All the People

galaxyOver on Facebook, my co-worker Sam Hurwitt reports an audition listing in San Francisco that requests “No obvious ethnicity” for a role.  His friends, when asked, guessed that statement meant everything from “mixed” to “white” to my favorite: “‘whitable’ or ‘passable’ or ‘non-threatening ethnic looking person’.”

The Bank of Canada recently released a new $100 bill as part of an overhaul of their currency.

Per this article:

An earlier, uncirculated version of the $100 note, illustrating the theme of medical innovations, showed a female medical researcher with distinctly Asian features. But later focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity, prompting the bank to erase the Asian features in favour of a Caucasian-looking woman.

When The Canadian Press broke the story about the erasure last August, spokesman Jeremy Harrison said the Bank of Canada was striving for ‘neutral ethnicity’ in its depictions of people on bank notes.

Harrison referred to ‘the Bank’s long-held principles for bank note design, one of which is to avoid depicting any particular ethnic group when including people as representative images of a theme on a bank note.’

Is it truly possible to “avoid depicting any particular ethnic group?”

In July 2011, I wrote a post on how we make meaning in the world through experiencing art which I later refined into this section from my essay “Sowing New Beans” that appeared in Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art:

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political theorist now known more for the second appellation than the first, outlined a concept in the late 1960’s that he called “universal grammar.” He was investigating how languages are created and acquired, and he settled on this idea that all of us, from the moment we’re born, carry in us common, innate, fundamental rules of grammar and we use that inherent understanding to gradually build up our language comprehension and production.

I often think of art in this way—as the manifestation of something fundamental and internal, built from blocks we all carry with us even if we don’t know it.  The experience is held within us and activated when we attend a performance or see a painting, and it transforms us into something we were not before.

I’m having trouble with the idea that art is universal lately.

The goal of the Bank of Canada, as evidenced by the spokesman’s statement, was to move from depicting a singular ethnicity to depicting something larger—in other words, to move from an attitude of multiculturalism (the celebration of difference) to an attitude of universalism (the celebration of our commonality).  All of this in an effort to celebrate Canada as a diverse, open and tolerant society.  They had to decide whether to celebrate the inclusive homogeneity of the “all” or the multivariate heterogeneity of the “everyone,” and they chose the former.

“Universalism” in its theoretical form is about celebrating the essential humanness of all of us, the idealized harmony in which we could all function if we recognized how close we are to each other, really, and not how far.  The issue, of course, then becomes whether, as a practical matter, universalism simply disintegrates into something much more minor, which is the representation of the dominant culture as the universal culture—which is to say the deracination of an Asian scientist into something that looks suspiciously like a white scientist.  And yet, we are all so very similar when you look at the science.

In her essay “Relations,” Eula Biss writes:

“When we were young, my sister and I had two baby dolls that were exactly alike in every way except that one was white and one was black.  The precise sameness of these dolls…convinced me that they were, like us, sisters.

“There is no biological basis for what we call race…Race is a social function.  But it is also, for now at least, a social fact.  We may be remarkably genetically similar, but we are not all, culturally speaking, the same…”

She goes on to quote Albert Murray, who called American culture “incontestably mulatto,” and then tells a story of a segregated restaurant in the South where “a sign on one side of the room advertised ‘Home Cooking’ and a sign on the other side advertised ‘Soul Food’ and the customers on both sides were eating the same biscuits and gravy.”

“For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences,” she quotes Murray, “the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

In response to my recent posts, Ian David Moss (along with Diane Ragsdale and Barry Hessenius—thanks to all!) made a comment and then filled out his thinking in a post on Createquity.  Ian makes an interesting argument that my earlier comments about considering requirements that arts organizations in diverse communities cultivate more diverse audiences are “weirdly paternalistic.”  He points out that “educated white people in the United States” is a cultural group, and asks what efforts to “change patterns of cultural participation” really accomplish except to attempt to sustain specific institutions.  He goes on:

To make the value judgment that the current picture of theater attendance is ‘wrong’ inadvertently calls into question, I fear, the validity of the existing aesthetic choices and preferences of people of color…I worry that strong funder incentives to racially diversify audiences inadvertently encourages institutions to value people of color for their skin rather than for what’s underneath, and to reinforce visible markers of diversity…In my more subversive moments, I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditional European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family—on white people’s terms.

I fear Ian is being more cynical here than he may have need to be.  Wouldn’t it follow that encouraging institutions to value people of color “for their skin” (though I think that’s entirely too simplified) requires those institutions to also value what those people, you know, want to see.  I’m not, for example, advocating herding people unwillingly into a room and forcing them to watch Tartuffe.  If they don’t want what’s on offer, then they won’t come, right?  The shift that Ian advocates–the interpolation of forms and stories that people of more diverse groups (of all types, including but not limited to different ethnicities)–would happen by necessity.  Currently, I would argue, we spend almost no time functionally thinking about diversification—we instead simultaneously assume (1) our work is universal and (2) they just don’t know it.  In that mode, I’d suggest that getting people to think about it, even for so functional a reason as continued relevance and sustainability (i.e. “my organization doesn’t die”) is perfectly acceptable as an outcome, and ultimately does encourage shifts in work.  If we start from zero, and step one is utilitarian, then ultimately mightn’t we get to someplace that is more inclusive and truly universal?  Like the old therapy of smiling until you feel happy, relying on muscle memory to jumpstart the emotion.  This sounds, perhaps, sort of tawdry, but we must start in order to get anywhere.

Interestingly, I also think that part of what Ian is saying here centers on a difference between true universalism and the sort of lip-service “white” universalism that most arts organizations have been operating under for a long while now.  True universalism, interestingly, seems to cycle through its seeming opposite–multiculturalism–recognizing our commonality by first recognizing our difference.  In his essay “Reflections on Art, Culture and Universalism,” Eugene Kamenka puts it this way:

Multiculturalism, to be serious, involves the recognition that different cultural traditions highlight and examine with more knowledge and sensitivity particular aspects of human capacity and human experience.  They broaden our knowledge, our sensitivity, our imagination.  They help to make us better people…The ideal we work toward is that of making all human beings multicultural, of having them appreciate and respect for its virtues more than one nation, one language, history and tradition—more than one ‘culture.’  This assumes that behind the ‘cultures’ of the anthropologist, there lies a universal culture.

In America today, we like to recognize difference, for better or worse.  Liberals, especially, currently revel in the heterogeneity of their base, and the strong social movements of the day are to protect and expand the rights of two minorities—gays and mostly-Hispanic immigrants.  Republicans, wandering through the last election cycle with blinders on, used fearmongering largely based on the “otherness” of people who weren’t white and straight to turn out that narrow constituency, and are only now understanding that that might have been a great idea a decade or more ago, but isn’t so much a good idea now.  As more voices have shouted more loudly to be heard, we have set aside the melting pot, brought out the mixing bowl, and increasingly allowed ourselves to all just be who we are and bump up against each other as such.  At least that’s what we like to believe.  When our government talks about diversity now, it talks about accommodating the differences among peoples, not about assimilating those peoples into one common America.

The reality, of course, isn’t as tidy or true as that.  This is especially the case in our cultural institutions, where the idea of universalism has had, for a long, long time, a strong foothold.  We present the individual story on stage as artifice in order to talk about the universal story.  And for the most part, the fact that those individual stories have largely been performed by a certain type of folks for a similar certain type of folks hasn’t been a hugely addressed issue.  In part, I think, because of our strong philanthropic base, relatively weak governmental funding base and the inherent, longstanding inequalities in the whole social fabric of America (and our ability to pay lip service to them without really addressing the underlying disparities), American arts and cultural institutions are only now feeling some of the pressure that has been felt by similar institutions in England and Australia for more than a decade.  Like endorphins temporarily masking an injury, our lack of reliance on funding sources that actually foot to public opinion (be that public funding or public ticket sales) has allowed us to feel fine until it wears off, and now we’re stuck with a broken bone that we’ve been damaging more by believing it was all fine.

We have not been truly seeking universalism–the universal truth for all–anymore than we have been truly seeking multiculturalism.  What might have once been telling the truth of our world has somehow turned into something less than that.  We have responded to the pressures of this world by making our circle smaller, clustering our planets close around our sun and assuming that that meant we were warming all the bodies in the galaxy.

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  1. Rafael de Acha says

    Great posting, Clayton! I’m sharing it on my facebook page, from which I quote my own comment on another similar posting: “Interesting report that shows some of the still-small steps forward in this long-debated issue. Here in Cincinnati, Ohio, the population is more…homogenous than that of NYC, hence there is much less multi-ethnic representation in the performing arts, and that encompasses theatre, dance and music — three areas in which it still is rare to see any other than a Caucasian treading the boards of our local concert or theatre stages. If memory serves me right, Joseph Papp was breaking the color barriers half a century ago, casting Shakespeare with actors of color…Have we really moved forward on this or are we just sort of “punting” instead of sailing with the wind on our backs?”

  2. Douglas Clayton says

    Where, except for in the arts, is there a presumption that something must be created to appeal to every single type of person? Any other product or service has some sort of target market – the items that are for ‘everyone’ are by definition incredibly generic and standard in order to have ‘universal ‘appeal.

    Are we making forks, which have universal appeal but very limited options for customization? Or are we making something on par with houses or cars, with huge complexity and creativity inherent, but which will, by their nature, appeal to specific groups, depending on what you make…?

    Demanding that we create a piece of art that appeals to an exact cross-section of our community that matches overall demographics is opposed to the very idea of specificity and creativity.

    Zooming out, trying to apply the ‘diversity percentage’ to a full season can have the impact of making the theatre feel scattered, reducing even further the desire for ongoing committment of an audience or subscriber base, if they feel like some of the shows are actively ‘for someone else’.

    I make Volvos – they won’t appeal to people who want a Mustang. If there is enough money (ticket buyers, funders, philanthropists) who will support buying Mustangs, then more people will build Mustangs. If not, then we’ll keep making Volvos.

    To put in ‘racial’ terms – is the issue really that ‘white funding’ should be going to other groups? Or is it that for some reason, there is a dearth of funding that is attached to someone truly valuing art for other groups?

    If that’s the problem, then it’s just the nature of how minorities must always fight for their position to be valued – and that’s something that mission-oriented funders (philanthropists and government) should think about- but not by telling me to paint my Volvo to look like a Mustang. Let’s find someone who is good at making Mustangs needs to start making Mustangs.

    That might sound like a ‘segregationalist’ attitude – let’s have white theatres and black theatres and brown theatres. But there can also be theatres that are ABOUT diverse viewpoints, or about local stories or history, or plenty of other things that can be consistent and have cross-racial appeal. And even the racial labels are just shortcuts for more complex ways of outlining a constituent base.

    But having your audience be ‘everyone’ is just silly – unless you’re content with just making forks.


    • says

      Doug, what your proposing is a variation on the theme Diane Ragsdale explored recently and that I have seen elsewhere, namely whether it is more appropriate/feasible to encourage field-wide diversification by getting most everyone to diversify, or to encourage that same goal by shunting funding towards organizations that appeal strongly to those audiences we want to increase. My issue with simply saying that certain organizations (and again, I’m not advocating for the same standards of diversification to exist for companies that mission-specifically serve X, Y or Z group, and am rather focusing in on the majority of organizations who say their mission is to do Shakespeare or new work or whateaver) should simply be allowed to stay white-homogeneous is that I think most organizations, given that option, would simply choose it, and say “not my problem.” The truth of the matter is, arts organizations aren’t built to serve the particular interests of artists or artistic leaders–they are built to utilize that art in the service of something greater, which requires at least the bravery to articulate the narrowness of their missions. (Also, of course, it pragmatically seems fool hardy to me for organizations to function so short-sighted ly, but that is a different issue.)

      • Douglas Clayton says

        Ah yes. Perhaps what’s needed is a much greater clarity, specificity, and accountability for organizations regarding their missions, and then it can be much easier to tell if it’s appropriate to push on an organization to expand ‘diversity’ in artists or audience.

        But as long as most missions are ‘we do good plays we like’…. it’s murky territory…

        • says

          Arts and culture orgs that put the needs of their artists above the needs of their community ought to have their 501(c)(3) status revoked. They’re being publicly subsidized, even if indirectly.

  3. John Carnwath says

    It seems to me that there’s a paradox that is absolutely central to art and culture that those of us who work in the field have never fully addressed.

    Culture is vital part of community. It fosters our sense of togetherness and belong, builds bridges of trust and understanding between members of a society, and contributes to all sorts of positive social outcomes (assisting non-violent conflict resolutions, allowing children to excel in their education, etc.). But at the same time it shuts out those people who don’t belong, makes them stand out, makes them feel uncomfortable and out of place, and fosters distrust towards them. I think Evolutionary Biologists would probably argue that those contradictory functions of culture are precisely what have led culture to become such a central part of human societies. Societies that had strong internal bonds and distrusted foreigners most likely had an evolutionary advantage over societies that either trusted everyone or never trusted anyone.

    I think the sense that our own culture is (or should) be universal, that our ideals of beauty, rhythm, and harmony are “natural” is most likely deeply engrained in the evolution of the human species and our relation to culture.

    That’s not to say that the cultural boundaries are static or that we can’t (or shouldn’t) push them strategically in a desired direction. I’m just think it is useful to realize that there might not be a clear win-win solution for all. Including some often means driving away others (though not necessarily in a 1:1 ratio). Perhaps, this is just a longwinded way of saying that my reservations about the “universality” of art extend far beyond those expressed by Mr. Lord. At the same time, I’m afraid I’m equally as uncomfortable with the concept of “authenticity,” which often comes up on the multicultural front.