shrill demands amounting to, "We artists are special and warrant in-front-of-line attention because we are an underrepresented (victimized) group of artists."
In 2016, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) developed an official program to include diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) as "one of the top three [sic] things vital to [every] museums’ viability, relevance, sustainability---to their overall success," as reported in the June, 2021 issue of PENTA, a Barron’s Group Publication.
So the question we now ask is: What do diversity of skin color, ethnicity, and/or gender characteristics of an artist have to do with art?
The answer, of course, is . . . nothing.
Works of art are an aesthetic representation of the natural world (or imaginary worlds) and aspects of humankind that express fundamental values held by an artist in physical form.
Standards for technical excellence universally applicable to all representational-intelligible art (not applicable to abstract art, illustration, etc.) have existed since ancient Greece. Content --- the implicit or explicit philosophical meaning in "meaningful" art is the burning center of ideas captured in aesthetic-physical form. Put differently, visual art is an aesthetic language by which an artist communicates his or her values via an intelligible, physical form of painting or sculpture. [Other relentlessly exhibited "art forms" such as piles/constructions of "whatever" or hanging fabrics of "whatever" are crafts at best, never art].
The next question follows: What does the growing politically correct push for demographic representation of artists in museums have to do with art?
The answer, of course, is . . . everything.
Political correctness—perceived or fabricated group victimization—is the excuse for every possible privilege given to a group-identified individual over an individual as an individual.
Who suffers from group favoritism over individual merit? Both the individual of merit regardless of personal context and the individual reaping visibility or awards based on group identity.
We saw this same museum issue of artist-group-representation-over-individual-talent played out in Hollywood’s Best-Actor awards a few years ago, and nothing has changed except the focus on a different professional category.
The subject of victimization is covered here.
Psychological damage to both the merit-based-but-passed-over and the (possibly) undeserved is delineated here.
Finally, let’s compare artistic expertise with sports.
A baseball player hits the ball or strikes. A skater twirls or falls. Success or failure is objectively demonstrable in sports. Not so in the field of art.
Acting is not a fine art because actors are not creative sources but reliant on scriptwriters and directors. Representational painting and sculpture are fine arts because an artist is the creative source, bringing into existence a manmade aesthetic object formed into a physical manifestation of a mind; therefore, museum exhibitions are an especially significant event not only to artists exhibited but to those attending because a museum exhibit is saying, "These works of art are important for you to see."
Why? Because, as noted, art is an aesthetic expression of ideas, and ideas are important.
This is precisely why museum exhibits that focus on skin color, ethnicity, and gender-specifics of artists are way off topic . . . and perhaps even dangerous because art is not group specific unless used as an artificial tool to manipulate viewers into a demographic point of view that suits a political purpose rather than to enrich, enlighten, or entertain via the art alone.
Even if it is true that many talented individuals of color, ethnicity, or gender-preference-identity are artists today, that fact is not relevant to the quality of their art. Demographics are a different subject entirely.
Of course, every art exhibit is theme specific, so an exhibit titled "Modern Realist South American Art," for example, would focus on artist location because the theme is localized; even then, however, the color, ethnicity, and gender descriptions of the artists would (and should) be irrelevant.
To tout these characteristics only distracts visitors’ attention by focusing on the personal profile of the artist when only beauty and quality of the art should be relevant.
Art museums are, in a way, holy places, preserving and exhibiting objects that reveal humanity at any given time or place by way of art alone. Art at its best provides a spiritual experience to viewers because those of like-mind with an artist can see and feel their own values as expressed by the artist in an aesthetic-physical form.
For a museum to join existential societal squabbles of the day is demeaning and distracting. Objects in an art museum should be lasting things, not devices to press current political-agenda hot buttons having nothing to do with art.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. She is the author of "Crosspoints A Novel of Choice." Her most recent book is "Spiritual Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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