Quality, art, the culture of sameness, and white men’s egos
The metrics for "quality" in art have always been decided on by self-important white men.
“Culture today is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together.”
—”The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception”, Dialectic of Enlightenment
Stephen King recently tweeted, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” These sentiments are part of a series of tweets in response to the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations. Like clockwork, cyclical conversations have emerged again after the Academy excluded noteworthy films and performances from people of color, again.
To see this take from King—someone whose work is riddled with grotesque depictions of characters of color, particularly Black characters, being victims of brutal racial violence, sexual assault, or Magical Negroes and martyrs for white triumph—was not necessarily surprising. Though he later back-pedaled his comments, it doesn’t undo the fact that King effectively situated “diversity” and “quality” as two separate, mutually exclusive things. As many Twitter users pointed out, his words demonstrated a fear that seems to plague many white male artists and storytellers—that diversity and measured difference will inherently threaten and dilute the quality of art. Their insecurity is palpable.
But the Oscars are not impartial, unbiased, or objective awards given on the basis of quality. The Oscars are a political, capitalistic game intertwined with white supremacist patriarchy, as are other “prestigious” awards shows. They are little more than giant circle jerks of mostly white men congratulating themselves for the repetitively unimaginative, derivative, and mediocre art that they have determined amongst themselves to be the most worthy of their praises.
And these same white men intentionally exclude those who either don’t play their political game or don’t align with traditional Oscar “prestige” as it has been historically defined. The wheel continues with white men who produce similar films again and again, and who are disproportionately and overwhelmingly included regardless of caliber.
Quality is not at the forefront of these decisions. It is and always will be disingenuous to pretend as if it is. To cite quality as the utmost concern of artists and critics, rather than diversity and fairness, is an excuse to continually ignore and even deny how deliberately exclusionary the homogenous system is.
As David Sims wrote at The Atlantic, “Academy members themselves have the power to expand what kinds of movies are considered Oscar contenders. One step would be to reject the preemptive hand-waving doled out to so many acclaimed films, many of them artsier or smaller-scale, that supposedly will never play with Oscar voters for little reason other than tradition.”
Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, originally published in 1992, takes the imagined quality and substantial lack of diversity of the accepted American literary canon and its self-appointed adjudicators to task. She uses the concept of American Africanism to highlight how white American writers have created art that fundamentally requires the presence of Blackness in order to establish itself as “American” (read: ostensibly white). Even when Black people are not physically present in these narratives, they are spiritually present, in that white Americans can never assert their whiteness or Americanness without the (sub)conscious acknowledgement of Blackness as their antithesis.
Morrison tells us plainly, “[T]he habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”
The insistence upon “ignoring race” or not “consider[ing] diversity” in art as a show of willfully-ignorant liberal “color-blindness” is not new and has been an excuse for white male artists to mostly only celebrate other white male artists for a very long time. Acknowledging that the lack of diversity is a manufactured inequity on their part would mean addressing why they do not even allow themselves to stand on their own merit, rather than inflated egos and rigged victories.
White men see themselves as the rightful arbiters of all forms of knowledge production and artistic engagement, and many of them deny how white men have spent centuries actively fighting against diversity and balance in art as gatekeepers, bulldozers, plunderers, and saboteurs. Admitting to this would mean admitting to their own displays of mediocrity and it would mean challenging the very idea that they are “the standard”—as both artists and humans—which is foundational to their egos.
Dialectic of Enlightenment, a work of philosophical and social criticism, was written and circulated by Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno in 1944. Their writing addresses how the production of everything in a capitalist system, from necessities to leisurely entertainment, must ultimately become repetitive in order to support said capitalist system.
Essentially, laborers must partake of the only kind of entertainment made available in the culture of sameness as a reprieve from their continuous labor for survival within this same system. All the while, capitalists reap the profits from both the laborers’ work and their engagement with available entertainment. Within this system, films in particular serve to help create continuity between entertainment media and reality.
“The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry. The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production… [F]ilm denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination—contained by the film’s framework but unsupervised by its precise actualities—without losing the thread; thus it trains those exposed to it to identify film directly with reality.”
What Adorno and Horkheimer do not address in their work is how white supremacy influences the entire system—the culture industry, as they call it. If white men use art to recreate the reality that exists in their heads, then it necessitates the refusal of space for Others in the realm of “prestigious” and award-worthy art. Their system—white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—thrives on its own homogeneity because pushing others out reifies the imagined reality in which white men are the most prominent players, thinkers, creators, and critics of art.
When we observe the connections between white supremacist patriarchy, capitalism, and this culture of sameness, we see that the metrics for “quality” in art have always been decided on by self-important white men. Within this art, as with all other aspects of culture, the benchmark for whiteness has always been to make itself the antithesis of Blackness or to attempt to expel Black people altogether, as we are reminded of by Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.
The Oscars and other white-helmed awards ultimately do not and never will be able to determine the value of our art. The Academy will continue to move the goal post and create systems to preserve their status quo and exclude films, filmmakers, and performers who don’t fit their preferred mold. The best thing for us to do is to divest from the manufactured importance of the Oscars, and to always remember that white opinions on Black art will never, ever matter.