The Arts and Social Justice: Bedfellows?
Insisting that art serve social justice is a narrow vision of what art is meant to—and can—do.
The fate of the arts in the United States was a worrisome topic even before STEM and social media, even before the pandemic—and even before many people, understandably impatient with chronic injustice and inequality, began insisting that arts institutions necessarily serve as instruments for social justice. In the resulting tumult of voices, dialogue has died—it seems impossible to converse.
Take, for instance, the recent controversy at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance: a prominent composer, Bright Sheng, has been temporarily relieved of teaching responsibilities because students petitioned for his termination. Sheng shared with his composition class Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s Othello. As anyone who remembers this 1965 film will recall, Olivier not only uses dark make-up to emulate a Moorish general; being Olivier, he also elaborately alters his pronunciation, vocal registration, and gestural vocabulary. The protesting Michigan students considered his performance an odious exercise in blackface.
Personally, I find Olivier’s Othello unwatchable, but I would not presume to condemn it as racist. In any event, this accusation is certainly discussable—and the history of blackface performance, which long predates Shakespeare, would be a worthwhile point of reference. Yet it seems apparent that no pedagogical effort will be made—either to suggest other ways of reading Olivier’s intentions, or to suggest other ways of responding to Sheng’s decision to show the film. At least, that’s my impression, having spoken to members of the Michigan faculty, as well as others in the scholarly community with pertinent knowledge.
If a conversation with the students isn’t possible, what is there to talk about? Might a discussion become feasible at the top? Consider those charitable foundations that have decided to stop funding the arts, or to only fund arts activities that explicitly promote diversity, equality, and justice. This is the reductionist notion that has steered philanthropic giving away from traditional “high culture.” There are good arguments for doing that—and also plausible reasons to regroup. And there exists an influential document worthy of reconsideration: “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change,” a forty-page 2011 report of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Widely circulated among arts funders and advocacy groups, the report was a key catalyst in supporting “High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy”—a veritable volte-face in giving that has mightily impacted performing arts institutions and museums.
Having pondered “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change” and conferred about it with people in the know, I am left with the impressions I share below.
Art holds a mirror up to society. Therefore, it is not surprising there is such a long tradition of artists concerned with social justice.… In fact, the artist who at some time has not wrestled with the theme of justice in society is an exception.
This claim by Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Kentucky’s Roadside Theater, heads the introduction to “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change.” Is the artist who “has not wrestled with the theme of justice in society” truly an exception? Think of an important 20th-century painter—say, Mark Rothko—and chances are he or she is not a fit. Or consider the most influential 20th-century composer, Igor Stravinsky. Or America’s preeminent 20th-century novelist, William Faulkner. To be sure, the American South so ruthlessly depicted in Faulkner’s fiction is a place festering with glaring injustice. But Faulkner is no John Steinbeck, advocating for the poor. He would not fit the funding guidelines at hand.
Few would dispute the report’s basic premise that America is smoldering with inequities. And persons of color are undeniably underrepresented in the life of culture. But new correctives have inflicted collateral damage. A zero-sum game exacerbates divisions that already rip the social fabric.
A representative instance, personally known to me: Ari Roth, a major figure in political theater in Washington, D.C., in 2020 felt compelled to resign from his own Mosaic Theater in the wake of a mandated sabbatical. Roth was accused of “White supremacist behavior and management practices,” including “micromanagement,” “perfectionism,” and “worshipping the written word.” Among Roth’s transgressions was opposing a mea culpa posted by his Mosaic Theater colleagues in support of a nationwide theatrical initiative, “We See You, White America.” The pertinent Mosaic declaration read in part, “We have programmed without consistent cultural competency, leading to harm of audience members and artists.…We have upheld white leadership to the detriment of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] artistry and expertise.”
But insisting that plays, paintings, and symphonies expressly serve social justice quite obviously risks marginalizing the arts by erasing part of what they stand for. What is more, it is oftentimes a trap to justify the arts based on such practical benefits as social reform and economic impact. Last year I had the opportunity to watch a South Korean production of Beethoven’s Fidelio and discovered that, even in a flawed streamed performance, it retains immediacy as a paean to humanity, to love and mutual understanding. Because Fidelio fails to deal with race or inclusivity or diversity, because it belongs to a Western canon of operatic masterpieces, its universality is suddenly under attack. And yet I cannot imagine a more timely cathartic experience in the theater.
Before the calamitous Great War, Americans typically applied a moral criterion to the arts. It was a keynote of the “genteel tradition” that all great art shed sweetness and light—that it uplift the soul. Beethoven was the lodestar. When the Wagner juggernaut took off in the 1880s, the moral criterion was challenged but survived—because, for Americans, uplift was what Wagner was about. Then came Richard Strauss and Salome—and the aesthetic crisis of modernism. Worse: Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were music lovers. Today, the moral function of art—its capacity to engender fellowship, deep feeling, high purpose—no longer seems a necessary function. But I rather doubt that Fidelio inspired Nazi audiences.
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The best known cultural donors—Boston’s Henry Higginson and Isabella Stewart Gardner; New York’s J.P. Morgan, Henry Frick and Augustus Juilliard … among many others—were different from those who organized their endeavors through general-purpose foundations.… The kinds of assets they often devoted to their institutions—collections of art and homes or museums that housed them—led them to pursue very discrete philanthropic goals, if indeed their goals can be described as ‘philanthropic’ in the ways many of their contemporaries were beginning to use the word.
This second claim from “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change,” attributed to James Allen Smith, vice president and director of research and education at the Rockefeller Archive Center, again challenges understanding. Back in 1934, Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons popularized a Marxist cartoon of rich snobs plundering America during the Gilded Age. The same snobs became important philanthropists: Carnegie, Ford, Frick, Hearst, Mellon, Morgan, Rockefeller.
Forty-eight years later, a pivotal interpretation of Gilded Age cultural institutions, Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, introduced the kindred notion of “social control.” Trachtenberg discerned “the wish for a conspicuous display of philanthropy on the part of wealthy donors, and for status on the part of the gentry, for whom the custodianship of culture provided desirable opportunities for noblesse oblige.” The resulting aesthetic experience embodied an “anti-democratic bias,” a “hierarchy of values corresponding to a social hierarchy of stations or classes.”
In truth, Trachtenberg’s analysis was just an ideological hunch on the left: his book did not study a single institution of culture. Had he scanned the early history of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, he would have discovered that—stereotypes notwithstanding—at no time in its history was the Met less “socially controlled” than at its inception. Beginning in 1884—a year after opening—it housed an embattled standoff between affluent WASP boxholders/owners and impassioned Wagnerites from lower social climes.
One sequel to The Incorporation of America was Lawrence Levine’s still influential Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988), in which Henry Higginson—the first name on James Allen Smith’s list—is interpreted as an embodiment of Trachtenberg’s social control model. Higginson’s central philanthropic acts were creating, owning, and operating an orchestra and building a proper home for its performances. These were the Boston Symphony and—an acoustical marvel purposely eschewing boxes and other signatures of class hierarchy—Symphony Hall. According to Levine, Higginson was a Brahmin baronial overlord, the Boston Symphony being his fiefdom and its musicians his slaves.
In fact, Higginson was not even Boston-born. As a music student in Vienna, he was so poor he could not afford three meals a day. Following heroic service in the Civil War, he undertook restarting a dormant five-thousand-acre Georgia plantation with a workforce of freed Blacks. When that failed, he went into banking for the sole purpose of amassing sufficient capital to realize his life-long ambition. Notwithstanding its vigorous concert life, Boston lacked a permanent concert orchestra, let alone a world-class orchestra, which is what Higginson single-handedly proceeded to invent. His Boston Symphony template included “public rehearsals” for which all tickets would cost twenty-five cents, and the reservation of a generous allotment of twenty-five-cent tickets for all subscription concerts—innovations so radical that Boston’s existing orchestras complained of being driven out of business. Could Higginson’s goals “be described as ‘philanthropic’”? I would call him the most colossal philanthropic force in the history of American music.
And yet the “social control” stereotype endures. Its false face supports the notion that “high art” is static—and “paternalistic” and “elitist.” As he was for Theodor Herzl, formulating his Zionist manifesto, Wagner was for W.E.B. Du Bois a liberating experience, a lesson in cultivating a Volk inheritance; “men need places where they can renew their strength,” Du Bois wrote of visiting the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. For the formidable Black concert composer Nathaniel Dett, Dvořák’s American Quartet evoked the guiding voice of his departed grandmother, “calling across the years.” No enduring artwork conveys a fixed meaning.
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This is a heated, emotional moment. Because it is so powerful we will naturally get good results and an over-reaction that will bring some good people down and many bad ones, too.… I think we stay back—tread lightly because of the added pressure of cancel culture, and let it shake out a bit. Some great outcomes, such as more opportunity for diverse voices to be heard and rise up, will hopefully prevail and the harsher components will evaporate.
This prognosis, shared with me by a leading member of the foundation community, at least acknowledges a problem some others refuse to see. Apart from the dynamics described here, however, there is a larger crisis, more pervasive and less obvious: the arts may be fading from the American experience. It is my fear, and that of many others, that this will become obvious too late. Predictions that things will go back to “normal” assume a normality that could dissipate.
Another prominent participant in the world of charitable foundations offered me this reassuring prognosis: “High culture will always be around. It will adapt. It will find a way.” A musician of consequence privately responds, “Everybody involved [in this prognosis] basically lacks experience in the arts, even if they don’t realize it. They just don’t know what they’re missing. So for them the issue is ‘relevance.’ Therefore let’s change the art.”
I regularly hear from other such silenced voices—a multitude of creative and performing artists who fear reprisal if they speak out loud.
The foundations are pitting the arts community against itself.
Foundations today are behaving as blunt instruments.… To me, the most profound fallacy is the notion that there’s not enough money to do both—to serve social justice concerns and to maintain contact with our past cultural pillars.
I believe the foundations are engaged in a form of blackmail. The way to get other people to even consider your point of view is not by legislating morality. It disrespects the power of religion, or of art—if you believe that art has the power to bring people together. In the case of evangelicals and today’s charitable foundations—they’re trying to alter the essential DNA of religion and of culture in order to prove ‘relevance.’
We are in a period of calling out and shaming—and the foundations are following the activists. Of course, you have to start somewhere, and certainly this is a starting point that will see results. People understand that. But it’s my impression that we’ll move from the understandable to the upsetting pretty quickly. We all know we can’t go back to the way things were. That doesn’t mean we should burn everything down. We must move forward in a more enlightened way, with greater understanding of how our structures caused harm.
You have to start somewhere. This is one of the most frequent arguments in favor of “checkbox diversity”—more faces of color onstage, in the boardroom, in the offices of orchestras, and of theater, dance, and opera companies. An early participant was the Manhattan School of Music, which in 2020 mandated that its every concert would include at least one composition by an African-American composer. But what music, specifically? Is it even a secondary consideration? This is a strategy that subordinates understanding.
The arts are thriving today in communities all across the United States. It all depends on where you look. Another version of the rejection of “high culture,” this assessment observes a surging political art, passionately fixed on issues of diversity and inclusivity. But is this sufficient for art to “thrive”?
Instead of the loaded high/low distinction, consider juxtaposing art that endures with art that proves transitory. To be sure, transitory art has its place. But cultural memory, when it sticks, is an indispensable source of ballast, whether personal, communal, or national. A crucial ingredient, increasingly elusive, is a usable past: roots in common. In fact, we can only escape the past—its sins and omissions—by embracing it. And this, traditionally, is a vital task for the creative artist in every field. It is part of what makes political art matter.
In the early, halcyon days of Soviet culture, Russian silent cinema produced seminal masterpieces like Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926) and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). Their radical ideological content rhymes with radical experimentalism. They extol the workers’ revolution and at the same time evoke a timeless poetic vision of Russian land—zemlya—Tolstoyan in intensity. Or consider the epic symphonies composed by Dmitri Shostakovich in the Thirties and Forties—progeny equally of the program symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and of the Soviet experiment. Shostakovich is both the charmed inheritor of a grand lineage and a “people’s artist” whose music consoled and inspired—and consoles and inspires still.
Next door to the United States, the Mexican experiment drew Aaron Copland, Paul Strand, Langston Hughes, and John Steinbeck across the border to witness how political art could be both rooted and revolutionary. Hot with indignation, preaching proletarian revolt, Diego Rivera’s murals were at the same time a product of assiduous study abroad. His mural aesthetic drew from the wall paintings he observed in Italy, and also connected to Mexico’s own venerable tradition of public religious art. His capacity to signify “Mexico” was anchored in past practice in two hemispheres.
Among Rivera’s Mexican contemporaries, Silvestre Revueltas—also an agitator on the left—was the most formidable political concert composer from the Americas. His sonic signature was grounded in the village bandas of his youth—their palpitating violins, shrill trumpets, and booming tubas. Absorbing Mexican enthusiasm for music as a component of daily life, Revueltas crafted an idiom that equally spoke to the oppressed and the cognoscenti.
The iconic film of the Mexican Revolution, Redes (1936), is a tale of exploited rural fishermen who unite and revolt. It marries a blistering Revueltas score with the cinematography of Paul Strand. Exemplifying propaganda as art, Redes is kindred to The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River, and The City—contemporaneous American documentaries on the left scored by Virgil Thomson and Copland (who reviewed Redes in the New York Times). But only Redes rises to the level of national portraiture; it actually warrants comparison with the highest achievements of Soviet film. Today it should become an object of study and instruction.
Does art serve social justice? Does social justice serve art? My own impression is that much of what today passes for politically aroused art fails to transcend journalistic agitation. It does not linger in the mind and heart. It does not furnish the ballast associated with great literature and music, paintings and sculpture. That equation is traditional. It may also be indispensable.
Joseph Horowitz’s latest book is Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, published in December in tandem with six Dvořák’s Prophecy documentary films he has produced for Naxos. Blog: www.artsjournal.com/uq
Image: Diego Rivera, Triumph of the Revolution, 1926
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