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Looking for a certain ratio - click opera — LiveJournal
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Sun, May. 14th, 2006 11:03 am
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.

136CommentReply

cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 03:22 pm (UTC)

That photo with the monkey costumes is funny!


Which one are you?


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 03:25 pm (UTC)

And this post is a masterpiece of good reasoning. I agree 100%.


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henryperri
henryperri
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC)

I agree. A very reasonable post.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 03:38 pm (UTC)

Not that I really disagree but do you mean artistic talent before geographical origin?


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peripherus_max
peripherus_max
peripherus_max
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 03:45 pm (UTC)
Pandas in black and white and glitter.

The angry displaced ghosts of identity art reveal themselves on the steps of the Whitney to harrass Momus! In my opinion, the Guerilla Girls have never been artists. They are saavy marketers, however, milking the undergraduate lecture circuit on an outdated political one-liner for about 30 years. I think that it has something to do with the disporportionate number of lesbians with crushes on the Guerilla Girls teaching in art history departments across the nation. ;)

Nitsuh Ebebe is spot on about Stephen Merritt.

If you aren't already aware of artists Rob Pruitt and Jack Early, I'd like to direct you to their 1992 collaborations, which earned accusations of racism. Google their exhibition at Leo Castelli, "Red Black Green Red White and Blue Project," which included paintings and posters of well-known African Americans. I think it's very relevant, dare I say ahead of its time, especially now.


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iamcoreyd
C.T. Dalton
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 03:49 pm (UTC)

Let's see how many gay artists Hopper and Frere-Jones have in their favorites...


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:23 pm (UTC)

We live in a world where positive discrimination clearly is needed. OK, so it isn't fair, but neither is regular discrimination. I agree that you couldn't possibly see to every minority there is, and shouldn't , but I think you should try to strive for diversity. A long line of white males aren't diverse, no matter how glorious things they produce. Therefore I think there's room for the debate, even if it does tend to get a bit silly. The thought of diversity should be there when they make the choice. I don't think it would hurt the quality either.

BTW; is one of the monkeys trying to feel you up?

//
http://homepage.mac.com/produkt/


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giggomachine
Ivan
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)

that's absolute bullshit. an imperialist view. positive discrimination inherently calls attention to negative discrimination, and to concepts, such as race, sexual orientation, gender, that should theoretically have no impact on curatorial decisions. pandering to concerns of political correctness is even worse than concensus-based curatorial decisions. they make everything be completely bland and unexiting.
i find your comment 'patronizing and untruthful,' and, out of touch with the topic discussed. as a norwegian, white male artist, i would not really expect you to understand the intricacies of racial discourse in america, since most americans themselves don't understand it. and even the difference in understanding between different 'races' can be enormous. however, i still think your comment is a moot point, and a pretty misguided one as well: biennales are not about diversity, they are about quality in art.


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yhancik
yhancik
yanou
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:30 pm (UTC)

i don't always agree with what you write (still i read it with interest), but i couldn't agree more with what you said here

here (in belgium) we have imposed women-men parity on parties' list of candidates (at least 35% 3 years ago - 50% for the next elections), and i always felt something "wrong" with the fact that it was imposed

and you perfectly expressed what i was feeling uneasy about with your microcosm vs macrocosm idea


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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)

Since a political party should represent the poeple, anything but a true representation would a mockery. Do you really feel comfortable with a government of only men?

//
http://homepage.mac.com/produkt/


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:31 pm (UTC)

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.

Change "disabled" to "African-American" and "fully-abled" to "white".
Are you still as comfortable with your analogy?


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armoire_man
armoire_man
Ricardo non-Montalban
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)

I'm all for competent pilots being hired to replace incompetent ones.

'Certain Ratio' laws driven only by percentages of populace are so relentlessly simplistic as to wreak havoc, and little else.


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yanatonage
yanatonage
love you from the heart
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:42 pm (UTC)

"should there be as many murderers in an art show as there are in the general population? " I think you're taking the wrong ideas to their reductio ad absurdum, here. It's not that there is a "certain ratio" of black artists that are required, but that their scant presence reveals an implicit bias--which, at the very least, is embarasing, if not amoral. I believe Nitsuh's quote to be pretty spot on, but all it resolves is that having an enforcer of cultural preference is idiotic and reinforces the dominant class in another way. Yes, we all have cultural biases, but it would be nice if they were acknowledged.(not criminalized)


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Tue, May. 16th, 2006 03:22 am (UTC)

What proportion of active, non-male or non-white artists are aware of/intereseted in participating in the Biennial, versus the number of white male artists that were accepted? I think this would be the crucial question when establishing where things went wrong.


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:51 pm (UTC)

you should run for burgermeister. affectionate punch. pax man.


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antisyzygy
antisyzygy
antisyzygy
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 04:54 pm (UTC)
Quantitative vs. Qualitative, Aesthetician vs. Eustachian

What's disappointing about this episode, judging from Momus's account and the Slate article, is the low level at which music criticism is carried out: rather than engaging with Merritt's argument about hip-hop's use of stereotypes, Frere-Jones and Hopper rest their case on the most reductive quantitative arguments, along with some misrepresentation of Merritt's case. With music reviewers confined to short accounts of what's on a given recording, usually padded in any case with extraneous biographical and fashion-oriented comment, there's little space for anyone to articulate what they qualities music could have or should have. It might have been interesting to ask whether the artists on Merritt's preferred playlist escaped the stereotypes of their own cultural milieux. And I'm sorry to be such an unreconstructed aesthetician, but it's disappointing that neither side seems to be talking about music.

(Hilariously, when I try to say "aesthetician", Livejournal suggests "Eustachian.")


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ixzist
ixzist
Mark Jondahl
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC)

one person or group can't fix every inequality. you gotta pick your battles and do the best you can to make an improvement in society.

nice entry. i enjoyed it greatly.


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glassplastic
Emilio
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 05:14 pm (UTC)

it gets even more sticky when people come from less defined cultural regions. I'm a Puerto Rican who grew up in the American South and not lives in the North East (I also just visited the Whitney and ran into Momus). But I don't listen to much music made by Puerto Ricans. Nor by too many Southerners. At the moment I listen to a lot of British rock and roll, and hip hop from places other than America. Am I a self hating Puerto Rican Southern American for not listening to Puerto Rican sounding music made by people who grew up in the American south? And I also short changing my hispanic heritage by likeing South American writers instead of Carribean ones? Do black people who only like hip hop hate white people?

It's especially weird because this years Biennial is trying to have people from as many different cultures as possible. To me, it's more of a type of art that the Whitney likes: it likes art that comes from an upper class point of view. Even if the artists are dirt poor like I am, I'm going to assume they care highly about art, writing, music - usually concerns of an upper class. And more people in the upper class are white males, or at least the ones who have the time to do art. For better or worse, art needs free time to be made, and we still live in a world where people of different classes have different amounts of free time.

For better or worse, everyone likes the Art they like "due to the quality of the art." If no one else on the planet listens to music by 50% males or 50% females, or the exact numbers of different races, why should curators?


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pop__kandy
pop__kandy
Mon, May. 15th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC)
excellent point.

There's a lot of assumption that your genes = your culture. I'm multiple-mixed-race, bilingual living in a multilingual city in a French province in North America, and I don't really cleave to any of my "genetic" or even "local" cultures. I've assembled my own cultural identity, like you based on a lot of British rock (that outsider mentality?)...a collage of things that appeal to me. I would still call myself a Canadian though, because postmodern collage seems to be our defining national characteristic.


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 05:21 pm (UTC)

i don't like to get into this argument too much because it's terribly sticky and i find my logic gets muddled somewhere along the way...
but as an example, at my art collective we're presently trying to find 3 new housemates. we've decided, after ample debate time, to reserve 2 of these spots for women to maintain a more balanced gender ratio. the next item brought to the table was whether in the absence of enough suitable women, we should play the diversity card and try to select someone who was of varying ethnicity or sexual orientation.

but this seems slippery to me. sure, we have a few candidates that are VERY queer or VERY black and reflect these things in their art [which in each case does not IMO make their art better]...but then there are issues such as...i'm half southeast asian. my boyfriend is half mexican. we could both probably pass as white. neither of us are entirely straight, and we both have "hidden" disabilities that while not requiring wheelchairs or the like factor into our daily quality of life. as candidates, there's also, say, a visibly white individual who plays in a famous afro-caribbean band. does that make her more diverse? what about playing in a gamelan? being raised in Russia?

i guess my point is just that aiming for diversity can be messy. i don't know...i think that selections for our art collective should be based foremost on the yes, quality of art, as well as how viable it seems that we can LIVE with the individual.

also i feel bad for Stephin Merritt.


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malejested
malejested
j
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC)
absolutely

Using diversity as a lone qualifying factor could result in some very messy living situations.


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jasongtokyo
jasongtokyo
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 05:28 pm (UTC)

Has there never been an exhibition of note where the works were chosen without knowing who the artists were?

I suppose it could lead to a situation like that in horror anthology Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (the "Disembodied Hand" segment), where an eminent art critic played by Christopher Lee is made a monkey after praising a piece actually painted by...a monkey.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 14th, 2006 05:32 pm (UTC)

Maybe that's what happened to the Gorilla Girls!


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