The Effects of Cultural Hierarchy on Diversity in the Arts

As many U.S. cities transition into majority minority metropolises and Baby Boomers age, the homogeneity of America’s so-called "Cultural Omnivores" will have dire consequences for the arts and culture sector in its current incarnation. Increasing diversity — of programming, of audiences, of the workforce — is not simply desired, it’s required and many cultural institutions are investigating the best ways to do so.

Yet, the discussions around increasing diversity in the arts and culture sector often ignore the linchpin — the false hierarchies that govern the arts; the divide between “high” and “low” culture. Even the National Endowment for the Arts, with its mission to provide “all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation” utilizes the term “benchmark arts” to refer to a limited number of genres (jazz, classical music, opera, musical or non-musical plays, ballet and art museums/galleries). It is telling that the national organization entrusted with safeguarding access to the arts utilizes a term that connotes exclusion.

The arts and culture are historically powerful drivers of progress, yet many of the institutions created to buoy them are stagnant. The past is privileged and the benchmark arts are often frozen in time, in spite of the culture sector’s recent attempts to advance participation. Only when art forms that are not anointed by the cultural establishment are legitimized in public perception, when innovation is permitted to truly thrive, from stage to studio, administrative office to boardroom, when Big Culture values listening as much as instruction, will holistic diversity in the arts and culture sector be possible.

Our stale contemporary concepts of cultural hierarchy are derived from long since debunked Victorian pseudo-scientific ideas and pervasive ethnocentrism. There is a deeply ingrained cultural mythology that privileges Western European art and culture and ancient Near Eastern artifacts as sophisticated, and positions the ethnic, unorthodox and, especially, that which appeals to the masses as fickle trend or guilty pleasure. This is reinforced by many government funded arts and cultural organizations.

As American culture developed in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, art and culture were infused with a spirit similar to that witnessed on social media today: one that was open. Open to participation by professionals and amateurs, to unorthodox interpretations, and to a confluence of styles, languages, and eras.

Eventually, new world elites sought to elevate their status by designating certain elements of culture as “high” or “fine” and insisting that they are sacred, perfect and godly, and should be revered as such. Other forms of creative expression were disregarded by this benchmarking group, as base and pagan.

Many of our most beloved cultural institutions were built by Industrialist philanthropists, who used their cultural contributions to cement their social standing and posthumous legacies. They created a world after their own (desired) image. It is a beautiful world, but we must remind ourselves that it’s not only within these parameters that beauty lives. High culture is not the authority on beauty and doesn’t have the right to dictate what defines it.

What all cultural institutions should provide is access to a variety of perspectives for the public to peruse. Suggestions for how to dismantle the dubious cultural hierarchy to advance sustainable diversity follow.

1. Hit the Streets

Popular exhibits set attendance records consistently at major cultural institutions. Why not continue to break down barriers, through the exploration of pop culture in the houses of high culture, by going beyond fashion, alternative music and art house films? What if symphonic electronica was presented alongside the symphony, in hits hallowed halls? If opera incorporated rhythm and blues or punk? If literary readings and rap battles shared the stage?

Arts and cultural institutions need to plant roots where the people are. It may be possible to combat the dearth of arts education in middle, working class and poor neighborhoods by bringing the arts to cities’ best traveled thoroughfares. What if, for example, there was a subway series of performances that brought Carnegie Hall underground, and encouraged spontaneous riffing with street performers and commuters?

2. Cultivate Mass Appreciation and Mass Communication

When it comes to art and culture, Good Taste is often associated with an affinity for the obscure, the arcane and the out-of-reach to most. Even in popular culture, the most coveted experiences today are “boutique”, “small batch”, “limited edition”. Mass appeal is frowned upon, to our collective detriment. The natural push and pull between communal and individual needs provides fodder for exploration. Art can tap into these desires, while simultaneously being shared widely. Instead of telegraphing “this is not for you”, imagine the possibilities that could be realized by encouraging people to experience culture “as interpreted by you”.

3. Art is Everywhere. Art is Everything.

In a recent prank, an Ikea print was displayed in a Danish house of fine art. The subsequent, self-congratulatory commentary on the trick fell into two camps: those who scoffed at the ridiculousness of the art world and those who lauded their certain abilities to discern authentic art. Both groups laughed at those who praised the print. But, why is this funny? Why can’t the print be art? Why is it okay to laugh at another’s interpretation of an artwork, if not to elevate one’s self-perception as an arbiter of high culture?

The focus should not be on how art and culture make us look, but how they help us to feel. Imagine if accessibility to scientific innovation was based on hierarchy. Now imagine what the world will be like, when access to the arts and culture is more egalitarian.

4. Explore “Enemy” Territory

We need to go beyond the idea of participatory, to transform cultural sites into places to experience and examine wholesale, not places to exalt a particular point of view or group of people.

Complaints about the depths of low culture (Kardashians, etc.) can be combated by encouraging the creation of artistic output, without the constraint of antiquated expectations. What is it about tabloid culture, reality television and social media that is so addictive? How can the arts and culture capture interest in ways that are similarly broad?

The cultural sector may have shortsightedly missed out on the rise of the internet, but the accessibility of digital technology should be an inspiration. We are all witness to the way innovation builds on itself in that space, and artists and culture bearers have a vantage point from which to critique our technology-dominant times and use its tools to chart new creative territory.

5. Listen Up

Access in under-served communities is one issue, but it is also important to acknowledge the varied interests of the constituents served by arts and cultural organizations, and the fact that what’s offered and what’s desired may not be aligned. Education is part of it, but you must pique curiosity first. Bring people in by acknowledging the validity of their experiences and interests, and challenge them to view the world anew.

6. Re-evaluate Restrictive Financial Models

The non-profit, philanthropy-dominated financial model favored by the arts and cultural sector actively discourages diversity: it is too dependent on the directives of the gatekeepers of high culture and too insular. If arts and cultural organizations are not able to offer competitive salaries and do not post their job openings via highly visible channels, they won’t attract the best talent from the broadest pool of candidates. If arts and cultural organizations do not have the complete freedom to implement programming (and important hiring decisions), how will diverse perspectives ever be acknowledged? If “by invitation only” grant application processes remain in place, how can not benchmarked, obscure arts and culture practitioners be expected to thrive in the non-profit structure. If changes aren’t made to the financial structure of the industry organizations, the arts and culture sector will be pushed into further irrelevance from the daily lives of most Americans.

While the American cultural hierarchy was being established, Walt Whitman warned against culture “restricted by conditions ineligible to the masses”. In that spirit, it’s not enough to democratize access. We must democratize perception. Today, even popular culture is suffused with the same high/low divide and barriers to entry and cultural gatekeepers are anointed. We are witnessing the repercussions of tearing these incredibly valuable resources apart. It’s only by once again fusing bonds between expressive genres that the arts and culture will achieve thriving, sustainable diversity of audiences and experiences.

Culture is constant change and flow, and this must be acknowledged, accepted and embraced. As we have seen, naming is a source of power. The arts and culture sector tends to be afraid of challenging the historic or revered categories, and have become stuck. We need to defy the status quo and change the way we talk about, and define, art and culture and permit perceptions to evolve along with them.

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