Are Arts Leaders “Cultural” Leaders?


The two terms sometimes get mixed up. They’re not interchangeable. For the most part, the big cultural debates of our time take place without participation of our artists and arts leaders. If artists aren’t participating – let alone leading – it’s difficult to make the case that they’re cultural leaders.

Somehow, our public debates about values – and by extension, what our culture looks like – have become the exclusive domain of politics. To speak out on values can only be seen as a political act in America. Issues like gun culture, family values, social services, and public space are owned by narrow political forces who have a vested interest in them and who frame how they’re discussed.

But why? The issues may be political and how we deal with them as public policy might be political, but the values needn’t be. The genius of the so-called culture warriors was to conflate politics and values so that not only did every political argument become a values argument, but that every values argument is also political.

But why? There have certainly been many political artists. And artists have had influence on politics.But for the most part that’s in the past. Today’s big arts institutions studiously avoid taking political positions so as not to alienate important constituencies. But they’ve also gotten squeamish about expressing values too, for fear of being drawn in to politics. Slippery slope and all that.

So we have an amazing pretzel of a response from the Metropolitan Opera this week to an online petition asking that the Met Gala in September be dedicated in “support of LGBT people.” The petition protests Russia’s laws discriminating against gays by noting that the Met is featuring two Russian artists who  “support Putin’s recent laws against homosexual people.”  But it doesn’t ask the opera house to remove or censure the artists or to cancel the production. The petition has 1,645 signatures as of Saturday morning, and it asks the Met to dedicate the event to support the rights of gay people. A simple declaration of values.

Maybe not so simple. The Met responded:

“The Met is proud of its history as a creative base for LGBT singers, conductors, directors, designers, and choreographers. We also stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions. As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.”

First an unabashed declaration of support: “As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad.” If the petitioners wanted the Met to take a side on this issue, then here it is.

Then an equivocation: “We also stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions.” Translation: we choose our artists on the basis of their artistry, not their politics. If our artists have different values than those of the institution, we also support them, even if we disagree with them.

And a bright red line: “since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.” So the Met produces no operas that express politics? It makes no artistic decisions based on politics? It expresses no values that are political? Only artistic?

The petition requests a statement of values. The Met makes such a statement – an unequivocal one – only not in the form the petition asks for. Fine. Easy to understand that an institution doesn’t want to be bullied. But it’s “not appropriate” for its performances to be used for political purposes “no matter how noble or right they are?”  That’s quite a claim for the position of art in our culture. No wonder we’re not cultural leaders.

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  1. Marcus Overton says

    But Netrebko and Gergiev made a political decision: they made public (and inescapably political) statements of support for Putin in his campaign for a political position – and thereby stated thgeir implicit support of his political positions. And his political positions very clearly state that he neither values nor respects gay men and women, nor supports their right merely – even – to say who they are without fear of punishment under the law. Neither Netrbko nor Gergiev have repudiated their support of Putin nor his political positions; they haven’t even mildly disagreed with him, nor have they made a statement of support for the right of gay men and women to – merely – affirm their existence, which they may not do without fear of reprisal by police or legal authorities. No, whatever the Met may or may not do in response to the petition (it will do nothing, since Gelb cannot do anything on his own, being completely subject to the orders of his board, to whom gay rights are of a little less importance than keeping the opera house’s toilets stocked), Gergiev and Netrebko have covered themselves with shame. No doubt they will continue to be engaged, for financial considerations (corporate interests, in other words) must and will be served. But every gay man or woman with whom they perform in the future will know just where they stand.

    • says

      But isn’t this consistent with the Met’s response? Debates about an artist’s political life versus their artistry have gone on for years. Gergiev and Netrebko will continue to be engaged not just for financial considerations but because their artistry is something people want to hear. Do we really want to have a political litmus test for every artist? That’s extremely problematic. And we don’t impose such a test for those in other jobs. Whether other artists choose to work with them is up to other artists.

      My point was that the petition didn’t demand any kind of retribution; it asked for an affirmative statement – we support the equal rights of gay people. Which the Met says it does. And proclaims unequivocally in the company’s response to the petition. But the Met interprets making the statement and attaching it to the Gala as a political act, which it doesn’t want. I might disagree but it’s an understandable position. But why is making the statement that one supports equal rights for all a political act? Shouldn’t it be a basic value?

      The point of my post is not to condemn the Met but to observe that the arts are about values. But because some values have been co-opted by the political class, it’s extremely difficult for those outside the political class to express those values without becoming ensnared in politics. Thus our debates about values and culture take place without the participation of artists because they don’t want to get dragged into politics. Our debates about climate change take place without participation of scientists. Etcetera. Our culture might look quite different if artists and scientists had a bigger role.

      • BobG says

        Fair enough. But if the Met responds to this petition, won’t it have set a precedent by which it has to respond to every petition about every political issue? What if PETA objects to the appearance of singers wearing furs. Will the Met have to issue a statement that it’s against cruelty to animals?

        • says

          The slippery slope argument. Which of course you could apply to almost any issue. Which you could use as a reason to never take a stand on anything. Leadership is about standing up for things in which you believe. If you never take a stand, you’re not a leader.

          • BobG says

            It seems to me, there is no connection between gay rights in Russia today and the current production in NY of Eugene Onegin, an opera that premiered in Moscow 134 years ago. The policies of the current Russian government are simply irrelevant. The Met is not a leader in promoting gay rights, and I simply don’t see why it should be.

  2. BobG says

    I rather think the Met is on the right track here. The fine arts are already on the ropes in America. Demanding political correctness in every production is another step toward destruction.

    Do we really want a world in which artist’s politics determine whether they are allowed to appear before the public without apology? Wasn’t that exactly what McCarthyism was about: punishing people for their political opinions?

    There’s already a separate arts battle going on with Russia over the Lubavitcher Library. Has it really benefitted either side that for years now, no Russian works have been lent to American art museums and no American works have been lent to Russia? Are we going to make it that no Russian artists can appear here because we disapprove of its government?

    Would we be happy if foreign arts organizations asked American artists to disavow positions or policies of the American government?

    • says

      I agree. And I’m not arguing for political correctness. People ought to be able to hold their own political views. The petition doesn’t ask the Met to dismiss Gergiev and Netrebko. That it calls for an affirmative statement is what makes this so interesting. It doesn’t call for stifling political views.

  3. Tired of Trends says

    Aren’t there hundreds of worthy political stances to take–why does everything have to be about LGBT?

    Isn’t art about the mind and about transcending the given–why does everything have to be about bodies and animal urges?

    I would like to see a change of focus: More poetry, less propaganda.

    • Samuel says

      “…why does everything have to be about LGBT?”

      Wow – much like asking “Why does everything have to be about race?”

  4. Ed McKeon says

    The idea that The Met ‘doesn’t do politics’ is disingenuous. If there’s one thing cultural studies has taught us in the last 50 years, it’s that the arts can no more escape being political (at least with a small ‘p’) than it can appear magically without significant investments of cash. At the very least, we might look at what repertoire The Met performs and what doesn’t.

    • says

      Exactly what I was thinking as I read this post. But if we take that position, we’ll have to broaden our view of what constitutes a political act as far as the Met is concerned. Taking a stance on a hot-button issue won’t cut it; what we define as ‘political’ will require us to think about *everyone* who’s working at the Met, even (and arguably, especially) those people who never appear on stage. It will require us to consider them from as many different perspectives as possible (racially, socially, economically, etc.; sexuality will be but one of our concerns). And ultimately the question we ask will not be “How do the Met’s artistic choices express the institution’s stance on X or Y issue?” That approach tears one issue from the context of all the social factors that influence it, and (while being a worthwhile concern in itself) is largely the purview of those well-to-do members of the institution who don’t have to worry about other aspects of their social status ‘giving them a hard time’ in the world. Rather, we’ll ask “How does the Met’s overall mission speak to social injustices of all stripes?” It’s a question that reaches far beyond season rosters or repertoire selections, and it can’t be answered simply by making an ambiguous statement.

      TL,DR: any one issue is hardly the point. Maybe the Met is best served by improving working conditions for all of the people it employs, instead of turning its attention to something which (practically speaking) is a far-removed abstraction in the grand scheme of their day-to-day operations. ‘Taking a stance’ is a convenient way for people to ‘express awareness,’ but will be no real skin off of Russia’s back. While the hearts of those involved may be in the right place, this uproar can’t amount to much more than really fancy slacktivism!

  5. says

    Insightful commentary, Doug. But the distinction between ‘culture leaders’ and ‘arts leaders’ often comes down to funding. Arts institutions follow capitalism’s donor methodology, just like eCongress. In that, Mr. McKeon is on to something.
    The cultural/literary/musical/cinematic phenomena of Les Miserables is an excellent example of divorcing content from product merchandising. So it the monefication of the street artwork of Bansky, Keith Haring, and many others.
    However, cultural forces have great effect. Artists and their familiars have pushed and led culture through art in public places, social practice, web-based works, open rehearsals, audience participation, and other techniques. Cultural leaders with bold faced names may get interviewed, but cultural practitioners greatly affect our society. Sundance anyone?

  6. Nancy Wolter says

    Years ago, a poetry magazine called Ironwood, published in Tucson, Arizona, was the receipient of large National Endowment for the Arts grants. It’s cover page always carried this disclaimed: “While the publishers of Ironwood are grateful to receive funding from the NEA, our acceptance of the funds does not reflect endorsement of the Reagan administrations’ policies, which we abhor.”

  7. Michele Bauer says

    This is a very interesting article and discussion. I agree that the Met appears to have demonstrated it’s values without diminishing its artistic mission. However, Opera itself has its foundations in culture and politics. Revolutions began in opera houses. Many “classic” operas are about political and cultural situations. To distance opera from culture and politics, is to do a disservice to the history of the genre. Therefore, lessening its artistic relevance and eroding its artistic mission.

  8. Hjordis Linn-Blanford says

    Lets hope more leaders of arts & culture emerge from the ranks of arts & culture practitioners. Arts exists within a political framework for sure. Practitioners and arts administrators on the ground live within this framework daily. It will be interesting to see what shifts when NYC has a new mayor…

  9. Georgios Tzioumaris says

    First of all i have to express my discomfortness with expressions like arts “leaders” or cultural “leaders”. Towards which hierarchical evaluation and cultural context are characterizations such as these valid, it remains totally obscure to me.

    Anyway, in general terms i agree with Mr Mclennan;s main point .

    Furthermore, i believe that MET’s respone is a politically correct/awkward one, which is explicitly exactly that! It’s a highly political stance. MET’s “leaders” made a choice not to clearly articulate an opinion, being afraid, propably, of being caught up in a “toxic” debate that could potentially engage them in an dangerous political agenda. MET being an institution of international reputation and prestige clearly considers itself, simply said, too big to deal with the arts as a political act. Does this “smell” 1950’s conservatism and/or 19th century’s romanticism? No, i don’t think so. It’s is purely 21st century’s apathy and indifference for the social and political problems that people faces in the 1st decade of the new millenium, which seems in an institutional level, quite the same with the previous one! But this is another discussion.

    In conclusion, the main problem and primary source of concern tha i want to highlight, is that it is that MET’s leaders need to understand that art is existentially a deeply political act. Artists have tried hitherto, to underline; to point out; to imply; to cry out; to protest; to protect; to show a way.

    All these all pollitical acts of significance. It seems that MET doen’t feel the same way. Maybe that’s why arts “leaders” are not (or not only) found in shiny institutions like these, but also in slums, streets, orphanages, community centres, minorities, poor countries without METS etc.

    Art is by definition politics, as at the same time is an aesthetic experience; an instrumental experience. As it is about love; peace; warmth etc

    Returning to my initial remark, that is exactly why “leaders” should remain at their homes and let the artists and the rest of society lead their way to the world as they do since the begining of cultures.

  10. says

    I can’t understand why this kind of probleme often occur…
    Arts and politics have to be separated.
    An art isn’t art anymore if under “dictatorial system”
    Art must be free and never be pushed by political ideas on my opinion

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