Who gets to set the rules as to what defines quality in art? Sure, lots of artists have it tough; that’s why the phrase “starving artist” exists. But why do they starve in the first place? Because no matter how good they are, if their art isn’t considered good enough by the movers and shakers of the day, the public won’t even see the art in the marketplace.
In the western world, White men like myself have determined what is “quality art” since before the beginning of the Renaissance. Even today, it is those of my particular color and gender who determine what we get to see and hear, whether it’s on the big screen, the television screen, on the radio, on the computer monitor, in the museums, or on the bookshelves. Even when we sincerely believe ourselves to be socially progressive and use our influence and money to promote equality, we cannot self-adjust for our unconscious biases. It simply cannot be done.
Stephen King is Exhibit A, a social progressive who certainly uses his fame, influence, and money to promote equality. He seems to be a good and sincere man. The problem is, his tweet evinces that even he is often unaware of the role that unconscious bias — race, gender, sexual preference, and ethnicity — plays even in uber-liberal Hollywood.
The world of art consists not just of the artists and the critics whose opinions are rightfully feared but nonetheless crucial, but also of those who are involved in the crucial logistics of bringing the art to market e.g. producers, editors, sound mixers, set construction crews, computer artists, and so on. With the exceptions of those movie, television, and music studios who produce art meant to appeal to mainly nonwhite consumers, the world of art in Europe and the Americas is populated overwhelmingly by White people. What’s more, the vast majority of CEOs and decision makers are men.
This is what led to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag beginning in 2015, and to the almost-total dearth over the years of women being nominated for Best Director. Any group that is largely composed of one race or of one gender, no matter how hard that group strives to promote and support equal rights, cultural understanding, and inclusivity, cannot avoid racial or gender bias. Any group that has a lack of diversity cannot avoid implicit bias:
Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection. (Boldface mine)
—Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity
The detrimental effect of implicit bias is more deeply felt in one area more than any other: in our criminal justice system. In our nation’s better days, the Department of Justice recognized and was striving to address implicit bias and its concomitant injustice. For now, the wheel of justice seems to have begun to grind the wrong way: towards injustice, as if we’re on the downbeat of human history’s two-steps-forward-one-step-back progression.
No matter how hard we Progressives and Liberals strive to fight racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, and as long as the movers, the shakers, the CEOs, and the string-pullers are White men, the dice of progress will still be loaded for the benefit of Whites in general, and White men in particular. As the boldfaced phrase above implies, this is unavoidable.
The “why” is simple. The examples are legion, but for the sake of space, here’s four:
- we White people cannot know what it’s like to not be White like us;
- men cannot know what it’s like to be women;
- strictly-hetero people cannot know what it’s like to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual; and
- cis-gendered people cannot know what it’s like to be born transgender.
If avoidance for bias is crucial in order for the decision-makers to promote justice, achievement, and progress — not just within the world of art, but in every walk of life —then it is all the more essential for them to strive for diversity and inclusion. Otherwise, the determination of what is or is not worthy of consideration can never be free from bias.