So White. So What?
By Crispin Sartwell
#OscarsSoWhite presents us again with a question that the institutions of the art world have been grappling with for decades: whether standards of taste or quality can be kept separate from other sorts of questions, such as questions about race, region, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
One way to interpret the demand for black nominees is as a kind of affirmative action, the pressure for it applied by people who are more interested in an actor's skin tone than in the quality of the performance. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith and others who are using the hashtag and leading the movement might seem to be demanding a racial quota, or some sort of proportional representation, but that hardly seems an appropriate way of figuring out who actually gave the best performance.
Sometimes I have that response myself, as in 2014, when there was an explicit demand from some of the same people that the cast of Selma get some nominations. I didn't think it was a good movie.
But the protestors have a point. Whether aesthetic standards are objective, or subjective, or culturally relative, is a question to bedevil philosophers. But one thing is obvious: aesthetic standards of quality themselves often are, and should be, at stake or up for examination in encounters between different cultures or even in encounters between different sub-cultures of the same culture, like white and black Americans.
A key set of moments in the development of modern art came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when avant-garde artists tried to challenge the aesthetic standards of their own culture by absorbing or applying those of other cultures: in "Japonism," for example, or in Picasso's use of African masks or Gauguin's sojourn to the South Seas. This was part of the process of breaking the rigid, and arbitrary, and culture-bound standards of nineteenth-century European art.
Whether or not all standards are culture bound, those certainly were. But the people who taught art in the academies or showed in the salons regarded their own quasi-classical standards as objectively correct, and other cultures and classes as not understanding the nature of beauty and art, as primitive or behind the curve of history. Leave a false standard unchallenged, and it passes for true and impoverishes your art.
As the twentieth century went on, we ceased to need, or indeed to want, appropriations of non-Western cultures or American sub-cultures by white men. Spaces opened where the visual traditions and their practitioners could, to some extent, speak for themselves. Telling the story of twentieth century American art now without Jacob Lawrence or Kara Walker would be as irresponsible as telling the story of American literature without James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston.
White Americans' standards of artistic and literary tastes have had to change accordingly, and it's a good thing they have: we've found truths and beauties that we had made impossible for ourselves.
If you go to an exhibition of contemporary art, you are likely to see work by a diverse group of people with a diverse group of aesthetic ideas. Last week I was at the Whitney in New York, and the way they have come to interpret their own permanent collection has been transformed; they are showing us a much wilder and more diverse set of beauties than when it was all Hoppers and Wyeths (much as I love Hopper and Wyeth).
But we might wonder how much of that is really at stake with the Oscars, or whether the world of big-budget studio movies is quite the right world in which to accomplish this task. How meaningful is it to give glittering statuettes to black actors when the systems in which the films are written and produced and marketed are fundamentally white? To what extent does the Hollywood system give us any glimmers of different canons of taste, or challenge the pat cultural assumptions of white people?
It may be that for a variety of reasons, black actors are not being sufficiently recognized. That should be examined; people in 'the Academy' should be thinking about their own standards of taste, and what the role of race in them is. I don't doubt that injustices have occurred. But even within the art world, the distribution of awards is not the fundamental site of injustice. It would be more meaningful to nurture ways that the system can much more widely open itself to the creativity of many more sorts of people.
Again, perhaps I'd try to fix the Oscars last, and I'm not sure precisely which nominations I'd change, or why, or, honestly, how to care all that much. Nevertheless, I think the Academy's long-term approach - they've promised to diversify their own membership dramatically - is the right beginning.
The point might not be for us to tell once more the story of King, but to find places where people can tell the stories they want, or their own stories, or where the shape of stories is itself at stake. I think that in the medium of film we are missing out to a very large extent on the creative possibilities of all sorts of people, in spite of the pioneering success in all these dimensions of filmmakers such as Lee.
The situation is somewhat better than once it was in visual art, in literature, in music, though there are plenty of walls still to be breached. That it's not better in film, I think, has to do with the gigantic size and cost of the Hollywood film compared to most other art objects; you need gigantic hierarchies and a lot of wealth to make art like that, and those are where the power of us white people is still about the same as always.
It's one thing to reward or make superstars of specific people - I find it a little difficult to care very much about that. It's another thing to allow oneself to be challenged and changed in the encounter with other people's art; we should be trying to make that more and more likely.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He is the author of Political Aesthetics.