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.