In keeping with the spirit of my just-concluded series on privilege I wanted to direct readers to a very good blog post by fellow ArtsJournal writer Alexander Laing. His Dear White Orchestras helps put some of the issues I addressed in a context specific to an arts form, in this case symphony orchestras. His introduction of the contrast between universality and particularity is especially important for those of us in the world of legacy arts organizations to understand. In particular, a view of the universality of an art (or any element of culture) is at odds with the reality of different cultures and different forms of cultural expression. As I’ve said here before:
When I taught music, I would use one of the profession’s most closely held truisms to challenge my students’ understanding of the field. “Music is the universal language” is a sentence repeated with the reverence of scripture. It also happens to be false. Music is universal, but its language, grammar, and syntax are not. Traditional Chinese opera is as foreign and incomprehensible to Western ears as Strauss’s tone poems are to aboriginal peoples. That does not diminish either. It simply forces us to question what we mean by “music is universal.”
In many ways, thinking (even unconsciously) of the cultural expression with which we are most familiar as “universal” is an ultimate form of privilege. Here are Mr. Laing’s closing remarks in his post:
A universalist ethic inclines us to believe that orchestral music is, itself, a universal thing and our place in the arts ecosystem is related to that. It leads us to focus on how this music is True in some larger sense of the word. With that in mind we see our lack of diversity (our whiteness) as an injustice. Everyone should have access to this Truth.
On the other hand, the particularist ethic says that orchestras are certainly not universal and the music isn’t either. Recognizing that orchestras and orchestral music are not universal, a particularist ethic brings the whiteness of orchestras into view differently.
From a particularist view, we’re more inclined to see that the privileged position we enjoy as orchestras is not just the result of how True the art form is – our universality – it’s also because of our whiteness.
This is not to say to say orchestras were rewarded for our lack of diversity. It is to say that orchestras, as white institutions, benefit from the history and forces that privilege whiteness.
This is also not to say that orchestras have nothing to offer those whose cultural background is not European. It does, however, mean we need to reexamine our assumptions about the “shouldness” of our art being, inherently, for everyone. And that examination is a first step toward rethinking issues of cultural equity.