Alexander Adams: New Order – September 2017

Alexander Adams seeks to explain how identity politics, Feminism and New Criticism underpin the ideology of a generation of curators, and concludes by discussing the probable direction of the Tate under Dr Balshaw

An Allegory

Once upon a time there was a society which made objects that had meaning and that people enjoyed looking at. The society put these objects in museums so that more people could enjoy them. Then an elite of that society decided that the objects did not matter so much but the skin colour and reproductive organs of the object-makers mattered a lot. Displaying objects made by people of certain skin colours or possessing certain reproductive organs pleased other people and made them feel virtuous. The elite counted the numbers of museum objects made by people of certain skin colours or possessing certain reproductive organs. These statistics measured how virtuous the society was compared to other societies. More and more people were encouraged to visit the objects to display their virtue or to acquire virtue. The elite wanted all the people to visit the objects even though some people preferred to do other things. When the elite persuaded people of certain skin colours or possessing only small amounts of money to visit the objects, the elite said it made society better when actually all it did was make the elite feel less guilty. It was known that most people liked meaningful or beautiful objects but it was decided by the elite that the virtuous statistics were more important. The elite decided that people’s unhappiness about the elite using people’s money to buy for museum objects that were neither meaningful nor beautiful was caused by people not being virtuous enough. Some people thought the idea of virtuous statistics was silly but most of them did not say that because it would have been rude.

Murder Machines

This year a sculpture by Sam Durant entitled Scaffold was erected in a sculpture park managed by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The wooden sculpture juxtaposed elements of playground-activity structures and gallows. One minor aspect of Scaffold referred to the hanging of Dakota Native Americans in 1862 as part of struggles between the Dakota Nation and the American government. That reference had been missed until it was pointed out, at which time a campaign to remove the sculpture was begun by the Dakota. “This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry,” said a member of the Dakota Nation, equating Scaffold with an actual gallows that hanged members of the Dakota. In May the museum destroyed Scaffold and the artist renounced his work.

This year there was a protest by some black artists against the display at the Whitney Biennial of a painting of murdered black activist Emmett Till. Black activists lobbied to have the painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, removed as offensive and hurtful. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” said one protestor, claiming ownership and authority over the representation of a historical event.  

In these two cases, activists claimed ownership over aspects of history in order to suppress art works. In one case it resulted in the destruction of art. Pressure groups have noticed the weakness of curators, administrators and politicians and their unwillingness to protect art from censorship. Sympathetic towards notions of social justice, administrators sometimes submit to emotional blackmail by groups which demand censorship.  

Delacroix did not have to be Greek to paint Massacre at Chios; Sargent did not have to be either British or a combatant to paint Gassed; Callot did not seek approval of relatives of hanged men before publishing prints. These are iconic touchstones for appreciating events in world history, yet according to supporters of identity politics such art should not be made now. Groups should own their histories, curb free speech and suppress or destroy art deemed offensive. There was a time, not so long ago, when we derided Soviet agronomists’ dismissal of Mendelian genetics as “bourgeois” and Nazi ministers damning branches of science as “Jewish”, yet today art can be “too white and male”.


Identarianism (or identity politics) is a political belief system which has had huge influence over politics in Western countries for the last three decades. It sprang from New Left principles developed in the wake of failed attempts at revolution in 1968 and revelation of the atrocities and failures of Communism. It seeks to advance social justice and enforce relative equality through incremental advances in social capital of supposedly disadvantaged subsets such as women, ethnic and sexual minorities and so forth. There is commensurately punitive retraction of rights from supposedly advantaged groups such as men, white people and so forth.

Identarianism is essentially a political manifestation of Post-Modernism which acts by harnessing factional interests. In the same way Marxism co-opted movements of emancipation, workers’ rights, anti-clericism, anti-colonialism and so on, Identarianism gathers factional interests under the umbrella of Post-Modernist relativism by promising social justice.

Here are some tenets of Identarianism:

Every person has involuntary affiliations from birth (ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, family religion, etc.) and shares a common identity with other members of his or her subsets. These identity subsets are not generally mutable. (Mutability of gender and sexual orientation are controversial issues within Identarianism.) Subset identities necessarily form a strong part in determining one’s outlook. People do not have universal qualities (as in the Enlightenment model of universal rights) but have compound qualities derived from their subset identities. Equality is therefore relative not universal.

  1. Every person has involuntary affiliations from birth (ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, family religion, etc.) and shares a common identity with other members of his or her subsets. These identity subsets are not generally mutable. (Mutability of gender and sexual orientation are controversial issues within Identarianism.) Subset identities necessarily form a strong part in determining one’s outlook. People do not have universal qualities (as in the Enlightenment model of universal rights) but have compound qualities derived from their subset identities. Equality is therefore relative not universal.
  2. Subsets are subject to pervasive networks of personal, institutional and social prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage. This oppression is collective and endemic.
  3. Social, legal, political and financial power – and its converse – is heritable.
  4. Privilege and guilt is collective and heritable.
  5. Subset members have a right to demand redress or reparations for collective discrimination and oppression by oppressing subset(s).
  6. Subset members can work together to promote the fulfilment of their potential (called “equity”; see below) and to reduce power/privilege of other subsets. Subsets can work together to form tactical alliances in order to achieve social and legal change. Dialogue is power negotiation between inherently unequal subsets; compromise is acceptance of oppression.
  7. Identities are formed of multiple subsets and these overlapping definitions are described as examples of intersectionality.
  8. Some subsets experience more discrimination (or privilege) than others. This is (relatively) quantifiable. An individual’s position is determined by his or her specific intersectionality.
  9. Culture and language are sources of power/oppression and should be used to enact social justice. Social justice is either a) the relative equalisation of power/privilege of subsets or b) realisation of potential in unequal ways (see below).
  10. One cannot understand or judge members of another subset. A subset culture is unique and the experience of its members is unfathomable. Only members of a subset have the right to speak about the experience of members of that subset.
  11. It is injurious for a person to use or appropriate culture, history or language of another’s subset.
  12. One best understands – and is understood by – members of one’s own subsets. Each subset has a shared culture. It is not expected or encouraged for a person to form voluntary personal affiliations across subset boundaries except for purposes of temporary political action. Strong affiliation for another’s subset is akin to appropriation.
  13. Exercise of imagination, empathy and fantasy are opportunities for potential (even unconscious) prejudice, misapprehension and distortion to occur and should therefore be avoided.
  14. Any of the rules above can be broken to promote a subset, prove the truth of identity politics or to otherwise further the cause of Identarianism.

An example of rule 14 modifying rule 11 is that it would be fair for a black person to appropriate white Western culture because the black man is relatively disadvantaged. If a white man appropriates black culture this is an act of oppression. If a black man claims he is interested only in black art this is expected (rule 12). If a white man claims he is only interested in art by white men this is narrow-minded bigotry.

Never fast enough, never far enough

Identarianism is not a fuzzy warm principle of being nice to people and treating others equally – quite the contrary. It demands people be treated unequally. It divides people into subsets, classifies individuals’ worth minutely with matrices of privilege and social status, undercuts individuals’ autonomy and discourages (even curtails) individuals’ forming personal taste. It is incompatible with humanistic Enlightenment values. It accommodates factional interests and dehumanises opponents. It seeks to suppress free speech and free thought. Identarianism is dictatorial and dehumanising to its core; as an ideology it is riven by contradiction, hypocrisy and double-think. Identarianism is part nihilistic revolutionary movement, part narcissistic cult of selfhood, part religion of moral fury. It nurtures a culture of self-hatred, guilt and contempt for Western civilisation even – especially – among middle-class white people.

Look at the groups removing “politically objectionable” statues. Look at university-student mobs which shout down or assault public speakers. Look at student bodies which demand “safe spaces” and ban discussion as “hate speech”. This is Identarianism in its purest form, where it expresses the mentality and emotional tenor of even those who consider themselves moderates. Most activists do not fully understand the origins, tenets and implications of their ideology. No matter. Consider the Cultural Revolution, when commissars harnessed the anger of young idealists to instigate an orgy of righteous cultural destruction. Identarianism is not simply another way of viewing society, which can co-exist with other outlooks; it is an entity which has evolved to suppress opposition and destroy cultural expression.

Identarians do not have much time for old art because a) its artists and subjects do not reflect the demographic profile of today’s society; b) it rarely has a clear “socially progressive” message; and c) it resists co-option to Identarian aims. Beyond justifying the general Marxist declaration that spousal portraits and paintings of livestock and land constitute evidence of the capital classes recording possession of chattels, old art cannot be used to further social justice. This is, to be fair, an accurate assessment in purely political terms if one has didactic aims and no aesthetic, cultural or historical curiosity. If I were a curator in the Identarian movement, I would be consigning old art to the vaults and lobbying for deaccession rights.

To Identarians, when change seems so gradual and the historic burden so outrageous, implementation of affirmative action (including – unstated – quotas) seems not only desirable but necessary and those who will be disadvantaged by quotas are unavoidable collateral damage. Individuals who advocate caution are revanchists. For a firebrand who believes he or she is on the right side of history, change cannot come fast enough or go far enough.

New Criticism and Post-Modernism

To understand why Identarianism has such purchase inside the art world one needs to understand New Criticism.

New Criticism in art history is an outgrowth of Marxist analysis of culture. It produces socio-economic critiques of art production/reception and is driven by theory in the fields of women’s/black/queer/post-colonialist studies. New Criticism is leftist, more theoretical than historical and underpinned by French post-structuralist philosophy. New Criticism is at the core of most art-history university education, existing uneasily alongside traditional art history. A common strand in New Criticism is distrust of aesthetics, formalist analysis of art and anything that could be construed as connoisseurship. New Criticism, Post-Modernism and identity politics began in the late 1960s and developed in parallel and in symbiosis.   

New Criticism is predicated upon the fracturing of the consensus in Western values. Post-Modernism states that an infinite variety of perspectives and interpretations means consensus is both impossible and irrelevant. (“All values are relative” is an unqualified assertion of an unconditional truth which negates itself, but never mind.) Where all values are relative there can be no society-wide standards for appreciation and evaluation of art; hence the development of multiple strands within New Criticism, each with different concerns, languages and value systems. Whereas Modernist art was judged carefully in terms of its visual content, Post-Modernist art exists in a zone free of all formalist analysis; its appearance is not only inscrutable and illegible but actually arbitrary and meaningless in visual terms.

Nowadays many art critics, curators and theoreticians do not enjoy art; they do not like looking at art or discussing how it operates visually; New Criticism says that this is unimportant as only contextual power structures around art production and reception matter. This ideology breeds theoreticians with a positive disdain towards the visual qualities of art.  New Criticism and Identarianism are tools for identification of power structures and are antipathetic towards aesthetic appreciation, ambiguity, personal reflection, dissent, individualism and even pleasure. Pleasure in appreciation of form and technique, interest in creative decisions, appreciation of beauty, wonder at the experience of being transported into a different world or era, delight in discovery, joy through empathetic engagement – all these are alien to New Criticism and Identarianism.  

What art is

While New Criticism can provide insights into aspects of art production/reception, it never comes close to describing (let alone explaining) our responses to art as a whole or delineating why we respond more strongly to certain objects rather than to other similar objects. Syncretic criticism on a grounding of formalist analysis, traditional art history, aesthetics, iconography and literary and scientific knowledge – directed by self-scrutiny – is a more valuable approach to art criticism. To advocates of New Criticism that sounds suspiciously like bourgeois connoisseurship – perhaps it is.

I have previously given  the definition of fine art as follows: a non-utile physical object appreciated primarily for its appearance which can function on an aesthetic and emotionally engaging level when shorn of all original cultural context (e.g. cave painting, Cycladic art, African tribal objects viewed as art rather than religious devices, etc.). (Technically, that means Conceptual art is not art, but that’s another subject.) Although mythology, allegory, literary sources and biographical information can inform readings, they are never central or even primary. It does not matter how sophisticated an argument is put forward in a work of visual art (a medium which by its nature is unsuited to conveying complex intellectual ideas), if a work of art is not appreciated on either a human/emotional level or aesthetic basis it will sink from view. Museum basements are full of prize-winning allegories which are unendurably tedious even for cultured visitors. Syncretic criticism can ably discuss and explain why certain works of art succeed or fail; New Criticism cannot, though – to be fair – its proponents do not believe art can succeed or fail.

Modernists and traditionalists should make common cause against Identarianism. While Modernists and traditionalists disagree about aesthetics, both groups care passionately about the appearance of art. Identarians do not. They do not believe that aesthetics exist. New Criticism (which subordinates art’s visual character to political readings), Feminism (which seeks redress for perceived historical injustice) and Identarianism (which states that culture is a tool to be used to combat privilege) bolster curators who believe that art which cannot be turned to political purposes should be dismissed, subordinated or suppressed.

Women’s art

Due to multiple causes, in terms of proportion, women artists working in major art fields were in a minority until the late 20th Century. The lack of women in the Western canon is complex and relates to at least four social factors which led to one significant consequence:

  1.   Social pressure strongly discouraged women of upper and middle classes from pursuing manual crafts for income.
  2.   Women had difficulty in studying art because of restrictions on entering academies, apprenticeships and gaining access to male life models, which led to few women gaining high-level skills, experience and qualifications.
  3.   Women were often barred from joining guilds and societies and were therefore impeded from engaging in professional commissions and making their livelihoods.
  4.   Childcare and domestic duties often restricted the amount of time women had to make art.

Consequently, women artists rarely practised large-scale history/religious oil painting and stone carving – genres and mediums that were central to art historical canons. Instead women artists often practised the “minor” arts of drawing, watercolour painting, pastel painting, crafts and folk art. These fields have traditionally been classed subsidiary to oil painting and stone carving – much to the chagrin of practitioners both male and female. Therefore there were relatively few women artists working at a professional level before the late 19th Century and thus there is little historical art by women in museums.

Here is the sleight of hand which justifies affirmative action: “Look at the statistics of how little art by women is included in art-museum collections. This demonstrates there is an implicit masculine bias in judging what is suitable for art canons and proves there is a campaign of exclusion and suppression which continues to this day.” Historically there were specific restrictions on women entering the fine arts. However, today cohorts of fine-art graduates are often female dominated. Many administrators, curators, tutors and scholars are women. In my experience, lower and middle ranks of arts administration are hugely dominated by women, who are rapidly rising to top positions. Of the journals I write for, half have female editors; every single editorial assistant is female. The staffs of publishing house press departments are almost all female. Roughly 90% of the museum press officers I have liaised with are female. I would love to meet a caste of oppressive bearded patriarchs in the arts so I could gaze upon them in wonder and curiosity. I could shake their hands and wish them farewell.

A statistical imbalance from a broad swathe of history is used to justify affirmative action applied to the current art scene where no exclusion exists. The just campaign for equal rights has been won; the new cause is for preferential rights. To the assertion that women/minorities faced worse discrimination in the past and that quota programming is a small price to pay, one can say two things: firstly, the price is heavy enough for individuals who have to bear the burden of this “historic redress” and, secondly, discrimination in the past was wrong and it is wrong today.

Equity not equality

Equity is different from equality. Equality means parity and neutrality. Equity means reward determined by input or worth, not necessarily equal. Equality is problematic for Identarians and Post-Modernists because it produces inconvenient results. Despite decades of equal opportunity, certain demographic groups tend to choose particular academic subjects less often and – as groups – perform on average better or poorly within their population cohorts. So, faced with this situation, Identarians have reversed the target. No longer is it equality of opportunity which is important, it is equality of outcome. This is equity, in Post-Modernist terms.

Since oppressed individuals struggle against society, academia and privilege, they should be given preferential treatment to compensate for their disadvantages. The individual is valued as a victim, to be patronised and promoted regardless of his/her unique circumstances and actions. He/she is merely a figurehead, role model or token. The humanistic values of equality of worth, dignity and rights as ideals are nullified by a capricious and inscrutable system which not only denies equality as a target but even as a possibility.

In employment this leads to affirmative action, in academia to equity recruitment, in culture to quota programming.         

Quotas v. art

Many Feminists (including Dr Balshaw) suggest that active steps must be taken to increase the public presence of female artists. Here are five flaws to collecting and exhibiting art on the basis of statistics:

Firstly, targets diminish art. They reduce every artist (indeed every person) to a representative of subsets categorised by gender, race, etc. Artists become featureless interchangeable tokens in abstract calculations. It neglects the subject, quality and intellectual content of art and makes labels more important than art. It views artists as more important than art.

Secondly, targets patronise artists. The reputations of Barbara Hepworth, Gwen John, Frida Kahlo and many other women have risen as high in their fields as those of male counterparts. Their art has become recognised without quota programming, on its intrinsic merit as art. Fairly or unfairly, quota programming will cast a shadow over the new generation of female artists who will benefit from it.

Thirdly, targets patronise viewers. A generation of viewers will be subject to second-rate art promoted through a quota system. It will teach the lesson: what you do is less important that who you are. Inspiring examples of women (and men) attaining success through hard work, skill and invention will be replaced by the example of passive mediocre individuals who were selected because their skin colour or reproductive organs fulfilled a quota. A more dispiriting message is hard to imagine.

Fourthly, targets are unworkable. Should half of all the art we view be produced by women? How would that be calculated: by number of artists or artworks? What about unattributed works? Will living artists have to register data or will a committee verify data to prevent artists wrongly self-identifying in order to gain advantage? Who will arbitrate these matters?

Fifthly, targets are meaningless. In what way is a museum which displays 50/50 male and female artists a good museum? Viewers who are engaged by art not artists would be content with museums completely filled with women’s art if that art were the best art available. An obsession with statistics is the only fixed point in Identarian arts policy because all other issues – what is art, how can one judge art, what is art for – are all rendered unanswerable (or null) by Post-Modernism.


From the statements of Dr Balshaw, her track-record at the Whitworth Art Gallery and Tate’s recent policies, we can guess that her tenure will be marked by three aims: a) a drive to increase levels of attendance; b) attempting to alter visitor demographics; and c) altering the demographics of artists represented. Here are some predictions:

  1. Collection and exhibition of art will be increasingly driven by the imperative to promote female/minority artists regardless of aesthetic or formal qualities of their art. There will be a drive to pack the collection with art by women/minorities in an attempt to reach arbitrary statistical targets. The contemporary collection will become a massive ever-inflating multi-million-pound experiment in social engineering grounded on untested principles, driven by ideology and set to utilitarian goals: to demonstrate virtue and make visitors virtuous.
  2. As in all politically driven economies which prioritise production and performance targets (centralised national economies, educational and health-care systems, etc.), there will be an increasing tendency to distort, partially report and fabricate figures to suggest increased attendance and greater consumption of art by minorities and the poor. Targets will be altered and definitions manipulated to compensate for poor results.
  3. There will be an increase in the practice of piggybacking shows of lesser known female/minority artists by attaching them to shows of more popular artists, regardless of whether the linkage is artistically/aesthetically appropriate. Attendees of Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of Leonora Carrington will remember a neighbouring room devoted to Cathy Wilkes. Both exhibitions were on the same ticket. Many visitors – seeing a room filled with contemporary art unrelated to Carrington – did not even enter the Wilkes room. However, Tate reports attendance of the Wilkes and Carrington shows as equal.
  4. Space devoted to historical (pre-Modern art) in Tate Britain will be steadily reduced. Presentations of historical art will increasingly disregard art-historical standards. Curatorial staff and financial resources will be redirected towards contemporary art. Departing staff who handled pre-Modern art will not be automatically replaced.
  5. Interpretative texts will reduce discussion of stylistic aspects and will highlight social dimensions of art. In an attempt to make texts as accessible as possible, they will be simplified to a degree that errors will become frequent, undetected by staff who will be under-informed about art history.

The Fate of the Tate

The Tate has numerous problems. It has multiple subjects to cover (British, contemporary and world art). It does too many things (maintaining and expanding a collection, hosting exhibitions, running a website, maintaining four venues and organising education/outreach programmes, publishing, conservation, research, hospitality, retail, fundraising, membership services, publicity and so on). It has too many staff. It has too much art. It must continually increase income. It must continually increase attendance. The Tate’s fundamental problem is that it does not know why it exists; this will only get worse over Dr Balshaw’s era, with its promised blend of identity politics, populism, community events, pop culture and an influx of school parties, not to mention a massive acquisition drive.

When the existence of museums depends on popular consent and museum funding depends on reaching a mass audience, curators tend to make art as approachable as possible. Yet the more art is presented as just another piece of everyday life, the more averagely informed people wonder what the purpose of an art museum is. Making art more popular by adapting it to ape pop culture (or by co-opting pop culture as art) increases engagement but decreases respect towards art. Pop culture in museums cannot help but be a feeble denatured mimicry of the pop culture that fills the rest of the world.  

People are not helpless dolts. Many of them yearn to have new experiences, to learn, to overcome obstacles. Rather than saying “fine art means whatever you want and it’s just ordinary life”, tell them “fine art is complicated and dense but if you invest time and thought you will get unique rich experiences and insights into the world and human nature”. If you were told (the lie) that fine art is just ordinary life, why would you bother with art?  

In a Post-Modern multi-cultural age, cultural institutions lose morale and direction because they have no moral or intellectual underpinning. If museum staff do not believe fine art has intrinsic value as art (not just as a demographic signifier) then they cannot explain art. If even experts cannot explain why art is important, they (and their museums) deserve to go. Dr Balshaw, who studied English and critical theory not art history, is an arts-venue manager who has demonstrated little knowledge of art history and is thus in the worst possible position to put forward an intellectual and moral case for high art.

Instead of experiencing fascination slowly develop in a quiet gallery, today’s teenager is inside a cultural mall facing a Sam Taylor Wood video installation in a noisy, overcrowded room. “Seen better on YouTube,” he says and wanders off – and who would disagree? Frankly, I’d rather be watching YouTube too. Arts-venue managers (as opposed to art historians, who used to run museums) are terrified of silent static art, of allowing visitors to choose to engage or walk away, and – like an anxious mother – chop art into tiny morsels without context or jangle bright geegaws such as interactive experiences to capture attention. But that is exactly what everyone experiences elsewhere all the time. Why go to a museum to bow your head over a museum-specific mobile-phone app when you could do that sitting at home?

But surely those morsels entice visitors to learn more. Oh? Where? In a chaotic museum which cannot properly display that art, label it informatively or explain why it is important? Showing films, staging concerts, hosting performances, holding lectures, providing educational activities – all of these are done better, cheaper and smarter by cinemas, private galleries, concert halls and schools with facilities adapted to those purposes and staffed by professionals who are experts. The only thing an art museum does better than any other venue is displaying painting and sculpture. It could almost have been designed for that purpose.

The Tate is so intent on being second-rate in as many areas as possible it neglects its core mission. A museum such as the Tate should conserve, present and explain art objects of the highest aesthetic quality and historical worth. Clarity, focus and excellence – and the respect that would generate – will secure the future for a slimmed Tate. But the circus must go. Exhibiting and collecting a cross-section of the entirety of the world’s high and pop culture in its myriad manifestations in a museum barely capable of presenting its limited collection of British and Western Modernist art up to 1970 is not only impossible, it is insanity.

Accept that not everyone will be interested in fine art, as not everyone is interested in classical music, historical monuments and public gardens. So be it. High art has always been a minority interest. Is high art elitist? No. It returns as much as one is willing to put in, like all areas of the arts which require effort before providing rewards of lasting value. The drive to make high art a mass viewing activity is motivated by curatorial self-interest, cultural insecurity and financial necessity. It is not viable. If a museum has (due to poor decision-making) an unmanageably vast collection and an enormous number of staff and consequently locks itself into an unsustainable counter-productive cycle of performance targets to attain ever-greater income simply to survive then it deserves to fail.

I have no personal animosity towards Dr Balshaw. Certainly, anyone who has run a large arts venue financially successfully has admirable abilities. However, anyone whose approach to leadership is essentially managerial, whose principles are informed by identity politics and Post-Modernism, who has no apparent belief in the functions and value of high art (distinct from pop culture) and who cannot identify or defend the core mission of a national art collection will only make worse the situation at an already unwieldy, organisation. Instead of being the Tate’s most suitable fundraising director, Dr Balshaw may, sadly, be the Tate’s least suitable director.

Alexander Adams
The Jackdaw Sept/Oct 2017