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.