Why Contemporary art is obsessed with the politics of race, gender and ethnicity

“Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?”

A response to Wall Street Journal article by Sohrab Ahmari located here.


“When all culture is reduced to group identity and grievance,
tyranny is around the corner.”


This is both an astute and compelling statement. But then ever has it been so. Even the Wall Street Journal tends to represent a certain economic oligarchical perspective. The history of art is no more the history of beauty and justice than has been the history of humankind itself.  The history of humanity has predominantly been a history of tyranny. At least from its origins in river valley civilizations, art’s function was predominantly to deify those in secular power. Beauty was not so much its priority as was intimidation. Art largely existed within a cultural context in which secular authority was divinely ratified and the purpose of much of art throughout history has been to remind audiences of this fact. As civilized people, we went from worshipping nature, to worshipping its personifications, to worshipping ruling elites who appropriated allegedly divine auspices to legitimize their secular authority. Art served to focus the viewers’ attention on the religious and secular dogma being proffered.

In the contemporary imagination, Michelangelo’s statue of David with its idealistically rendered Apollonian figurative perfection, has for many come to represent perhaps the definitive icon of beauty. But though its beauty was from its origins considered marvelous, the figure of David also had an important political connotation for the citizens of Florence.  The Florentines of the Renaissance viewed their city as an underdog up against its neighboring city state rivals like Rome or Milano which would have been considered to be the political and military Goliaths of the era. Michelangelo’s sculpture represented the Florentine sense of its own political identity, idealized, outgunned and defiantly resistant.  The symbolism of David provided both secular identity and Divine auspice to the citizens of Florence and served to ratify the legitimacy of the city’s leadership, a cohort led by the Medici who were not entirely disinclined to tyranny themsleves. To erect such a confidently imposing, if somewhat ironically scaled figure, was a way for Florentines to appropriate the status of a Divinely chosen people destined to prevail against overwhelming odds.

While the creating of effigies has from time immemorial been a metaphysical practice associated with sympathetic magic, as civilization emerged, art’s metaphysical function became more and more conflated with social and political propaganda, usually with the generous fig leaf of religious auspice. Interestingly, there isn’t a lot of extent ancient literature that deals with the subject of beauty.  Not until the Greeks does this seem to become a rhetorical priority.  Each society has had its version of artistic “canon” but even this term has a connotative meaning that confers at least a quasi-religious aegis.  It implies that imagery which falls outside its parameters is somehow heretically suspect, or at least of dubious legitimacy.

In virtually every society throughout history, artistic canon has been secularly regulated, this was particularly the case during the Medieval and Renaissance periods of European history.  Not surprisingly, the terms of that regulation were authoritarian and reaffirmed the secular power of the political establishment of the period. Predictably, that secular authority tended to rest on appropriated religious auspices. Even in the modern case of Soviet Socialist Realism, that art canonical dogma tended to be derived along fanatical if materialist lines accompanied with all the iconographic accoutrements of an Akkadian cult of ruling personality. It is a relatively modern phenomenon to even consider the function of art outside this quasi-religious political rubric.

With the rise of Humanism, so too came the rise of the cult of beauty.  The elite had always sought out the finest craftsmen to articulate their propaganda and art from its pre-civilized origins had to some extent functioned as a metaphysical oracle. But the oracular power of a work of art was not always predicated on its beauty. It is comparatively recently in human history that beauty came to be perceived as an indicator of metaphysical relevance.  It is with the rise of individualism that this very personal mode of artistic experience became more pertinent.

It could be argued that the very concept of “art” as the term is commonly used is a byproduct of Eurocentric patriarchy.  While people of all cultures and ethnicities have historically fabricated imagery, it has only been in modern times in which that imagery has begun to occupy the role it currently has in the individual imagination. Had it not been for the emergence of the merchant middle class, one might argue that discussions about sculpture, painting and other forms of imagery would still be largely the exclusive domain of craftsmen, clerics and politicians.

With the democratization of the artistic experience came the emerging democratization of its messages and hence of its canon.  The contemporary artistic canon is undeniably a cacophony and its chaotic din might quite understandably make one nostalgic for a more ordered and hence more comprehensible age.  But it is no more politicized than it has ever been. Even during the relatively brief period between the New International Style and the rise of Modernism, as beauty, reason and personal aesthetic epiphany became more relevant, it might be the case that this set of priorities was a luxury of socioeconomic class.

Art tends to reflect the values of the society that produces and consumes it. To the degree to which that society is obsessed with the negotiation of the dynamics of secular power, then so too should its art be expected to reflect that fact.  We are living during period in which imperial power structures that reigned for millennia have begun to fragment, though much of their legacy still remains.  The negotiations of power in the current generation tend to prioritize race, ethnicity and gender because these are the legacy of a postcolonial period.  It was that largely Eurocentric society which dictated these terms when it decided to dispense justice along nationalistic, racial, ethnic and gender lines.  Admittedly, ethnicity has been historically associated with imperial identity since empires first emerged in the aforementioned river valleys. But with the rise of the nation state, that ethnicity and genderization became formalized and codified in an ever more secular context that provided it the auspice of reason rather than metaphysic. Unlike the metaphysical auspice, reason tended to lend itself to discourse and challenge. This would make any rational aegis subject to political contention.

From an examination of the entirety of the history of art, one could derive that the politics of power have been the greater priority than the pursuit of any personal epiphany derived from beauty. So if, in the contemporary era, this seems to be art’s preoccupation then this should not be surprising.  What perhaps some might find disruptive is that the terms by which this dynamic of power are currently being dictated tend to be slightly less according to the priorities of the established power structure that is the legacy of Eurocentric empire.  As more voices emerge, they tend to be inclined to identity advocacy for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.

There is a fine line between advocating for justice and seeking personal power through group hegemony. Likewise, there is a fine line between moral consciousness raising and mere exploitative appropriation or simply self serving sanctimony.  There can also be an equivalently minuscule distinction between bonafide aesthetics and mere political correctness. Aesthetic discourse is quite difficult but politically correct cliché is much easier and predictably more ubiquitous.  Aesthetics requires a mastery of comprehension of the artisanal craft and the metaphysical invocation as well as the political context; whereas PC cliché only requires the affectation of one of these priorities and not even bonafide expertise in it.

Throughout history, there has been a plethora of mediocrely conceived and crafted imagery much like there has been a plethora of charlatanism masquerading as oracular illumination or a plethora of political regimes commissioning glorification of their tyrannical reigns.  In the contemporary era, that tyranny is evidently the dictatorship of a kleptocratic plutocracy of college educated bourgeoisie who consolidate oligarchic authority in their aegis as keepers of the contemporary artistic canon. That cohort is, somewhat paradoxically, obsessed with political correctness around the rhetoric, if not the substance, of what it euphemistically calls “diversity.” But this is itself a Eurocentric preoccupation, a seeking of absolution from mere rhetorical self-flagellation and, hence, the continuing legacy of imperialism in yet another idiom.

While the discussion of the history of politics and power in the creation of artistic canon is an absolutely essential one, (and I confess, somewhat of an obsession of mine) this is not to conclude that all or even most of what is proffered along these lines is itself constructive in either bringing a more culturally objective optic to the artistic canon or to creating a more just and harmonious society. We must recognize the inherent inequity in the process of canonization but this inequality will not be corrected by tokenism, cliché rhetoric or by political fashion trends.  What is required is bonafide mutual cultural initiation. This comes from immersion and not from periodic canned experiences. Genuine multiculturalism will not be created by mere gender tourism or ethnic exoticism. In a world of cynicism, it is sometimes contemporary art’s inauthenticity, its lack of either intellectual credulity or ethical credibility that makes so much of the current crop of identity obsessed art seem so disingenuous, so self serving, so banal and sanctimonious.

Genuine aesthetic communication rests on empathy between the artist and the viewer. If art is to maintain some intrinsic cultural relevance then the audience indeed needs to be broadened. With that broadening of the audience must also come a broadening of the messages and the identity of the messengers as well, even at the risk of a disquieting cacophony. But ideally, each artist would be endeavoring to expand that empathic communication to edify as wide a range of humanity as possible. If artists are to speak with their audience rather that merely at it, then they should seek to find at least a point of common ground on which to plant that seed of empathy.

If however, artists are satisfied preaching to a choir, or worse, merely seeking hegemony for their own identity group, then art will remain in its more traditional role as yet another weapon through which power is attained by the ambitious and tyrannically wielded to dominate its politically manipulated audience.