imomus (imomus) wrote,

Looking for a certain ratio

Last week saw a stupid thunderstorm popping in a stupid teacup. A crusade, campaign or witchhunt alleging racism on the part of Stephin Merritt came to a head when Slate published an article by John Cook entitled Blacklisted: Is Stephin Merritt a racist because he doesn't like hip-hop?

The charges were levelled by two journalists, Sasha Frere-Jones (New Yorker) and Jessica Hopper (Chicago Reader), and they've been taking pops at "cracker" Merritt for a couple of years now. What brought the latest round of allegations to a head was Merritt's appearance on a panel at the Experience Music Project conference (EMP) themed around "guilty pleasures", in which Merritt said he liked the song "Zippedy Doo Dah" from the Disney musical "Song of the South". Hopper understood Merritt to say that he liked the whole musical (now widely considered stereotypical and filled with "Uncle-Remusisms"), when in fact he'd said quite the opposite, that he liked just this one song, and thought the rest of the musical was terrible.

He's also on record as saying that he likes "the first two years of rap" but thereafter finds that it plays into the worst stereotypes of black behaviour. But what mostly seems to have annoyed Hopper and Frere-Jones, and started their witch-hunt, is that Merritt didn't include enough black artists in a personal Top 100 list he published back in 1999, shortly after the release of "69 Love Songs".

"Explain to me" asked Frere-Jones on his blog "why you wouldn't be a little bit nervous, upset even, to read a music critic who lives in New York City draw a map of the 20th century that seemed so intent on diminishing or excluding the work of African-American musicians? Is distress such an odd reaction? Mean words aside?"

Musicians weighed in on the side of Merritt: "Picking on a tiny Southern queer for his music tastes and calling him a "cracker" is about as stupid as criticism can get", said Steve Albini. "I don't feel that Stephin made any racist remarks whatsoever and find this whole thing pretty jacked up," said Drew Daniel of Matmos, who was on the same EMP panel. Bowing to this pressure (and a lot of flame-mail in their in boxes), Frere-Jones and Hopper have since apologized, in rather mean-spirited and qualified ways, to Stephin Merritt.

But I find their whole premise fascinating: let's call it the "Certain Ratio Fallacy". I came across another example of it yesterday when I ran into feminist activists the Guerilla Girls shooting a video at the door of the Whitney Museum. The gorilla-suited art stars (they commanded the first room at the Venice Biennale last year, filling it with agit prop posters containing stats on the percentage of women artists shown in major museums) were asking visitors how many women were featured in the Biennial.

They interviewed me, and I expressed some perplexity with the idea that, like some sort of fractal, every microcosm in American life should feature the exact same proportions as the macrocosm; that there should be a little representative picture of the population demographics of the whole country in every exhibition, and every playlist, and every institution. The Guerilla Girls replied that I hadn't understood: they weren't advocating an exact duplication in art shows of the percentages of women in America, just something approaching the 50% figure. It seems a reasonable argument, but it's very problematical.

First of all, what is the criterion for inclusion in an art show? Surely we'd all agree that it should be that one makes great art. Gender or race should be irrelevant. Imagine how disappointed a black or female artist would be to learn that she'd only been included in an art exhibition "to make up the numbers" or "to represent the wider demographics of this country". Such tokenism would, I hope, occasion fury. Secondly, the worlds of art and entertainment have a complex relationship to everyday life: quite often these worlds invert all the values of the outside world. (This leads into a point Stephin Merritt has often made about "minstrelsy"; a racist world loves a minstrel show, and will grant black entertainers all the indulgences, onstage, it denies black people offstage.) Thirdly, affirmative action always has victims in a world where positions to be filled are limited. A policy demanding that 10% of jet pilots be disabled (because 10% of Americans are disabled) would result in a number of fully-qualified, fully-abled pilots ending up on the scrapheap, hunting for other jobs.

Asked why the 2005 Greater New York show at PS1 contained only 53 women artists out of a total of 160, curator Klaus Biesenbach replied "Any discrepancy is due to the quality of the art." A blogger called Roberta Fallon exclaimed "I'm sorry, but do I hear an echo of Harvard President Lawrence Summers implying that the natural inferiority of women is the reason there are not more of them in the sciences? Is Biesenbach implying women naturally make inferior art? I don't suppose it could be that male curators have a pre-disposition to like what male artists are making and see art by men as, well, better quality because it's made by, well, you know, a man?"

Let's situate Biesenbach: like Merritt, he's a gay man. I think this is important. One of the most intelligent comments in the I Love Music debate about the Merritt Cracker affair came from a black man, Pitchfork writer Nitsuh Ebebe, and concerned precisely this question of situation as a means of avoiding what I call Pompous Universalism:

"Why are we concerned that a middle-class white person might have tastes that align with middle-class white idioms?" asked Nitsuh (whose screen name is Nabisco). "Why is this any different than pointing out that Jay-Z grew up in a Brooklyn project and has tastes that come from a particular hip-hop idiom and culture? I mean, to put it bluntly, I feel like white people often try to make themselves neutral, to kind of run down their own particular experience and culture as non-experience and non-culture -- often (maybe) out of fear that admitting they have a culture means further dominating everyone else's, further oppressing everyone else's. They want to step out of the game and act as neutral parties observing everyone else's culture. But that's even worse, because it puts them in an even more dominant position, and a patronizing and untruthful one, too."

Nitsuh hits the nail on the head. Exhibitions or playlists that attempt to "represent" demographics by means of "certain ratios" are "pompously universalistic". They set themselves up as metonyms, reparations, microcosms instead of subjective and situated selections. They also presuppose a social model, a "big picture" in which everyone in a society is integrated, represented according to their numbers rather than by their vision, their ambition, their aptitudes. And they propose institutions or individuals as big daddies, authorities who must be shouted at by Oedipal little lobby groups, rival siblings each demanding more for their special interest.

How many Native Americans were in the Whitney Biennial, and why aren't the Guerilla Girls concerned about that? What if you're Native American and male? Does that make your maleness more forgiveable? Should we include negative traits in our search for "a certain ratio" -- should there be as many murderers in an art show as there are in the general population? And should the same principle apply to negative contexts: should there be as many women in prison as men? Which victim hat will I wear today, in order to get into a show, or a playlist, which says "These are good artists"?

"Looking for a certain ratio," Brian Eno sang in his song The True Wheel, "someone must have left it underneath the carpet". Best place for it, if you ask me.

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