A few months ago I was at a conference of administrators of large arts institutions when a leading researcher in cultural trends made a bold claim: The election of Donald Trump is a result of the failure of the arts and culture sector.
The point, he said, was that values expressed by the arts sector seem so at odds with the populist nationalist Trump wave that one could view the election not only as a repudiation of the Obama agenda and Democrats but also of arts and culture more generally. The arts had failed to convince large segments of the American public that inclusion and diversity – as expressed by the arts sector – are important values. If the arts had been successful, then Trump would not have been elected.
It’s a provocative claim, and I’ll admit my first reaction was to dismiss it out of hand. How self-important. Does the larger culture care what values the arts hold? Do the arts have the kind of influence that they could swing an election, or have a significant, let alone determinative voice in any kind of national debate? Is the arts sector endorsement now a coveted political get for candidates, up there with the Teamsters or teachers unions?
More problematic is an assumption that the arts have a coherent point of view and a set of values that finds expression in political action.
And yet why not? The arts sector has made something of a fetish of claiming that the arts are for everyone, that they make us “better,” that the arts are striving for diversity and inclusiveness. But are we? Politically diverse? Economically? Rurally (if there is such a word, but you know what I mean)? How everyone are we if half of the country sees our definition of diversity as a threat rather than an advantage? How inclusive are we if significant segments of the country feel that their values aren’t represented – or worse, attacked by the arts? How diverse are we if holding certain political ideologies are cause for being dismissed out of hand?
The 2016 election suggests that those values may be less than the universal truths that those in the arts might like to believe. Perhaps most important, it gives lie to the claim frequently made by the arts sector – that the arts are universal and that they are for everyone.
Call me cynical, but I might suggest that every one of these suppositions is flawed.
If the arts were really for everyone and are inclusive and diverse (something of an aspirational mantra for the sector over the past several years), then the election shredded the notion. If the arts are for everyone, where were the 60+ million Trump voters? If the arts are so diverse and inclusive, where are the conservative views held by an enormous segment of population who seems to reject such definitions of diversity and inclusion? This largely white, largely male majority has long been the dominant cultural authority and wants to hold on to its power
If we claim to be for “everyone” and yet we don’t reflect everyone in our communities, the claim is a lie. It’s as true when we don’t include people of color as it is when we wall off political points of view. The drumbeat of criticism of the arts establishment for not reflecting the racial/ethnic/gender/economic diversity of its communities is entirely justified. However, is it also possible that a lack of political diversity in the arts may also be a missed – if extremely difficult to realize – opportunity?
And yet, what if the values are irreconcilable? What if the arts aren’t for everyone? What if it’s okay that they aren’t? If the arts are for everyone then they may be for no one.