Another coordinator of a cultural diversity project said it had helped to foster a ‘realisation, understanding and sense of self’. Existing collections are employed to similar ends. In this case, artefacts are treated as a kind of mirror into which visitors gaze in order to see themselves. Rajiv Anand, cultural diversity development officer for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, ran a project in West Yorkshire with 16- to 25-year-olds, working with the museum’s South Asian collection. The aim was not to appreciate South Asian art. Instead, the project was called ‘Who am I?
‘, and it aimed to use the collections to explore the young people’s sense of identity. The group produced a video talking about how they bridged the cultural differences between school and home life, and whether they felt British or Asian. The aim, said Anand, was for the group to ‘see themselves reflected in various artefacts’ (18). Although many of these projects target ethnic minorities, the issue is not really about ethnicity. Instead, the focus is on people’s private sense of self. The same kinds of project could apply for visitors from all backgrounds. So why the focus on minorities? One reason is opportunism.
Minority groups are seen as the most vulnerable and ‘excluded’, and in most need of public recognition. Another reason is guilt. Because cultural institutions no longer believe in cultural value, their collections of Rembrandt and Constable look shamefully narrow and exclusive. By collecting the most everyday things from the most marginalised in society, museums are engaging in self-admonishment, castigating themselves for once being so high and mighty. Because this policy sees every object in terms of personal identity, it is blind to imaginative or well-crafted paintings, interesting or rare historical artefacts.
It is indifferent to form, colour or pattern. Cultural diversity officers must barely glance at the paintings they are putting on their walls, or the Asian art they use in their discussions about identity. Everything is judged by the amount of personal meaning invested in it. The illumination that art can bring is lost. In actual fact, it is the painting, not the artist’s emotion, that is the valuable thing. As the New York art critic Jed Perl has written: ‘What counts is that whatever the artist is thinking or feeling is absorbed into the look, the character, the intricacies of the work.
The painting, the sculpture… makes its own terms, and we judge what we see. ‘ (19) Strong private emotions are no guarantee of art that can be understood and appreciated by others. Similarly, self-obsession can limit our enjoyment of art: we can gain satisfaction by examining the painting’s texture, colour and form, rather than by glorying in our reflection in the glass. One museum director described the process of entering into the world of the painting as ‘unselfing’, giving up self-centred defences and concerns (20).
Moreover, it is only by examining art as an object, as something that exists outside of us, that we might hope to judge it by cultural standards of value. As the critic Lionel Trilling put it: ‘Objectivity, we might say, is the respect we give to the object as object, as it exists apart from us. ‘ (21) Cultural diversity policy makes historical artefacts similarly dumb. Chinese paintings, Greek brooches, and Egyptian mummies provide a glimpse into another time and place. They can take us out of our own lives, and give us an insight into other societies’ worldview and way of life.
Fragments of pot can speak of a long-dead civilisation’s myths, social structure, economy and diet. Study of these artefacts in turn helps us to put our own society in perspective: seeing it as the latest step in the march of human history, rather than as the only possible way of living. If historical artefacts are viewed in personal terms, they stop telling us anything. Instead of learning about human ‘diversity’, then, we end up stuck in our present-day lives. This policy also has a low view of its visitors. The assumption is that visitors are uninterested in or unable to learn about the world.
Each person is seen as trapped within his or her own private bubble, in constant need of affirmation and recognition. The idea seems to be that if people fail to see their reflection in exhibitions they will feel worthless and excluded. Disability consultant Annie Delin told a conference of museum professionals: ‘Disabled people should be brought into the museum and supported in understanding where they existed in the past, to reinforce their right to belong in the present. ‘ (22) The image is of people wandering around aimlessly, unsure of their right to exist until their family photographs are valued by the museum.
With this view of their visitors, it’s no surprise that museums have put the Great Masters in the backroom. The other side to cultural diversity policy is very different – but has the very same indifference towards culture, and contempt for the visitor. * Targeting diversity This is the business of measuring and setting targets for numbers of ethnic minorities and marginalised groups. While cultural recognition is emotional, relating to visitors on a subjective level, diversity targets are objective and rational. This is a policy that can work on a large scale.
Unlike cultural recognition, diversity targets can guide a large institution or funding body, enabling it to establish benchmarks and measure progress. In the past, an institution’s sense of cultural mission allowed it to steer its path through choices of exhibitions and artists. It was the measure of cultural value that gave its work logic and objectivity. When that wanes, cultural institutions require a new organising principle. Cultural standards are replaced by the tallying of visitor figures. Again, this is not really about ethnicity.
The targets applied to ethnic minorities are also applied to other groups perceived as ‘excluded’. It is about museums proving – to themselves and their funders – that they are leaving their old elitist past behind. Increasing the numbers of ethnic minority visitors, staff and artists shows that they have moved away from their much-derided white, middle-class role. It is also about showing that they are above all concerned with the characteristics of their visitors, rather than focusing on the qualities of their art. A number of cultural institutions have special policies encouraging culturally diverse art and exhibitions.
In Black History Month in October, museums, galleries, archives and libraries across the country put on exhibitions on diversity-related themes. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s cultural diversity festival, which continued on from Black History Month in 2003, aimed to send the message that ‘Black History Month should not be a tokenistic one-month celebration and representation of cultural diversity but a more integral part of the sector’s activities’ (23). The Arts Council England project decibel aims to promote culturally diverse arts in Britain (defined as work by black, Asian and Chinese artists).
This includes funding and showcasing diverse artists, raising awareness about the issue of diversity, and improving diverse arts networks. Cultural institutions have set targets for increasing their numbers of ethnic minority staff. The UK Museums Association set up its ‘Diversify project’ in 1998, offering bursaries and traineeships to prepare ethnic minority individuals for a career in museums. It reports that ‘by the start of 2003, 15 minority-ethnic individuals had been assisted in their museum career by the Diversify project’ (24).
The British Film Institute (bfi), meanwhile, promises ‘a series of internships and training courses, mentoring and a minority staff focus-group’ to help tackle ‘the under-representation of prioritised communities within the workforce’. This target approach is indifferent to the content of culture – and this applies for ‘diverse’ exhibitions just as much as it does for Western fine art. Islamic art is not valued for its intricate, proportioned design, or because it provides us with an insight into one of the great historic civilisations; it is valued because it gets the right kind of punters through the door.
The artefacts of different cultures are judged in terms of the colour of the faces that they bring in. Meanwhile, some of humanity’s greatest artistic achievements, in European art from the Renaissance onwards, are sidelined for attracting the wrong kinds of people – which is a loss for everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Diversity targets view ethnic minorities as uniform members of a group, rather than as intelligent and curious individuals with a range of interests.
They are often assumed to be only interested in art relating to ‘their’ particular culture, which is why cultural institutions try to attract the Chinese community with exhibitions about Chinese culture or the Afro-Caribbean community with exhibitions about slavery. The effect of this approach is to institutionalise cultural divisions. A ‘black artist’ is marked out as different from other artists, a ‘minority-ethnic individual’ as different to other museum workers, and a British-Chinese museum-goer different to other museum-goers.
The possibility of an open and universal public culture, in which each person can develop their own capabilities and learn from others, is placed yet further away. * Measuring up to the past Cultural diversity policy is founded upon the collapse of traditional cultural policy. The celebration of ‘diversity’ for its own sake expresses the disorientation of the cultural elite, once belief in standards of cultural value had waned. But the same policy is also a response to this disorientation, providing a new logic and role for cultural institutions.
Today’s cultural policy justifies itself through a critique of the past. According to contemporary wisdom, traditional cultural policy was merely an extension of the worldview of particular individuals. People such as Matthew Arnold and John Maynard Keynes were trying to foist their taste and values upon everyone. All that talk about sweetness and light was just sugar for the pill. Given that cultural values are merely cover for individual identity, goes the argument, how much better to allow as many different people to express their preferences as possible.
Why should Turner be given so much room to represent his sea voyages in the National Gallery – why not allow more people to portray their travelling experiences? In fact, today’s diversity officers are foisting their cultural assumptions upon the past. The past is judged by the limited horizons of the present, and the present gets to pat itself on the back. The traditional British elite’s cultural policy was, to some degree at least, true to its rhetoric. Although cultural institutions were set up for ideological reasons, they were much more than ideology.
Museums and galleries really were a separate sphere, where art and history could be studied for their own sake. These institutions’ aesthetic and intellectual judgements cannot be reduced to cultural, political or personal identity. After all, we must remember that it was culture’s lofty aspirations that attracted the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie in the first place. Those lofty aspirations should be defended. Today’s cultural policy actually has much in common with the nineteenth century brand of bourgeois philistinism that the ‘men of culture’ were rebelling against.
According to the philistines, the only standard of cultural value was the amount of pleasure it gave to the individual. On this basis, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham decided that: ‘Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. ‘ (25) Another trademark of the philistines was the celebration of everyone having their own opinion. Matthew Arnold satirised this ‘doing as one likes’, as he called it: ‘the aspirations of culture’, he said, ‘are not satisfied, unless what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying…
‘ (26). In Bentham’s pleasure principle, we can see something of cultural diversity policy’s emphasis on making visitors feel ‘valued’; in ‘doing as one likes’, we can see the celebration of diversity. The common assumption is that culture is merely about individual preferences and pleasure. This is not a question of whether ethnic minorities should go to museums, or whether museums should show exhibitions about immigrant history or Islamic art.