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 google_ad_height = 90; 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

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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

style="font-weight: 400;">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 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 src="//"> committee verify data to prevent artists wrongly self-identifying in order to gain advantage? Who will arbitrate these matters?

– 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?

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those morsels entice visitors to learn

For detailed process, you can “visit here” or contact

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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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

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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

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